May 9, 2011
Words of Wisdom from Our First Teacher
Pretty is as pretty does.
Practice what you preach.
Young ladies do not dye their hair. :-)
Finish what you start.
I remember clearly the moment when she said to me: "Finish what you start." I was six years old and working on some creative project I dreamed up in my large, light-filled bedroom in our rambling old house in Durham, North Carolina. I was tired and wanted to stop my little burst of creativity. In that moment, I think most moms would have said, "Okay, no problem." It would be a most natural response. But my mother said: "Finish what you start." She might as well have been the Oracle of Delphi in that moment. I did not dare leave my project undone. That simple sentence helped me find the discipline I needed later in life--in college, in work, in doing things with my own son, and in many other situations.
The one-liners grew longer as I grew older. By the time I was in junior high, she often talked to me about her own experiences in junior high and high school. My mother was a native of Mississippi and had grown up in a segregated world. It was the 1940s--segregation was not even a topic, much less an issue being addressed.
One summer day, she boarded a train for a church conference in Illinois. Young African Americans boarded that same train. She told me: "I looked at them and thought, we are all Christians." And in that fleeting moment, she knew in every fiber of her being that something in her world was radically out of balance. When she returned home to her small Mississippi town and gave a report about the conference to her congregation, she, at age 15, brought up the subject of segregation, then and there. One thing led to another, and early in my parents' marriage, one of the first projects they coordinated together was to lead a church youth camp: get ready for this--in 1954, in San Antonio, Texas, for Anglo, Hispanic, and African-American youth.
She instilled in me a passion for doing right by others that is so strong, it has at times gotten in my way and clouded my vision. But those moments pale in comparison to others, when I can feel my heart speak to me and say: "You know this is the right thing to do." The inner dialogue ceases, the inner fear decreases, and I strive toward the good that is also right. I don't always succeed, of course. I fall short more times than I can count. But the voice is steady, comes to me in a gentle Southern accent with perfect diction, and the contralto timbre that manifested itself as much in her speaking as in her singing, and I try again. Failing or succeeding, I honor my first teacher, the one who ushered me into this life.
I'm sure she meant this, because for a mother, this is simply the very right thing to do.