Role models: What do your actions teach when you think no one is watching?

When students stray from the path toward their goal of completing college, it is not usually because they lack the skills to do college work. Motivation may be lacking, and they may not have examples in their lives that demonstrate the characteristics needed to accomplish the extraordinary. Many ordinary folks who have reached their goals forget who and what motivated and inspired them to do more and be more.

While everyone won’t have a desire or an opportunity to serve or be recognized as a mentor, we all can think of ourselves as role models because we never know who is watching and learning from us. By our behavior, we can promote the idea that each student has the potential to experience their own potency and ability.

What makes a role model a role model? It depends on the context. Although I didn’t know it when I was a preteen, my role models were two multifaceted women for whom I had conflicting feelings. Sometimes, I judged them harshly. Even so, I admired how strong they were and how hard they worked.

Miss L was my father’s wife and not my mother. She owned a small store called a sundry, for it sold various items, from snacks and soft drinks to headache medicines, antacids, and the like. The sundry was at the end of a street – just before it curved around the bend – in the Orange Mound community of Memphis, Tennessee. It was across from the park and a few doors down from the Orange Mound Cab Company. During the day, Miss L managed the sundry, doing her bookkeeping in the evenings, often until the wee hours of the morning. Despite her hard work during the day and bookkeeping at night, there apparently was not enough business and income to keep the sundry going.

After a series of low-paying waitressing and domestic jobs, Miss L landed a job as the head domestic worker for a wealthy family on the other side of town. She became indispensable to this family, who bought her a new station wagon every two years for the safe chauffeuring of their children to school and their various after-school activities. Miss L took care of the family even when she had a day off. She would stay late on Thursday nights to cook all the meals for the weekend. She never missed a day of work and always looked impeccable in her white uniform. She looked like a nurse going to work in the mornings.

When she was at home, I don’t recall her sleeping much or sitting down to eat a meal. She would take little naps and nibble on food while she worked. Her respite was when she would take time to read the newspaper. When she went out during her times off, she dressed stylishly and never skimped on her make-up. Because she went to the beauty parlor on a regular schedule, her hair always looked the same. No bad hair days.

I also watched my paternal grandmother, Mama Rosie. She was less than 5-foot tall and weighed about 100 pounds. Despite her size, she was strong. She had had to be to raise four sons alone.

There were only two options available for Mama Rosie to make money, and she took both. She would get up at 3:00 or 4:00 a. m. to join other women and men in the back of a truck to be driven from the city of Memphis to the fields where cotton was in need of picking. I remember riding with her in the back of the truck at least one time.

When Mama Rosie would come to see me on Saturdays or Sundays when I was 5 or 6 years old, my other grandparents and the neighbors liked to tell stories about her. They would laugh as they talked about how it was not humanly possible for a woman of Mama Rosie’s size to pick as much cotton as she did and carry bags of cotton weighing hundreds of pounds. They teased her, saying that she was making all the money because her sacks of cotton were so full.

When she was not in the cotton fields, Mama Rosie was cleaning houses and taking care of the children of people who had financial means. She sometimes had domestic jobs that required her to “stay on the place.” Whether working in the cotton fields or cleaning houses, I never heard her say she was tired or didn’t want to do whatever her job was.

While Mama Rosie didn’t go far in school, she made the most of her time there, learning all there was to learn, including reading and writing – skills some other women in her age group didn’t have. Mama Rosie always talked to me about how important it was for me to learn all I could while in school.

Neither of these women knew that I was watching them. They didn’t know that they were teaching me just by doing their job. They didn’t know that they were instilling in me a reservoir of strength that I could call on when I thought the work was too hard and the time to my goal was too long. What they did for me was to normalize working hard to achieve my goals.

What I didn’t learn from them was that there is more to life than hard work. I didn’t learn that work was not the be all and end all. Nevertheless, I owe my work ethic to these role models who never knew that I was watching them.

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