I heard you told your students that you turned 30 again. Please do tell me what you’ve learned about life this second time around.
Yes, it’s true. I’m one of the lucky few who got to turn 30 again. (I think my friend Kristin McKinnon Nagovan, my friend from high school, turned 30 again, too.) Here are 10 clichés/quotes that summarize what I’ve learned about life so far….
1. “I’ve heard there are troubles of more than one kind; some come from ahead, and some come from behind. But I’ve brought a big bat. I’m all ready, you see; now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!” –Dr. Seuss
After my older brother’s suicide on May 4, 2010, my little brother said to me, “Well, sis, you’re the oldest now, so you’re in charge.” I had spent 41 years being known to many as Eric’s little sister, and when we were kids, I often prayed for an identity other than that of “Eric’s little sister.” I had not been very close to my brother when he died, and I have regretted all the years I had spent being angry at him or convincing myself that he was jealous of me. I wish I had called more, visited more, Facebooked him more. I wish I had left the past in the past and forged an adult relationship with him, but I didn’t. Ann Richards once said, “I have very strong feelings about how you lead your life. You always look ahead; you never look back.” I disagree. Sometimes you must look to the past in order to make a different—and healthier—choice about what to do today.
2. “You’re known by the company you keep.” –My Dad
My dad used to tell my brothers and me this all the time beginning when I was in 6th grade and wanted to hang out with the kids in the neighborhood who smoked the Marlboro cigarettes they had stolen from their mothers’ purses. I never really understood this until I got older and saw how people would treat me based on the people I was hanging around with. I know that we’re not supposed to judge—the Bible says to “Judge not, lest ye be judged”—but you should be judicious with whom you spend your time. Surround yourself with people who are trying to do good things in their lives and not with those who are satisfied with the status quo.
3. “Don’t try to be happier than happy.” –Colin Cowherd, Fox Sports Radio
Colin Cowherd, my favorite sports radio guy who isn’t on the radio right now (he’ll soon be on FOX Sports), used to say this all the time. Too many people seem to think that there is some magical place called “happy,” and they give up perfectly good jobs or dump perfectly good people because they think there’s something better around the corner. Stop it. Though I admit that it’s sometimes quite difficult to discern the difference between being content and just being afraid of challenge, content is ok, too.
Last spring, I sat in my office with Bri Stevens, one of my lovely students from Memphis, and we were discussing what her post-graduation plans were. She then asked me how long I had been at Austin Peay and why I was still there. “You’re too good to be here,” she very nonchalantly said. “I just don’t understand why you waste your time here when you could be doing something else so much better than this.” I admit that her words left me speechless, and it’s not the first time I’ve had to defend why I’m at a place “like Austin Peay.” Briana and I have talked about this many times, and although she says she appreciates what she has learned from me, she thinks I should be doing something greater—like being on television or radio or writing a national column.
Sure, I’d love to have a bigger forum where I can tell people what I think, but for now, I’m pretty content showing my Peayness and harassing—I mean teaching—my students to think differently and more inclusively about race and racism. I like that I can help first-generation students as they proceed to graduation, and I especially love helping soldiers transition back to the classroom. Maybe someday I’ll get that job at the University of Iowa where I can buy a farmhouse and rescue homeless dogs, but for now, I’m pretty content at the Peay, Briana.
4. “The greatest challenge is discovering who you are. The second greatest challenge is being happy with what you find.” –Facebook?
I saw this on FB and immediately fell in love with it. I’ve always been kind of quirky and very much a maverick—just ask my mother who could never understand why I couldn’t just be like everyone else. If my mother had wanted me to be like everyone else, she should have named me “Julie” instead of Dwonna Naomi Goldstone. I’ve stopped trying to be like everyone else—well, let me be frank; I wasn’t really trying to be like everyone else—and I have embraced being the quirky, loud, sometimes obnoxious, oftentimes very opinionated, short black girl that I am. Be you; everyone else is taken.
5. “When people call you ‘Nigger,’ be so good at what you’re doing they’ll have to call you ‘Mr. Nigger.’” –Satchel Paige, Negro League Baseball player
When I was a freshman at the University of Iowa, two white baseball players told me to “Keep walking Nigger” as I walked by their dorm room on my way back to mine. It wasn’t the first time a white man had ever been called me a Nigger, but this one stung because I thought I had left that kind of racism behind when I graduated from Moline High School. I thought college would introduce me to open-minded people who didn’t use that word to harass and intimidate the few black students on campus. I was wrong.
Shortly after that incident, I read that quote in a Sports Illustrated article about Satchel Paige, and it stuck with me so much that I wrote it on a piece of paper and taped it to my dorm room bulletin board. I have often repeated this quote to my black students who weary about the racism they encounter at Austin Peay, and I tell them that even if white people don’t like you because of the color of *your* skin, at least live the kind of life that means that they will have to respect you. In my case, at least white folks who hate me have to call me “Dr. Nigger.”
6. “I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned.” –James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker
This is what linebacker James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers wrote on Instagram to explain why he returned his 6- and 8- year-old sons’ “participation trophies.” “While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die,” Harrison wrote, “these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy.” I scream a very loud “AMEN!” to James Harrison. Too many of my students think that they should get a good grade because they tried, but the “benefit of competition isn’t actually winning. The benefit is improving.” My job isn’t to build your self-esteem by giving you something you did not earn, and you can build your self-esteem by doing things that are hard and by challenging yourself every day.
My favorite professors are the ones who have challenged me. At the University of Iowa, Drs. Mae Henderson, Robert Weems, and Darwin Turner challenged me to do excellent work in their classes (the would accept nothing less from me) while fostering and nurturing my love of African American literature, history, and culture. At Brown University, I had an African American professor who called me into her office because she didn’t like the tattered clothes I was wearing, and when I told her that all the white students wore those kinds of clothes, she brusquely stopped what she was doing and said: “Those white boys and girls have jobs waiting for them; you don’t. You’ll have to work for yours.”
Most of you, my dear Austin Peay students, will have to work for whatever it is you want. Challenge yourselves. Enroll in the class with the “hard” professor. Embrace your mistakes, and then learn from them. And, always remember that you don’t get rewarded just for showing up. You’ll mostly get rewarded for doing well.
7. “Do something every day that scares you.” –Eleanor Roosevelt
I asked my friend Brenda Ford about this, and she gave me a perspective I had not thought of. I’ve always thought that the First Lady was telling me to challenge myself in a big and momentous way—to run a half marathon or to write another book. For Brenda, scary things are “committing to lifelong purposes. Jumping off a cliff with a parachute is scary, but it’s just once, and it’s not forever.” As adults, we learn pretty quickly that the world can be a scary place, from raising children in this sometimes (oftentimes?) chaotic world to applying for a new job to going back to school as an adult learner to choosing to love and to be loved. For some of us, it is scary just to get up and face a world that hasn’t always been so kind. Get up and do it anyway.
Always remember that “Courage is fear that has said its prayers” and that sometimes you just have to “step out on faith” and do that which scares you.
8. “It’s better to be alone than wish you were alone.” –Ann Richards or my Grandma
I think it was Ann Richards who said something about learning to like yourself because you’re the only one you can be certain to spend the rest of your life with, but maybe it was my grandma who told me this. In any case, don’t settle just so that you can say you have a partner, and don’t stay in a relationship with someone who isn’t good for you just because you’re afraid of life on your own. My students often ask me when I’m going to get married and have children, and this summer one student told me that I would regret never having children “when I got older.” (Clearly, she doesn’t know how old I *really* am.)
Not all of us are destined to be mothers, and women like me should not have to apologize or defend our decision to remain childless. My students are sort of my children, my dogs are like children, and I have thoroughly enjoyed being an aunt even when it means they choose to live with me as adults. (I often say what a cruel joke it is that I’ve ended up with a 19-year-old male living in my house.) Anyway, it’s ok to be alone, and being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. Being lonely is mostly a choice because there are lots of things you can do to stay active in your neighborhood or your community.
As the Buddha said, “You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” So, be good to yourself even if it means being by yourself for a while because the “best way to be happy with someone is to learn to be happy alone.” Then, when you find someone, you will be with that person as a matter of choice, and not as a matter of need.
9. “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” –Dalai Lama
The one great thing about the United States of America is that people get to make decisions that make sense for them, and one reason there is so much discord between folks in this country is because people assume they know how—or what—other people are thinking or feeling. You cannot know what others are feeling no matter how much information on their life you think you have. Even if you don’t like the choices someone is making, leave that person alone to make choices that make sense to him/her—so long as those choices aren’t hurting someone else. Find empathy and compassion when you can’t—or are unwilling—to understand why the people in your life are doing something with which you do not agree.
Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet or everything the media tells you. Read and study from different sources. Talk to people who are different from you, and really listen to what they have to say even if you do not agree with them. And, don’t judge. As an old Cherokee proverb commands, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” I can’t say this enough: “LEAVE PEOPLE ALONE TO CREATE THE LIVES THAT MAKE SENSE TO THEM.” Just because you’re against something—abortion, gay marriage, cremation, just to name a few—doesn’t mean that others can’t do something else.
10. “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” –Mother Teresa
I must confess that I used to be very annoyed when I would see vendors selling The Contributor, a newspaper sold by homeless and formerly homeless men and women on the streets of Nashville. However, Clint changed this for me. I first encountered Clint, a 50-something black man, on Christmas Eve when I was leaving the Green Hills mall. He stood at a street light and waved at cars that passed, and I stopped to give him a $20 bill and to wish him a Merry Christmas. I see him every week when I go to Trader Joe’s, and I buy his paper for $5 (it sells for $2), and if I only read one article in it, it’s the profile of a current Contributor vendor.
Every week when I pull up in my blue Honda Element to buy a paper from Clint, his grin gets real big as he very cheerfully says, “Good morning, my friend! So glad to see you again!” He seems as genuinely happy to see me as I am to see him, and as I hand him my money, I always wonder how much my small gift really helps him and his wife.
I’m sure that Clint doesn’t know this, but these brief, two-minute encounters have taught me to be so much more compassionate about him and others who find themselves selling this paper. Like many others, I want to judge him for not “getting a real job” and for “begging” on the streets, and then I remember that Jesus tells us to help the poor, not judge them. I want to know how he ended up selling a homeless newspaper in front of a Starbucks in Green Hills. I want to know who he wanted to be when he was a kid. I want to know him as a person because, like many people, I have forgotten that the homeless are people, too. I really want him to know my name so that maybe, when he calls me “his friend,” he’ll really feel like we are on the way to knowing each other, to being friends.
Although I can’t save every homeless person out there, I can tell my friends in Nashville to support a vendor to help him or her get off the streets with this micro business. We must stop summarily castigating the poor as lazy and shiftless, and we can all afford the price of compassion.