I have come down off my Thanksgiving euphoria and am gradually returning to regularly scheduled activities that don’t include planning for meal extravaganzas, cursing under my breath at passerby in the supermarket aisles, raving at fellow driver’s that they should learn how to use a signal (Yes, that did happen) or standing on my feet for 6 hours at a stretch sweating over the stove. It was all worthwhile in the end.
My regularly scheduled activities include Melissa Harris Perry and yesterday’s show featured Rochelle Ballyntyne, soon to be the first African American female Chess master. Rochelle attended I.S. 318 in Brooklyn who has the sole distinction of being the first U.S. Middle School to win the U.S. Chess Federation National High Shcool Chess Championship. Pretty nifty, huh? What makes this meet even more laudable is that 70% of the students live below the poverty level.
What is deeply disturbing is that the school is suffering beneath the weight of After School budget cuts and struggling to maintain their proven record of excellence. Unbelievable, but true. Check out the documentary, Brooklyn Castle, about the school, Rochelle and how chess has transformed and shaped their lives.
I’m not a chess player but I recognize the importance of what aspirational struggle, success and support means in our lives. When asked if Rochelle would have tried to get into an Ivy League college before attending I.S. 318 and playing Chess, she replied, “Chess helped me boost my confidence. My mom always told me I was good enough and I felt that I was okay but not deserving. Chess has taught me that I’m good enough…” From the mouth of babes. That statement resonated deeply with me and reminded me of my own eductaional path and my struggles with confidence.
You can see the video clip here.
I got my GED at 17 because I was advised by a school counselor to get on with my life, since I was a “bright” girl, rather than spend time taking classes to make up for truancy. That counselor was a bloomining idiot but I didn’t know it then. I was a student at Brooklyn Technical H.S which should have been a proud moment for me but my mother constantly disparaged my acceptance because I hadn’t made it into Stuyvesant or Bronx Science, rated #1 and #2 at the time, so I had no sense of the accmplishment or joy I should’ve felt. It was a short walk from that to acting out and truancy. Ready to grow up, I took the counselor’s advice, got my GED and went straight to college.
Luckily, I landed a job at Price Waterhouse at 19 which changed my path. I needed control and autonomony in my life so I quit college to focus on my career. At 23, I decided to go back to college because all my life I have loved education, posessed undying curiousity, adore books and the “life of the mind”. In an ideal world, I probably would’ve spent most of my time on intellectual pursuits and attained multiple degrees. To this day, I’ve wanted to be a Psychologist, an Archaeologist, an Interior Designer and an Author…but there never seemed to be enough time and there were always bills to pay.
And if I am honest, I’d have to say that I’ve struggled with an impediment to success, lack of confidence, which is a thread which runs throughout my life. I set my sights low on the college front but was pushed on by my boss to aspire for something better. She brought me an application for Vassar. Vassar!
I remember how moved I was that she thought an African American girl, from a low income family with a GED could go to Vassar. She was convinced, I was not. It took her several months of egging me on to get me to complete the application and in the end I did not get in…but it gave me courage. I took that courage to NYU and was accepted.
Just the acceptance was a crowning achievement in my life. I won’t ever forget how overwhelmingly proud I was at that moment…that I was deserving. And with a full time job, I busted my butt at night and on weekends to go part time. Part time was all I could afford and even with the student loans, I was still short. So, once again, angels appeared, my boss’s boss loaned me the extra money for books and tuition. He brushed my thanks away saying, “I know where you work”. And again, I was humbled that people belived so deeply in me… People not related to me.
I did not finish at NYU because the program was simply too heavy with my other aspirations but I did excel at my job and created a career in Telecommunications which spanned 22 years of which I am proud. However, I’ve never given up that belief in my self, although it flags, that by the simple act of believing, I could.
As I’ve gotten older, I have reflected with the vantage point of wisdom and experience, just how much one person’s faith, at a critical juncture in your life, can mean. It quite literally, can make a world of difference. I believe that I’ve been lucky but I know, first hand, how difficult it can be to get over entrenched behaviors. I know how deeply I’ve had to plumb to find the faith in myself to even try to reach certain achievements and the resentment I feel that the foundational support I should’ve had as a child was not given to me because I believe that it would’ve made a significant difference. We become who we are not only because of what we receive but what we don’t receive. In Rochelle’s case, it was not the words of her mother that made the key difference but the act of proving to herself that made it come together. Coalescence. To me, the denial of opportunity is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. We should all have the gift of opportunity, it refines, hones and reveals who we may become.
So, as 2013 approaches, I have begun to ponder my next set of life goals. They get refined constantly! Number one is to finally finish what I started so many years ago and get my Bachelor’s degree. I may even push onto a Masters since I now have the confidence and the time, all the rest will follow. I have finally mastered the art of introspection, revision, resolve, falling down and getting up. It only took 44 years to get here . I am thankful.
P.S. – I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving, whatever that may mean to you. This Thanksgiving, in particular, I gave thanks for the roof over my head, the food on my table and the relative safety and security that so many people did not share as a result of Hurricane Sandy. May you have much to be thankful for.