Yesterday during lunch with my wife and two of my sisters, we talked about our growing years. Our ninety-nine-year-old mother lay in her near-by bedroom locked alone in Alzheimer’s disease. Safe, clean, and well-fed, she is as well, in some ways, as she ever has been. So, like siblings do, we chatted and shared with Mary Ann and each other. Memories and stories flowed, but one story about our mother stuck: a single mother of six children who worked in Cannon Mills’ Plant One, a sister told how, one particularly bad winter, Mother went to “The Welfare” and asked for funds to buy heating oil. She was told that in order to be granted the money, she would need to quit work (hemming washcloths) and “go on welfare.” Mother looked at the welfare worker and said, “If I did that, who would teach my children to work,” before leaving.
I remember many stories about Mother and her lessons for living she taught us, however, I didn’t know that one. Yet, I do remember cold days and nights on Applewood Street, but they are only markers now. They are not our “good old days,” just a shared experience. I doubt if the phrase “a teaching moment” was used when Mother told “The Welfare” no thanks, but she knew when and how to use such a moment. We six were her children, and she took that as a blessed responsibility, and she taught us how to and why to live righteous lives. We are not perfect adults, but we know what Mother taught us: that we could rise above our poverty.
Part of our lunch conversation was how, it seemed to the four of us, so many of our nation would rather go to “The Welfare” than work, and that this attitude crosses racial lines. The obvious question for me is, “How did some many in our nation lose their will to work?”
This morning I heard an interview on NPR with Dr. Tererai Trent. As she described her life in a mud hut in Zimbabwe, an eighteen-year-old mother of four children, she said, “I wanted to be somebody in my life.” As an English teacher and lover of language, I find her phrase powerful for several reasons: if we diagram it, we see that it is not the ordinary thought of “being somebody” which is too abstract to carry weight; Dr. Trent adds the adjective phrase, “in my life” which modifies the noun ‘somebody.’ So, we see that Dr. Trent’s desire was to be a part of her life, to achieve something of merit, which was for her a terminal degree. And that is remarkable for several reasons, but most of all because on the day she sat in a circle of women in her village and was asked by a stranger, “What is your dream?” she had only a second-grade education. She rose from a culture where an eleven-year-old girl would be traded for a milk cow to be an author, speaker, and role model known and admired by the world.
The English word inspire comes from the Latin root inspirare, in is into and spirare is to breathe. Not long ago, many protesters wore shirts that read, “I Can’t Breathe,” and I offer that they were correct for the reason of police brutality which was being protested. However, I think that too many of our citizens can’t breathe for another reason, and we need people like Dr.Trent and my Mother to inspire and teach our young people that they can rise out of mud huts and cold homes. We need parents and individuals, not institutions, to inspire, to teach children how to breathe, how to live productive lives. Yes, work is a four-letter, dirty word; but it is also noble. Rise up and be somebody in your life.