Ian Humphrey – Be Alive

Eloquent and charismatic, Ian Humphrey shares the journey of his amazing, inspiring life, as he travels through comas and foster homes, prisons and a rebirth in gratitude.


My grandmother became my first hero.

Growing up, my grandmother never used an alarm clock, but every morning, my grandmother would wake up at 4:15, and at 4:16 her feet would hit the floor, usually right in front of my face, and that’s what would wake me up.

But I would lay there, and I would pretend like I was still asleep, because me and 4:15 really didn’t get along. My grandma would look at the back of my head. I could feel her staring at me. And then finally, she would say, “Now sugar, “grandmama know you ain’t sleep.” “You just best go on and get on up “and get ready for school.”

And my grandmother was known for saying things that would kinda make you a little angry because they made so much sense, and you couldn’t argue with her. Parents, you know there are things that when you become parents you start to say to your own kids. Like my grandmother would say, “Now, son, you knew when you laid down there last night “that you had to get up this morning.” “I don’t know why every single morning “you lay there and act surprised.” “You oughts to be thankful that the Lord saw fit “to wake you up this–”

– [Audience] Morning.

– “In your right–”

– [Audience] Mind.

– Mind. But what my grandmother was encouraging me to do was simply to be grateful for the opportunity in spite of all that I had been through in my life. She just wanted to make sure that I understood the opportunity that I’d been given.

My life got started, it was a little rough, it was a little rough start. I was born two months premature. My mother was walking up a flight of stairs, and she didn’t know this at the time, but a woman she’d had an argument with earlier was standing above her holding a pot of boiling water. As my mom made her way up those stairs, that woman dumped that water onto my mom, and sent her tumbling down the stairs and into premature labor. She received third-degree burns to over 25% of her body.

And when we were finally allowed to leave the hospital, as you can imagine, my mom was in a great deal of pain. Those burns just narrowly, barely missed her face and covered most of the front of her body. And so when we got home she began taking a heavy sedative, pain medication to help her recover. When she took that medication it was very difficult for her to watch me, so I would bounce around a lot. I’d stay with my mom for a little bit and then I’d go stay with grandma, then I’d stay with some neighbors, aunties, and then back to my mother’s house. I did that for the first three years of my life. I was three years old, I was back at my mom’s house, and I got into her purse. I found that medication, I swallowed everything in the bottle. When they found me they rushed me to the hospital, and my heart would stop and eventually I went into a coma.

But because of that accident, because of that incident, the State of California they did an investigation, and the conclusion that they came to was that it wasn’t an accident. They removed me from my mother’s home. I was made a ward of the state and eventually I went into the foster care system. Shortly after I arrived to one of my foster homes, my foster mom, her name was Miss Alexander. Miss Alexander began locking me inside the closet with no light. She’d open the closet door, she’d kick me, hit me with a stick or strap or whatever she had.

It was while I was in that foster home that I was sexually abused for the first time in my life. And oftentimes people will ask, you know, if that has to be the worst thing that could happen to somebody. I have scars on my body that you can’t see. I have a burn here on my hand that she put there with an iron.

But all of that pain went away. The worst thing that Mrs. Alexander would do is she would open the closet door, she would stand over me, and she would say, “You’re stupid, “and you ain’t gonna never amount to nothing.” And that hurt me more than any of the physical kicks or the physical pain because I believed it for a long time. I believed that I would never amount to anything just like she said.

I didn’t know this at the time, I found out a little bit later, but my grandmother, my hero, she had started going back and forth to court, trying to prove that she could take care of an active, handsome little boy. And eventually the State of California, they granted her full custody of me. And I’ll never forget, I’ll never forget standing on Miss Alexander’s porch waiting. She had my little belongings, everything that I had. I remember standing there. It may have only been a half an hour, but it felt like an eternity, and I can remember thinking, “Maybe no one’s coming.”

But after awhile at the end of the block I see the ugliest car I’ve ever seen in my life. And the car pulls up right in front of the porch, and I remember all I could see were these two big glasses, bifocals. And I fought out later that grandma had glaucoma, she wasn’t even supposed to be driving. But she gets out of that big car, and she’s got on this white floppy hat with this, it was a flower, right there in the middle. And I remember she had on this long white dress that came all the way down to her ankles. And I found out later that, you know, that was grandma’s Sunday best. It was an outfit that she only reserved for special occasions. And I can remember for once in my life feeling like I was someone’s special occasion.

But I remember jumping into grandma’s arms and squeezing her, and I remember her whispering and saying to me, “Everything’s okay, you’re family.” And everything was okay, just like grandmother said. And I had a lot to look forward to. I found out that my mom was going to court trying to prove that she could take care of me, and I can remember sitting there with my mother and we’d talk and we had a lot of different conversations. One thing I can remember saying, “Mama, you know one day when I get big “I’m gonna buy you a nice house with a fireplace.” I said, “Mama, one day I’m gonna buy you a nice car, “not like grandmama’s, I’m gonna get you a nice one.”

But the truth is, I just really wanted to become a family again, and that’s what I looked forward to. When I was 12 years old, I was asleep on my grandmother’s floor. It was about four o’clock in the morning, and we get a knock on the door. It was my mom’s roommate. “Miss Howell, Miss Howell, come quick.” Miss Howell was my grandma. She said, “Come quick, it’s Ruth.” Ruth was my mom. She said, “I can’t wake her up. “I think she’s dead.”

And I can remember laying on that floor, you know, kinda wishing it was, thinking, hoping that it was maybe a dream but it wasn’t. And that’s how I found out that all the hopes and dreams and things that I had to look forward to weren’t going to happen. I became very angry. I became confused, I was hurt. I didn’t really understand what was happening. I started acting out, hanging out with the wrong people, breaking into houses. Started stealing cars. I can remember not really caring what happened to me. I continued that behavior until I was 19. When I was 19, I found myself standing in front of a judge. I was handcuffed, had a chain around my waist, and handcuffs were attached to that chain. The judge looked at me and said, “The State of California sentences you “to 15 years in prison for armed robbery “and assault with a deadly weapon.”

That day when that door closed behind me for the first time as a convicted felon, I remember standing in that empty cell. I remember my knees started to get weak and they started to shake uncontrollably. I ended up, I collapsed and I fell to the floor. I just started crying alone, and I can remember hearing voices. I heard the voice of my foster mom saying, “You’re stupid and you ain’t never gonna amount to nothing.” I heard the voice of family members and friends of family that said, “That boy’s gonna end up just like his father.” My father was a career criminal. He died in prison.

I can remember laying there thinking to myself that this is where I’m gonna die. But here’s what happened that would change my life. Shortly after I arrived to that prison there was an educator there. His name was Charles Lyles. He was six foot three, ex-Marine. And I don’t know what it was about me, but every time he saw me he’d say, “Hey, Mr. Humphrey.” And he had this big smile on his face, a smile that my kids would say, “That’s creepy.” But he’d smile and he’d say, “Hey, Mr. Humphrey, how are you doing?” He always called me Mr. Humphrey, he gave me that respect. He walked into my cell, he looked at me, and he said, “Mr. Humphrey.” He says, “Prison doesn’t have to be your life.” He says, “You can get out of here “and you can do great things.” He started to walk away and before he walked out of my cell, he turned around one last time and he says, “Mr. Humphrey?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He says, “I believe in you.” He walked out of my cell.

And if he had continued to stand there, he would’ve seen the tears running down my face, because no one had ever said that to me. But I remember thinking to myself, “I’m gonna make some changes, “and I’m gonna change my life.” And a little over four years after the day I originally collapsed and fell to the floor, I walked out of that prison on parole. That was over 18 years ago. I’ve never been back other than to mentor and help other people.

But here’s what I know. I know that when you’ve had a rough life, when you feel unwanted, I know that when you have hopes and dreams and when you have things that you can look forward to and when you have people in place that support you and push you, I know that that gives you a reason to live.

It is a great day to be alive, and that’s something that I haven’t always said, but now it’s something that I say to myself every single day at some point. If I’m having a great day or a bad day, that’s something that I say. But what I also understand is that what my grandmother was thanking her higher power for each and every day was for the opportunity that she’d been given. And she never missed an opportunity to tell anyone that would listen, especially me, that it’s a great day to be alive.