My maternal grandmother was an amazing woman. She was born in Northeast Philadelphia in 1901. Her parents had immigrated here, and she was their eldest child. For whatever reason –whether their Old World traditions or just the necessity of another set of hands to help in the kitchen- she never attended school beyond the third grade.
This bothered her terribly and she saw herself as not much more than illiterate for a large portion of her life. She married and had two children. She never learned to drive, never ventured anywhere that my grandfather couldn’t take her…when he was sober enough to drive.
She possessed one of the most beautiful singing voices I have ever heard. It was angelic. It was sweet, clear and perfect in pitch. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of music and could sing songs of virtually any style or genre.
Her life was limited. She didn’t accomplish a lot as you and I might view it. To me she was a saint. She kept me alive when I was a little boy and my unmarried mother was working and still trying to have something of the social life that nineteen year old young women have.
Her lack of reading skills and vocabulary bothered her greatly and finally one day she decided to do something about it. Long before I was born…sometime after WWII, she bought herself a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. It was almost 3 inches thick. It had a hard cover and print as tiny as the font in a phone book. She kept it on a table next to the chair in the little window-box that bumped out from the dining room. It was her favorite place to sit and read. She had a table radio, tuned to the local Christian radio station sitting on a doily on that same table.
Sometime in the late 40’s she decided that the only way she could address the lack of a vocabulary was to read the dictionary. So she did. The whole thing. Cover to cover.
She wrote down any word she didn’t know and memorized the word and the definition.
As with anyone with natural intelligence, once she finished the dictionary, she thirsted for more. In 1953, at a time when encyclopedia salesmen still sold their products door-to-door, (In a time when we actually used an encyclopedia) she saw another opportunity. She couldn’t get to the library because she couldn’t drive. But this man showed up at the door one day, selling what, to her, was a ticket to a world of knowledge she might never have entered. She bought the entire set.
It came in several boxes, along with a very modern-looking glass bookcase. My grandmother dove into volume one, page one of the Funk and Wagnall’s New World Encyclopedia. It took her over two years, during which she raised two children, took care of her ailing elderly mother who had moved in with her, took in laundry and ironing to make up for the money that an alcoholic husband was losing at the bar, and did her best to keep the lights lit and belly’s full. She read every volume. Every word of every article about topics that she had never heard of before.
I can’t imagine what that must have felt like. Her world had seemed so small until that point. Not much existed beyond the distance she could walk from her house on the outskirts of Philadelphia, or the odd occasion when my grandfather would drive her. Suddenly that world expanded into the infinite. The encyclopedia expanded her mind and her imagination. Her vocabulary exploded to the point that, by the time I was born in 1963 I would venture a guess that she had a Master’s level education. She was a fountain of knowledge. She remembered everything she read. Her mind drank it in like a sponge and stored it like a bank vault. I don’t remember the woman who only had a third grade education and the vocabulary to match. I only knew the woman who would dazzle me with her lexicon when we played Scrabble for hours at the dining room table. She’d come up with a “Twenty Point word” and I would challenge her “Mom-mom…that’s not a word!” and she would break out that trusty Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and show me the word and make me read it to her and remember the definition. She was a champion at Scrabble and at crossword puzzles as well. It was her only outlet for the vast knowledge she’d gained.
I marvel at this still. She read an entire encyclopedia.
That’s 32 volumes, each over 500 pages. Because it’s all she could do.
Well it’s not really all she could have done. She could have decided it was just her lot in life. She could have decided that there just wasn’t any opportunity for a woman in her time. That it took money and certain social standing to get an education. That this life was all she had and so why try to improve it? She could have descended into bitterness and hopelessness, and the shame and embarrassment of illiteracy. She could have reacted to the situation of her life. Instead she responded.
She saw what was available. What she could do. And then she did it.
I have no doubt it saved her life. And years later, it saved mine.
In 2009, after the first year of homelessness, (almost four more would follow) I decided that the only hope I had to improve my situation was to finish my degree. So I enrolled at my alma mater, in their distance learning program and I set about fixing my life.
I studied at the library. I studied at the local Panera restaurant because they had free wifi. I studied at the Fed-Ex office because they were open 24 hours. I studied by flashlight in the torn-up front seat of that 1995 Volvo 850, where I also slept. My studies were the only good thing I had going on in my life at the time. The only measurable success I had at a dark, difficult time. Each semester I could look at my final grades and see progress toward a goal that was literally giving me a reason to go on.
In May of 2012, I completed my bachelor’s degree and walked with my class. I was still homeless, but for the first time in four years I had succeeded at something.
Four years further on and I am working at that same alma mater, where my daughter is now a freshman. I have just a little more invested in my job here than most, because of what this place provided for me when my life was so bad.
I did what I could do to improve myself. I could have resorted to section 8 housing, foodstamps, and a lifetime of entitlements. Instead I played on the one string that was still holding a tune.
I gained more than an education…much more. I gained resilience, strength, vision. I gained the ability to tell my daughter that when the going gets tough, you put your head down, tighten your grip and try harder. I cried. I shivered in the cold. I thought, at times, that it wasn’t worth it or that it wouldn’t make any difference. But I never gave in to the urge to quit.
I can look back on that difficult walk with pride and self-respect. I did it when the world said I could not.
We see evidence everywhere that this generation demands people to cater to them. To give them “safe spaces” and tolerance and diversity mandates and quotas. What they need is grit. What they need is to tighten those laces, wipe the sweat from their brow, and spit in the eye of whatever is resisting their success and say “I don’t care who you are or what you say or how you try to stop me…I will not quit!”
Instead they want us to pass laws to make the world treat them with kid gloves. They have no stories like mine or my grandmother’s to draw from when the world comes to kick their butt –and it will. They have no archetype of success in the midst of failure from which to build their plan for rebuilding.
This world is hard and tough. It’s tougher if you aren’t tough on yourself. Victory that comes easy is not really a victory. When things get you down and the world has dealt you a crappy hand, play it anyway!
Buy yourself a set of encyclopedias, turn your car into a study hall, and kick those obstacles in the teeth!
Perseverance will take you anywhere…quitting leaves you right where you are.