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What is learning? Lessons that stick when everything else is forgotten

The habits that seem to really stick—whether for celebrities or just plain ordinary folks—often come from lessons learned from parents, grandparents, or other elders during one’s formative years.

I’m no different. I can’t believe the dumb things that I do or don’t do because of lessons so ingrained in who I’ve become:

  • I try hard not to cry in front of people because I still remember hearing, “No, no, no, no, crying will make you ugly!”
  • I won’t keep the best for myself and leave the rest for everybody else, ever since being told when I turned five, “All right, if you don’t want the other children to have any of the flowers, you’re going to have to eat every last one of them yourself.” What seemed like a victory was anything but one as I can still taste the bitterness of the dye in the pretty flowers that were on my birthday cake. Perhaps in part because of this experience, I didn’t grow up selfish.
  • I try not to get in physical fights because my Daddy warned me that if I lost the fight, he would kill me himself.
  • I never assume that I can just take something without asking permission because I remember clearly this warning: “Don’t even take a straw out of a broom that does not belong to you.”
  • After Miss Alice, our neighbor, whipped her boys, Jesse and Curtis, and my Grandmother looked for some green twigs that wouldn’t break when she switched my skinny little legs, I learned not to show little boys what was in my underpants and I didn’t want to see what was in theirs.
  • A constant reminder of the need to secure my own financial security came from my mother when she would sing: “Mama may have, Papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.”
  • It’s not easy to just sit and relax without getting up every few minutes to do something because my Grandmother would say to my Grandfather: “There is always something to do, even if it’s just nailing a nail into the wall and pulling it out.”

As anyone can see, it’s not the profundity of these lessons that make them stick. For me, it was the timing—the teachable moment.  

Take a Chance

Journal Entry—Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Attended Reception for The Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor to hear reflections on her life in retirement, her current judicial and civic activities, and her husband’s struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. She was introduced by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Event was sponsored by the Women’s Forum, Washington, DC.

Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor

From HarperCollins book cover: Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World.

What an unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime experience for me to be in a room in the Supreme Court building with the first and second women to ever serve on the court—Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, respectively.

In her introduction, Justice Ginsburg said that the best advice Justice O’Connor gave her was: “Waste no time on regret or resentment—just get the job done; gain visibility and put on an impressive show.”

What is the job we want to get done?

 How will we go about gaining visibility in order to get that job done, and in what arena?

 What might our impressive show look like, and who would need to be impressed in order to get the job done?

 Will we take a chance on creating a new idea of who we are in order to live our life in service to what really matters to us?

Learning about oneself

Who doesn’t want to feel capable, respected, admired, and loved? At an important juncture early in my career, these feelings promoted a positive sense of personal power and a belief that I had infinite potential. My feelings of confidence and high self-esteem were sustained by co-workers who encouraged me to blossom as I basked in the light of their good will.

What changed? I met Mary in graduate school. She had a positive attitude and her spirit was infectious. She exuded confidence and high energy. No one could be depressed, down, or self-critical in her presence because she believed not only in herself but also in you. Greeting everyone with a smile and a kind word, Mary was always sought out as a listener or study partner. When the feedback we were getting from our professors reduced our self-esteem in every conceivable way, all of us in our graduate cohort needed Mary and loved being with her because she validated us.

Mary was at least ten years older than the rest of us. She had an old-school marriage where she was responsible for everything related to domestic life, and a full-time job at a junior high school where she needed combat pay for the war she fought every day.

I loved being in Mary’s company and thought it would be nice to see her even more often than in our classes at the university. When a position opened up at the college where I worked, I thought Mary would be perfect to join our team. I told my boss about her and encouraged her to apply for the position as a counselor. I championed her candidacy, but she didn’t need it. She blew away the review team and became my colleague.

We needed another counselor because students’ needs were beyond our capacity. There seemed to be an epidemic of students coming to the counseling center with symptoms of depression. We were overwhelmed. Mary was so effective with students who presented as being depressed that she quickly developed a reputation among the faculty and staff who made student referrals to the counseling center. The counselors also began to consult with her on particularly troublesome cases. Mary became known for her skills and, once people met her, they became fans and friends.

I didn’t know what was going on with me, but I began to spend less and less time with Mary and apparently, according to Mary, rejected her attempts to continue the warm relationship we had before she joined the staff.

One day, Mary came into my office, shut the door, and sat down. I didn’t know exactly what form this confrontation would take, but I knew something like this was bound to happen. I was quite uncomfortable. We both sat quietly without talking for a long couple of minutes. Finally, Mary caught my eyes, held my gaze and, speaking softly as if talking with a small child, asked me, “Gwen, what are you afraid of?”

Of course, I didn’t think that I was afraid of anything. But when I reflected on what had been happening and how I felt, I came to grips with the fact that I was afraid that if Mary were loved and respected to the extent that she was, there wouldn’t be enough for me. Before Mary joined the staff, my light shone brightly, and now all the light seemed to be on her. I felt diminished.

What did I learn? I learned that without the external validation that I was capable and had potential, I doubted myself. Past successes as evidence of my competence and effectiveness were not enough to overcome the unacknowledged fear of losing what I saw as positive personal power. It was this direct question from Mary about my fear that brought me face-to-face with my real weaknesses.

I needed external validation of my capabilities and effectiveness. I felt that there was a limited amount of love, respect, and admiration, and if Mary were getting so much of it, there wouldn’t be enough for me.

After that hard realization, I began to habitually investigate my feelings through reflection to see what other lessons I could learn about myself.

Searching for the essence and wholeness of sympathy, empathy, and compassion

As a licensed psychologist, certified professional counselor, student affairs professional, friend, and decent human being, I’ve had a lot of experience giving sympathy, empathy, and compassion to others. I thought I understood the sentiments intellectually and emotionally. However, being on the receiving end of these generous expressions of caring and love has caused me to think about these sentiments from another perspective.

While I have been powerfully impressed by the transcendent experience of selflessness and generosity born out of the deepest sorrow and despair, I’ve felt less than competent in demonstrating the fullness of my appreciation and gratefulness. I’ve addressed my discomfiture in this realization by grabbing onto the idea of “paying it forward.”

I appreciate the many expressions of sympathy for my losses; I am more than grateful for those whose empathy put them at risk of being in pain with me. And, for those who gave to me with passion, I owe the best of my life.

I want to think that being empathetic and compassionate don’t have to be selfless gifts that can contribute to what some label compassion fatigue. Instead, sharing empathy and compassion might be a symbiotic relationship that thrives when the recipient is the other part of the equation in a more active way.

Building on the fact that many givers of care say they get joy and good feeling from helping others, I have a deep desire to understand how to help myself and others make the relationship symbiotic and mutual so that the supporter gets a gift in-kind. One could say that I’m searching for the essence and wholeness of sympathy, empathy, and compassion.


Words of Wisdom from DeRay Mckesson

Two summers ago, our neighborhood library hosted a book festival that included a panel with authors April Ryan, journalist and White House correspondent; Michael Eric Dyson, professor and contributing opinion writer for the New York Times; and DeRay Mckesson. I recalled Mckesson’s name from a recent conversation with college students who had been excited to host him on their campus. The students were surprised that I did not know who Mckesson was, asking them how to spell his name, since it was the first time I had heard it.

Now as Mckesson was on the neighborhood library’s panel with Ryan and Dyson, I wondered what book he had authored. As the panel spoke, I never discovered whether or not Mckesson had written a book. All I knew was that he was an activist who shared his experience in Ferguson after the police shooting and killing of Michael Brown.

On the Other Side of Freedom book coverAt some point, I read an OpEd piece Mckesson had written for The Washington Post and, since I live outside of Baltimore, I heard that he had raised money as part of a campaign to become mayor of the city. Despite hearing his name several times, he remained on the periphery of my attention. A few weeks ago, I saw Mckesson in Washington, DC, at the Atlantic Festival. Mary Louise Kelly, a host of All Things Considered on National Public Radio, interviewed him about a book he had written titled On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope.

As he was describing some of his experiences and sharing his opinions about activists and protests, I downloaded his book to my Kindle. The next day, I was on a phone call with my dear friend and long-time colleague, Caryn McTighe Musil, and she told me that she had been up since very early morning reading a book that her daughter had sent to her. The book was Mckesson’s On the Other Side of Freedom. As she described what she was reading, she emphasized that Mckesson wrote that “hope was work.” Even as Caryn explained her interpretation of what Mckesson meant, I did not grasp the way he might be connecting hope and work. Then I read the book. OMG!

If I were not reading the book on Kindle, I would run out of tape flags to mark the pages I want to reread:

  • I flagged the pages where Mckesson contrasts and compares faith and hope.
  • I flagged the pages where he reveals the findings of the Mapping Police Violence
  • I flagged the pages where he shares his concept of God in the context of activism.
  • I flagged the pages where he distinguishes between an ally and an accomplice, and on and on.
  • Particularly poignant is the essay about identity and coming out of the quiet; I flagged many of these pages.

This young man who shows up everywhere in his blue vest brings the message for the times we live in. He both deconstructs and enlarges the media sound bites and snapshots of protests to reveal the motivations and sacrifices of those who know the urgency of sounding the alarm for those who have become complacent or have chosen to accept things as they are. Mckesson’s book can inspire by helping readers understand that hope is about the work that needs to be done to create the world we must imagine.

I’m late to the conversation because others have already recognized Mckesson with honors and accolades. This gifted young man is a quintessential leader for our time. Mckesson is no longer on the periphery of my vision and attention. My eyes and attention are locked on him because I think he is the real deal. He writes:

I often think about God in the context of activism as reminding us of our moral courage—of being a compass as we navigate key moral issues, those of good and evil and those of justice. Moral courage is the courage you summoned because you are firmly rooted in the righteousness of the task at hand. (11)

From the essays in this book, I believe that his work is his church. I think that his congregation consists of all the people he meets along the way who are voicing the wrongs and outlining the way toward the right. The essays indicate that his sacrifices are real.

That activists and protests mattered then and now should never be in doubt. Mckesson confirms this for me when he writes that “protest is a precursor to the solution [and] creates space that would otherwise not exist, and forces conversations and topics that have long been ignored into the public sphere.” (122)

I encourage others to read this succinct and brief dispatch filled with words of wisdom. It could change your mind and your life.

Use Your Words

The poisonous pollination of college and university campuses by purveyors of hate speech can cause administrators angst. Determining how best to strike a balance between allowing the free flow of ideas while rejecting the racism inherent in the mere presence of such communicators is making the work of college administrators one of the most stressful jobs in the professions.

If we are not diligent about preserving the value of ongoing dialogue, in a very short period of time, we will become uncomfortable in our own skins questioning every gesture we see and deciphering every word we hear. Despite the skittish times in which we live and the temptation to try not to be seen or heard, we must heed the mother’s advice to her child: “Use Your Words.”

Lifting up the N of 1

I could barely manage to get out of bed this morning. I had lain awake thinking about recent surveys and polls about the waning confidence in higher education among some specific groups and possibly the public at large.

I remember in the mid-1990s when the discussions with heads of higher education associations were upbeat because there was so much public support for higher education. In these meetings, we viewed the positive public opinion about colleges and universities as leverage to use to persuade Congress and the Administration to increase funding levels for financial aid. In fact, there was a groundswell of support for the government to do more to help middle class families, in particular, afford to send their students to college. New technology companies demonstrated support by appealing to congressional leaders. Some even declared that making college more affordable was an issue of national defense.

Various reasons have been suggested as to why the people surveyed have negative opinions about colleges and universities. There is no question that college costs have put a college degree out of reach for some families. However, even at the same time that we were surfing on a tide of support for higher education in the mid-1990s, cost containment and the impact on tuition was a major topic of concern. Yet, there was still the belief that a college education was of critical importance and an American value. It is concerning that those of us who see the merits of higher education may be unable to have our voices heard above the din of naysayers.

I tossed and turned most of the night because I do not want to accept as fact that the gulf between those who demean higher education and those who value it may be unbridgeable at this time. So I searched for the common denominator for all who think about education, whether positively or negatively. That common denominator is the impact college has on students who attend.

Rather than relying on survey results of groups outside of college, students should be asked questions about what they think about their college experience. As I thought about surveying students, I reminded myself that the term “students” represents an exceptionally varied and diverse group, and looking at data from them in the aggregate may not be precise enough to be used to take any action. Then, I thought about disaggregating the data gleaned from surveys of students. How the data is disaggregated can also be an issue in interpreting the results. What to do?


As my thoughts swirled during my restless night about polls, surveys, aggregated and disaggregated data, I recalled the denigration of the “anecdote” as evidence of anything as we search for accountability. I thought about how any research to be credible needed a large sample. Then I remembered a single student that I spoke with recently. I began to relax as I thought about my conversation with the student and the potential beauty of the N of 1.

The student I spoke with was struggling with a decision about whether or not to return to college in the fall. Having already made the financial commitment and selected courses, the student was twisted into a knot, virtually paralyzed because of how consequential the decision was about whether going to college was the best route to reach the desired goal.

Notwithstanding the financial obligations of borrowing money – during the first year and the debt that will be accumulated in subsequent years – the student just did not see the connection between a college education and reaching the dream. The student had many entries on a list of “cons” about not going to college, and only one on the list for “pros,” and that was that family expected that everyone who had an opportunity to go to college should go. Among the “cons” the student listed negative press about the costs of college, friends and acquaintances who had not attained the jobs they hoped for upon graduation, role models in the high-tech industry who never went to college or did not complete college, and the time and effort to complete the degree. I could understand the student’s dilemma. Making a step in any direction at this point in the process would make the student unhappy or the family unhappy.

Listening to the student and viewing the current context through the student’s lens; encouraging the student to share the desired dream; sharing relevant parts of my journey through higher education; helping the student envision multiple future scenarios with and without a college degree; sharing ideas about the joy of discovering knowledge that goes beyond training to do a specific kind of work; and sharing examples of how a college education could increase one’s competitive edge filled our time together. I told the student that a college education is a ticket to ride, and there are no limits to where a college graduate could travel.

Whether or not the student returns to college in the fall, I believe that our conversation could help unravel the knot that may be holding back a talented student from a bright future. We need not feel impotent in the midst of the swirling smoke of negativity about the value of higher education when we can give time to a student in need one at a time if necessary. Polls, surveys, data disaggregated. Collect the anecdotes and lift up the N of 1.






Story Corps

It is a rare gift to be able to share parts of one’s story prompted by a highly skillful interviewer. As a gift to me, my dear friend and colleague, Paulette Dalpes, interviewed me in the summer of 2014 at Story Corps in Chicago. In recognition of Black History Month, I am sharing segments from that interview here on my blog.


Great Grandfather

Didn’t Feel Loved

Coat and Penny Loafers


Piano Lessons

Role Models


Eastern Illinois University

 Student Teaching

Students Have Stories

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My memoir – putting it off no longer

A confluence of events won’t let me put it off any longer.

In addition to everything else I am and do, I’m identifying myself as a memoirist since my retirement. It’s not that I use the term “memoirist” as an identifier, but as a way of answering when asked how I spend my time — I’m writing a memoir.

I’ve had writing my memoir on my agenda — or as some call it my “bucket list” — for many years. I’ve held it back as I would a favored dessert in order to savor it after a satisfying dinner — the dinner being my 51-year career in education.

It is significant to me that I’m using the possessive pronoun “my” in describing this memoir because until just a few days ago, I’ve called it “a” memoir, “the” memoir, “her” memoir, and “our” memoir. The “her” is my mother. What I’ve been writing is her story and mine. I am now compelled to own the memoir as mine and take responsibility for getting it done.

Getting it done has been the issue. It’s not that I can’t complete it. Over the past four years since retirement, I have kept writing my memoir on the back burner in order to respond to requests others make of me in order to complete their agendas. One of the events that occurred recently that is forcing me to move forward with the story is a conversation I had with a friend who is a successful published writer. As we talked about what I’m writing, I came to the conclusion or discovered for myself that I have not wrapped up the first part of what will be a trilogy because I don’t know what to do with it when it’s finished. My friend said matter-of-factly, “just finish it.”

The next event that pushed me to move forward was when I was shocked recently to read the title I’ve selected for my memoir as the title of someone else’s work. I love to listen to Mahalia Jackson sing old Negro spirituals, and one of my favorites is My Soul Looks Back and Wonders How I Got Over. I changed the words slightly for my title to say My Soul Looks Back in Wonder. I could not believe that another author had the exact same idea! My first thought was to change my title. My next thought was to get my memoir done.

My watershed moment was when I received an article from a friend about how difficult it is to get a literary agent. The article was discouraging to say the least, although I do not believe my friend meant for it to discourage me. Rather than worry about getting an agent, I took this as another indication that I needed to tell my mother’s and my story through my memoir sooner rather than later.

Although I’ve written the proposal for my book, I think that the media has changed so drastically that the traditional route to publishing may not be the best option to get the story out. I’m mulling over the idea of putting some parts of the story on my blog. I have faith that if I take this first step, I will know what the next steps should be.

Allowing one to be what he imagines himself to be…

We will celebrate our son’s birthday in a couple of days, and this occasion makes me have a moment of nostalgia about our relationship as mother and child.

I could tell you that the doctor kept telling me that I was not pregnant with him, despite the fact that I had missed my period for four months. According to this physician, if I were pregnant, the rabbit test would confirm it, and since the test did not confirm it, I was not pregnant.

I could tell you that he was born close to a month early, and it was a complicated delivery that caused him to be without oxygen for quite some time, according to the doctors. This led them to forewarn me that this child could experience some developmental or other problems. I’m grateful that their warning was not confirmed and he was a perfectly healthy baby.

I could tell you more about the pregnancy as mothers are wont to do, but what I want to tell you is that I have been in awe of this stealth child who fought hard and arrived unscathed to be the light of his mother’s life.

From the beginning, I consciously decided that because I loved him so much, I would have to fight not to allow my love to possess him. I decided that he would belong to the universe and that he was God’s child, and it was my privilege to have the role of mother in his life. Holding him close in my heart and seeing him as not belonging to me or any one person, I have always had adoration for this child that I have the privilege of calling “son.”

I have always respected him as his own entity, and I worked to play the role as parent with nuanced control, not holding the reins too tightly. Growing with him has been like performing a modern dance following the beat of a jazz composition and going with the flow. Rather than attempting to mold him into my conception of what he should be, I trustingly reinforced his unique nature and characteristics. When I think about it, it has not been so much “raising” him as allowing him to be what he imagines himself to be.

I’ve often said that he grew up like a cabbage because cabbages can grow just about anywhere. Though his dad and I did our best to provide the right conditions for his thriving, like cabbages “soil texture is not critical” for him. Because he is an only child, he was often treated as the third adult in the house, with some limitations, whose feelings and ideas were valued. I always wanted him to see the worth of his own efforts despite the opinion of others. Whenever he did something praiseworthy, rather than first telling him that I was proud of him, I would ask, “Aren’t you proud of yourself?”

With adoring, respectful love and not too much pressure from hands-on parenting in the traditional sense, I should not have been surprised at his response when he was asked by a third party what he thought had the most impact on his development as a man. He responded that his college fraternity was the most important influence on him in being who he is today. I’m also not surprised when he does not remember all the cute incidents I remember about his childhood because his childhood and adulthood, in some ways, have been seamless, in that he has enjoyed and continues to enjoy my unconditional love, devotion, and respect because I have always thought and continue to think that he is awesome.