I wasn't supposed to grow up to be a confident, strong-willed, educated woman who sasses powerful men (only when they deserve it, of course) and runs a newspaper that drives bigots crazy in the capital city of Mississippi.
I just wasn't.
A fly on the wall of one of the many leaky houses and trailers I lived in, mostly in Neshoba County, might have decided I wouldn't be able to rise above my limitations. My parents were uneducated--she couldn't read or write, and he barely could--and we were immersed in the kinds of drama that tends to permeate uneducated, low-income households, both real and created.
I didn't have any kind of early childhood education--no one even read books to me as a child. I didn't attend kindergarten, and my public school was too busy dealing with the problems of forced integration to worry a whole lot about giving us a great education, much less teaching us life skills like time and financial management and how to network our way into success.
On top of all that, I was a girl. I was supposed to look for a husband and then figure out how to snare him and then give him lots of children. Many people around me made fun of the desire for a good education or even trying to use good grammar (because people make fun of what eludes them), and family members started to ask me why I wasn't married by the time I hit my late teens.
Not to mention, when I told people that I really wanted to go to a university instead of the junior college down the road, they looked at me like I was crazy. Because, you know, the junior college was considered ambitious in our circles. And they thought I was certifiable when I said I wished I could leave the state for college. Who would leave Mississippi?
Add to that the alcoholism that made my real daddy come home bloodied all over from a knife fight one night when I was about 5, and that caused my stepdaddy years later to shoot a hole through our mobile home's front door. Fortunately, no one was on the other side.
Put it this way: I didn't exactly grow up steeped in high expectations. In fact, I was rather set up from birth to be a victim of the bigotry of low expectations.
But through the years, a continual line of strong adults decided to see past my rough edges and believe in me. I was fortunate to have gotten some natural smarts the honest way: Even if uneducated and poor, my father, and especially my mother, were loving, compassionate, witty and had lots of common horse sense, as she called it. And they didn't meet strangers.
Those attributes, though, didn't conspire to make their lives much easier, sadly. My father died when I was young, and we struggled, but my mother was determined, as so many parents are, that I would have a better life than she did. She wanted me to grow up to be educated, worldly and strong enough not to fall for "some hoodlum."
She also knew she couldn't go it alone. Every chance she got, she would encourage me to spend time with educated adults. She was wise enough to know that I needed to have successful people around me to see what success looks like, what they do, how they dress, how they talk. That is, she pushed me to seek out mentors, and it's a habit that changed my life. To this day, I have remarkable mentors who help me steer my course.
It started in fifth grade when an amazing teacher befriended me because she could see that I loved to read and write. She gave me "Little Women," and I read it yearly though my high school years. She and my mother let me hang out in her classroom after school and help with clerical stuff.
When I was 14 or so, my mother let me go to Arizona for weeks in the summer to stay with my older brother (the first in our family to get a college degree) and his fabulous wife, who turned me onto even more books. Their album collection introduced me to new music. Their ribbing about my food pickiness made me determined to expand my dining horizons. Both that brother and my oldest brother back in Neshoba County loved to argue politics with each other--and would draw me in, asking my opinion. I listened, and I learned to think and question.
In high school, three women enlarged my horizons: Two English teachers (Mrs. Salter and Mrs. Hodges) and, remarkably, a 4-H adviser whose name I admittedly can't recall. The teachers pushed even more books on me, and Mrs. Hodges took us to plays and gave me permission to speak my opinion even if others didn't like it very much. She urged me to take controversial positions in our school paper (which was actually a page in the Neshoba Democrat). Everyone from the male shop teacher to the female cafeteria ladies got miffed at me, but I found a voice so many women in Mississippi seldom found--and, sadly, still often don't.
The 4-H leader wasn't what she sounds like. She was the most un-farm-like woman I'd ever met. She wore chic clothes, she rented an apartment in a big old Victorian house near the court square in town, and she was in her mid- to late 20s and unmarried (an "old maid," some folks whispered). She was a "career woman," and she dated professional men such as one of the band directors in town. She took me under her wing and let me see what a single woman's life could look like (really cool). I may not remember her name, but she taught me so much.
Then there was Mr. Hardy, my principal. He was a wonderful thinker who was tortured by the race issues that challenged our state and town. When I was in high school, he remarkably would call me to the office to vent to me about the challenges of, say, a school board that didn't want five black players on the basketball court at one time. I can't imagine how I helped him, but his taking the time to plant thoughtful seeds in me helped me learned to think and to believe I was smart enough to listen. It made life in the trailer park more worth living, even as a lot of drama still waited back home.
These people somehow made me believe that I was an amazing teen with a bright future even when I easily could have believed anything but. They strengthened my resolve to both rise above my circumstances and, ultimately, to give back to society what my mentors gave to me. They filled that elusive need all of us have, but that often goes unfulfilled when we're formative young people.
They gave me hope.
All of us need to be believed in, regardless of the luck of our early circumstances. We deserve a chance, we deserve to be heard, and we deserve to have adults believe in our ability to overcome anything.
Please think about this the next time you hear someone blaming "the family" for a young person's mistake. Sometimes, the family doesn't have enough tools or can't even afford the toolbox. I urge you to be one of these adults willing to show a young person what is possible if they believe in themselves.
The best part is, the kids you save will remember how you changed their lives long after they forget your name.
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