Be A Weed

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I am constantly fighting weeds. My roses may droop and look as though they are ready to just give up and die during the heat of summer or the freezes of winter but somehow my weeds are always lush and ready to take on any challenge that I give them. I might pull them out by the roots and then treat my flowerbeds with a blanket of mulch but those pesky weeds find a way to come back again and again. I may cover them with thick black plastic but they live on. No matter what I try they are determined to rule the roost in my garden. I have a perennial battle in my attempts to keep them at bay because I am as willing to fight for what I really want as they are.

Life can be brutal. It is filled with one challenge after another. Just when we think that all is well problems sneak into our world that sometimes feel insurmountable. Our best laid plans fall apart. We find that we have as much control over the things happening to us as I do in preventing those weeds from ever again returning. It is inevitable that each of us will one day face difficulties that will try our patience and our will to fight for what we believe to be right.

I’ve had to walk through fire many times. I am not unique in that. I have watched people that I know seeming to have charmed lives only to eventually encounter grave tribulations that threaten to destroy all of the good that they have built. It takes courage for each of us to face the surprises that come our way. Often we have to be flexible and willing to change our plans just to keep moving forward. Sometimes the problems we face are so horrible and demanding that few would fault us if we simply gave up. It takes great strength to travel through a lifetime. Some people among us are like those weeds, unwilling to surrender, always coming back with vigor regardless of how much damage is done to them.

I have witnessed true survivors in my lifetime, people who were challenged by the most grave problems imaginable that they did not allow to defeat them. My grandparents are chief among those that I admire for their persistence, but of course my mother is the icon from whom I take great example. She seemed to have been stalked by tragedy for her entire life and yet she fought back with a fierceness worthy of Joan of Arc. She was unwilling to let her circumstance rule the trajectory of her life even as she fought her own mental illness which chronically returned again and again.

I know a woman who lost her father at a very young age just as I did. By the time she was fourteen she was running a household while her mother worked to keep the family afloat. She was driving a car and writing checks, purchasing groceries and watching over her brothers. She is kind and tough at one and the same time and even though her trials continue to follow her she keeps an optimistic faith in humankind and keeps moving forward knowing that she will no doubt have to climb over new barriers in her journey.

I know a young man who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Houston. He had few role models to inspire him but he somehow decided that he wanted to one day become an engineer. He ignored the temptations that were rampant in the world around him and worked hard toward achieving his goal. He struggled with the financing of a college education and went to great lengths to make unbelievable sacrifices just to keep taking classes. It took him longer than usual to earn a degree but he was unwilling to try an easier route. He did exactly what he said he would do and now proudly bears the credentials that demonstrate his persistence. He has yet to find a job, but his optimism remains. I feel certain that some discerning employer will see his grit and provide him with an opportunity to show that he does indeed have the right stuff.

Here in Houston we love Jose Altuve, a diminutive baseball player who at first glance seems to be an unlikely hero in the world of sports. Jose was told that he was too small to play in the big leagues. Teams passed on hiring him. He might have simply settled for another kind of work and played baseball as a hobby but he knew the magnitude of his heart and his own potential so he persisted until someone finally agreed to give him a chance. Now he is a superstar who regularly knocks balls out of the park even when they are pitched at him at more than ninety miles per hour. Altuve is like those pesky weeds, fighting back with all of his might at every single turn, unwilling to give up the fight no matter the odds.

None of us get through this life without trouble. Sometimes we have long moments of respite but sooner or later we each have to face the unthinkable. It is in those times that we have to be like the weeds. We have to fight with everything that we have to survive. We cannot allow anything to take us down. It’s tough to be in the dark times when it feels as though we have been covered with a shroud of black plastic. The days and hours seem to move in slow motion and we wonder if we have finally met the one event that will defeat us. That is when we must show a ferocity that cannot be matched by the problems that stalk us. That is when our true strength takes us through. We’ve all got what it takes. We just have to keep our determination alive.

Sooner Rather Than Later

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She is an amazing young woman. She has worked very hard to earn a college degree and gain respect in her job. There are few challenges that daunt her. She fearlessly tackles problems with determination. She is faith filled and regularly attends church. She married her sweetheart not so long ago and the two of them are already living the American dream in a house that they purchased with the income gained from their dedication to their careers. She takes fun vacations with her spouse and charts plans for living a purpose filled life. She represents the epitome of the future of our nation and our world but she has borne a burden for the last two years that has threatened to destroy all of her dreams.

She is an immigrant who came to the United States as a young child. She lived here under temporary protection, all the while studying and pursuing a model lifestyle with dedication and grace. She has become an all American girl while never forgetting her roots. She is talented beyond measure and loving and gentle in nature. She should in every sense be exactly the kind of person that our country needs, and yet she has quietly worried about what might happen to her with the new immigration policies of the past two years. She wondered if she might have to return to a country that is now little more than a vague memory. She tried to imagine what she might do with her college degree if she had to leave for a place that has fewer opportunities. She thought of how she would miss all of the friends that she has made here in the United States. Her mind has been filled with thoughts of what might happen if she one day lost her protections.

In September she went for an interview with the United States Citizenship and Immigration System. She was applying for status as a permanent resident of the country. She had so much at stake, and even though she is generally optimistic she faced the reality that acceptance of her application was not automatic. She would have to undergo an interview, something that she generally does quite well. It is the kind of thing that is part of her work, but this would be so very different. All for which she had worked would be on the line. She confided her nervousness to me and requested prayers that her earnest desire to be a good and contributing resident of the United States would be seen by those who tasked with judging her credibility.

Those of us who know her well believed that she would greatly impress, but we also understood that such things can sometimes go in ways that are unplanned. We prayed and thought of her as the hours of her interview grew into what seemed like days. It was difficult to concentrate or relax. Happily good news soon followed. She now has permanent residence status and need not constantly look over her shoulder with anxiety any longer. She is free to enjoy her wonderful life and to continue to excel in it. The United States of America just won the lottery with her whether they know it or not.

I’m ecstatically happy for my young friend, but I can’t help but think of the thousands of other young dreamers like her who still live in fear. My heart aches for them because there is nothing worse than living with uncertainty lurking around every corner. So many twenty something immigrants are caught in a trap that is not of their own making. They know as little of their family history in another country as I do of mine. Only stories of people and places and ways of life create a vague picture for them but it never feels quite real. Instead their reality lies totally in the neighborhoods where they have lived in different parts of the United States, and in the schools they have attended and the friends they have made. Sending them away would be as terrifying for them as it would be for any of us who were born here. There is something intensely cruel about the very prospect of doing that to them.

I learned long ago that each situation in life must be judged by its own merits, not some ironclad set of rules that do not make sense in certain cases. The wisest judgements are those that take humanity into account. We have laws to keep order in society but when those laws do not fully consider implications that fly in the face of logic and compassion then we must change them, but so far we have not had the wisdom or courage to do so. We quibble and squabble but never quite get the job done. Meanwhile truly good and deserving young people live in the shadows wondering if and when another shoe will fall.

I am very excited for the new chapter of my young friend’s life. I know it will be glorious and that it will exemplify the dreams of the millions of immigrants who have contributed to the welfare of the United States of America over time. I wish her all the best and feel lucky that I have walked with her on her journey. My only hope that is that one day we will pave the way for more people like her to earn the right to have the weight of uncertainty finally lifted from their shoulders. It’s time that we all push for changes that will make that happen sooner rather than later.

The Power of Prophecy

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As a teacher one of the things that I hated to hear from a student was, “I’m no good at math.” Even worse was hearing such a sentiment reinforced by a parent who insisted that nobody in the family had ever done well with numbers. I knew that such thinking created a self-fulfilling prophecy whose hold on the mind of the student was difficult to undo.

If we or someone who knows us convinces us that something, whether good or bad, is true about us we tend to react in ways that reinforce the thinking. In education it’s often called the Pygmalion Effect. Researchers consistently have found that it is possible to affect outcomes merely by continually making particular comments to individuals or groups. If that happens to be about a lack of math skills, for example, it becomes more and more likely that mediocre success or even total failure will result. As humans we tend to give up trying when we believe that our efforts are futile.

I have a grandson who is doing quite well at Texas A&M University where he is studying computing in the engineering department. His classes are quite challenging but when I recently asked him how he was doing he immediately stated that his expectation was to make all A’s and perhaps one B in his courses. I was pleased to hear that he has set up a positive challenge for himself which he believes that he has the capability of achieving. Even if he sent a curve he understands that he has what it takes to nonetheless be ultimately successful. Because all of the people around him also believe in him, his faith in his abilities is reinforced. The interesting thing is that success bears the fruit of more success and the prophecy comes true.

Most of the time I encountered just the opposite effect with far too many of my students. Somewhere along the way the teachers and other adults in their lives had convinced them that they were academically doomed. They would relate stories of educators who had called them lazy and insisted that they would be lucky to graduate from high school much less a college. By the time I got ahold of them they were beaten down and unwilling to believe that I might help them. I had to work very hard to convince them otherwise.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are not just about academics. We are capable of convincing ourselves that we are klutzes or even that we are unloveable. I had a friend who became certain that she was only attractive to abusive men, and so she quit dating altogether after a few tries at meeting men seemed to prove her point. Someone who is told that he/she is ugly eventually gazes into the mirror and sees only horror. I’ve heard parents telling their children that they were losers, and then they wondered what had happened when those same kids began to exhibit defeated behaviors. We are the product of all that we hear and think about ourselves. If the negativity is repeated often enough it becomes the insight that we use to judge our personalities, our appearance, our intelligence and even the way the rest of the world sees us.

For these reasons it is critically important for all adults to monitor the things that they say to young people. If an entire class is told again and again how lazy and lacking they are, they might just give up and play the role of which they have been accused. If a young person makes a mistake he/she feels bad enough, but when those blunders are brought up again and again by the people who are supposed to care, a whole new personality of defeat begins to form.

When I was in middle school I was not yet five feet tall. I remember a PE teacher setting up the equipment for track. She brought out hurdles and measured distances for running. The first time she asked me to perform a task it was to jump over the obstacle. In reality I was no doubt too small to leap as high as I needed to be to clear the bar. Instead I slammed into the frame, toppling the entire apparatus and slamming my face into the dirt. The teacher’s reaction was not to coach me or demonstrate how I might do  better next time. Instead she simply barked that I was the most nonathletic, uncoordinated person she had ever encountered and shook her head in disgust.

Hers was a prophecy that went into effect immediately. From that day forward I avoided athletic pursuits like the plague. I explained to anyone who would listen that I was an blundering klutz and every time I was chosen last for teams my feelings were summarily reinforced. It was not until college when a kindly coach kept me after class for private lessons in every imaginable sport that I realized that all I had ever needed was for someone to show me what to do. I never became an athletic star, but I at least felt less subconscious of my abilities. I did fine until I joined a volleyball team at a school where I was teaching, and in a competition one evening one of the members of our group yelled at me just like the middle school coach had done and all of the old angst came flooding back. It paralyzed me with fear of any kind of participation in a sport. Old prophecies are difficult to overcome without help and understanding.

It is important that we see development for what it is, a gradual progression that moves at different paces for different individuals. We are all fully capable of learning how to succeed at most things, but our rate of improvement will vary widely depending on the totality of our genetic makeup and the environments in which we live. If we are surrounded by adults who understand such things and then provide us with optimism and expectations that we will ultimately succeed we are likely to reach our goals.

Life is a combination of nature, nurture, hard work, and beliefs. The thoughts that we have and that we hear are perhaps the most powerful forces in determining our ultimate fates. For that reason it would behoove every single adult who is in contact with others, not just the young, to think before speaking. Those words and attitudes will either create genius or destroy potential. We have to always remember that making mistakes is as much a part of learning as mastery. When someone falls it is up to us to let them know that we still have faith that they will one day overcome. The prophecies that we speak should always be filled with optimism and positive expectations even when progress is slow.

It’s Never Too Late

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Back in 1988, he headed off to college. At some point on his way to earning a degree things got complicated and he quietly dropped out of school. He moved to Chicago, enrolled in the Police Academy and became a cop. The years passed by and in the interim he raised a family and made a nice life for himself, but he knew that something was missing. Not long ago he retired from the police force with a pension that gave him enough income to follow a dream that had never really left his mind. He applied for admission to college and when the acceptance letter came he proudly announced that he was going back to school to pursue a major in engineering, undaunted by the fact that he is only a year or so away from turning fifty.

I did not know this man very well, but when I heard his story I wanted to jump for joy. I admire his willingness to keep learning and to make sacrifices to enrich his life. All too often I hear adults bemoaning the trajectory of their lives and blaming all sorts of people and situations for their plight. Whenever anyone suggests steps that they might take to improve their lot in life they are filled with excuses of why it is simply not possible to make changes. They note that educational programs cost too much or take up too much of their time, and yet they prefer being miserable for the long run rather than making sacrifices for the moment.

Again and again I see examples of people who take charge of their lives and push themselves just a bit harder to make changes and reach goals that may at first glance appear to be unattainable. I recall a woman who got married and began having children right out of high school. She and her husband barely got by as they worked at a series of low paying and dead end jobs. In their late twenties it seemed as though they would always struggle just to make ends meet. Neither of them had high school transcripts worthy of even the mid range universities and they wondered how it would be possible to pay the tuition and fees even if some institution accepted them. Nonetheless they agreed one evening that they had to redirect their destinies and they applied to every sort of program imaginable. Their journey began in a local junior college where they took courses one or two at a time while working all day and managing a family.

Before long they had both earned associate degrees with honors. This one step allowed them to get better jobs, but they were not yet done. Eventually the woman became a registered nurse and the man earned a law degree. By the time they were nearing their forties they were able to purchase a nice home and treat themselves to vacations and luxuries like nice furniture. They had so inspired their children that the kids were excelling in high school and headed for some of the best universities in the country. To all the world they appeared to be a power couple. Few realized how far they had come.

I could go on and on about people who reclaimed their lives with a willingness to work hard to bring about the changes that would help them to escape the debilitating grind of the mistakes of their youth. Instead of wallowing in self recriminations or envy they did something positive to make changes. They went back to school and worked in the wee hours of the night and on weekends to master skills and write papers. At times they were exhausted and worried that they might never recoup all of the money that they spent for courses. It was a slow and demanding process, but they never surrendered to the little voices that tempted them to throw in the towel. In every case that I heard of they were victorious, standing out as exceptional students and the kind of employees that any organization dreams of having.

I tell people that no one need ever feel stuck in a rut. I think of the bookkeeper who earned a degree in accounting, became a CPA, and opened her own firm. I remember the man who was miserable in his job who attended night school to become certified to be a teacher. I applaud the friend who graduated at the top of her law class when she was almost fifty years old. I have witnessed brave souls who demonstrated with their determination that where there is a will there is a way to control destiny rather than being ruled by it. All it takes is a willingness to divert the energy wasted complaining and parlay it into tangible efforts to learn and grow.

There are countless opportunities for anyone of any age. It is never too late for any of us to become the person that we have always wished to be. If we wait for privileges to suddenly appear or lottery tickets to pay dividends we will be sorely disappointed. For most of us it will take time and money and effort and no excuses. 

I hope that the man who is embarking on earning a degree for a second career will find the success that he seeks. His is an admirable goal, and even before his journey is done he has inspired those of us who have heard of his courage. He reminds us that it is never too late.

Finding My Way

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I spent the first seventeen years of my life in a kind of bubble. I lived in a neighborhood that I rarely left for anything other than visits to the homes of my grandparents and aunts and uncles. I walked to my school and had classes all the way through the twelfth grade with many of the same friends that I had known since the first and second grades. My life revolved around a regular routine that was carefully orchestrated by my mother. I felt safe, secure and loved, but frustrated by how little I knew of the world beyond the borders of the small area of southeast Houston where I lived.

My single parent family had no extra money to send me and my brothers to college, so it was up to us to find ways to pay for tuition and such. I worked hard in high school and graduated with enough honors to be recruited by a number of private universities including some that were rather prestigious, but most of the scholarship offers would still have left me scrambling for funds and wondering how I would manage to get from Houston to distant towns. When it came time to choose a university I felt that I needed to be in an environment far different from the one that had nurtured me in my youth. Somehow the University of Houston appeared to be the perfect solution, and as it turned out I was correct.

I found myself surrounded by a of diversity of people and ideas unlike anything that I had ever before experienced from the first moment that I stepped onto the University of Houston campus. It was a bit frightening and exhilarating at one and the same time. Even though the school was only a short drive from the place where I had lived for most of my life, it was a world away in culture. With its massive student body I literally became a number which I had to memorize to identify myself in the system. I was little more than a face in a crowd as I learned how to navigate the brutal registration process and the routes from one class to another. I had to grow up fast and toughen myself just to survive. It was exactly the kind of experience that I needed.

I soon learned that nobody was going to coddle me at UH and that I would have to use my own voice to make myself known to my professors. I overcame the shyness behind which I had hidden myself for so long. I had to develop a willingness to be an advocate by stepping forward and speaking up. I found it to be a glorious experience, and a way to become the person that I truly wanted to be. I may have returned to my mother’s home each evening, but during the day I was exerting my independence and finding delight in meeting people from all over the world. It was an exciting time that was transforming me at warp speed. I was quite proud to know that I was capable of paying my own way and choosing the direction of my life without adults hovering over me. At the same time I realized that I was receiving an excellent education as well.

In the beginning I tended to assess the students with whom I attended classes with the very narrow lens of the restricted environment in which I had spent my childhood and teen years. Suddenly I encountered people of different races, religions, and socio-economic status on a regular basis. I found that it was a mistake to categorize them according to my preconceived stereotypes.

I particularly recall one of my first classes in which the professor paired me with a girl whom I would never have chosen to approach. She literally exuded beauty, wealth and confidence with her perfectly coiffed hair, manicured nails, and expensive clothing. I had noticed her when she first walked into the room and I had felt somewhat in awe of her commanding presence. I had thoughts of dropping the class when I learned that my fate was to be tied to her for the entire semester. I assumed that she would feel the same about being with me, but I was so wrong. In fact, she became a dear friend, someone in whom I was able to comfortably confide my deepest thoughts. We not only worked together in class, but spent time riding around in the sports car that had been a graduation gift from her parents. She was open and kind and unspoiled. She taught me the important lesson of getting to know a person before making judgements about character.

I certainly recall the knowledge that I gained during my time at the University of Houston, but it was the experience of growing up that had the most impact in molding who I am today. I suspect that the process might have been less encompassing in another place. The sink or swim atmosphere was exactly what I needed even though it was sometimes daunting. I would eventually realize that there were people just waiting to help me if only I took the time to elicit their support. I learned the importance of reaching out to my professors, getting to know them so that they would know me. I began to network and expand my horizons into an ever more expanding circle.

By the time I was thrown into the real world I was both knowledgeable and capable. Virtually every aspect of my talents and character were ready for whatever I might encounter. The best part was that my own confidence and way of viewing the world had grown in ways that might never have happened had I not chosen the University of Houston. By paying my own way and mixing it up in a place akin to a small city I had toughened up and become a true citizen of the world in a very short space of time.

My life would be challenged before I even turned twenty one. I would have to be an advocate not only for myself but for my mother and brothers as well. Luckily I was prepared. Without going more than a few miles I had managed to ventured far away from home into an exciting world in which I became my own person.

The original charter of the University of Houston indicated that it would be a place of learning for the children of the working people of the city. It has sometimes been said that the school is best represented with by a set of blistered hands with the grime of hard labor under its fingernails. It is a no nonsense place in which none of the “isms” really matter. There are no walls at UH on which to grow ivy. It is a living breathing microcosm of the world as it really is. I suppose that’s why studying there meant so much to me.