Yesterday, I attended one of those institutional "affairs" that you're not required to go to unless you want to be seen as a "team player" who "goes the extra mile" (a perception that has a way of winding up on departmental evaluations that help you keep your job or get a raise or whatever). I don't really mind that much. They don't come along all that often. And our department was celebrating the establishment of a scholarship in the name of one of our own who just retired, so we proceeded to a little soiree afterward where the food was excellent and it was just "us" in rather high spirits.
The ceremony, of course, had been boring, with a whole list of names being called and individuals -- most of them little old people -- receiving plaques they then placed in their respective spots on the display board. It was homecoming, you know, and these were the folks that had distinguished themselves with their giving, a veeeeery important role at universities who count on this money in many ways. The amounts were impressive. The bottom rung was ten thousand dollars and the ladder kept rising until two gentleman representing their deceased sister's estate were recognized for a "gift" of three and a half million. I don't mean to be flip. And once when I was in my twenties and received an insurance settlement after being in a horrified car wreck, I gave the bulk of the settlement of seven thousand dollars to an organization I was attached to at the time. Money is, after all, only money. But three and a half million? How much would you have to have to let go of THAT much and nobody freak out?
Anyway, it reminded me of a comment left on my last post by Sorrow the other day, tipping me to a post at Soaring Impulse. The post, beautifully written by Maithri Goonetilleke and featuring a YouTube video showing Patti LaBelle singing to the woman herself, is about Osceola McCarty, the African-American washer woman who dropped out of the sixth grade in Wayne County, Mississippi, in the early 1900's and spent a long, long life scrubbing other people's laundry for $1.50 a bundle. Then, in 1995, at the age of 87, Osceola McCarty walked into the University of Southern Mississippi with a check for $150,000 and told them she wanted to endow scholarships for needy students. This selfless act was so inspiring that others jumped on the bandwagon, as well, bringing the Osceola McCarty Scholarship Fund to over half a million dollars!
Sometimes, when I'm tired, I don't know if I can keep on keepin' on. I do SO much I don't have to do and don't "have time" to do. I choose to spend frankly interminable hours encouraging, counseling and comforting students one on one and in small cadres. I'm only paid to provide intellectual stimulus and I love to do that, too, but a person can't wrestle ideas when they're wrestling drug addiction or emotional traumas or psychological sorrows or unresolved pain or confusion. And while there are therapists and counselors and ministers and relatives, sometimes they come to me instead and I just don't have what it takes to say, the way many of my colleagues do, "I'm not trained to deal with your problem. You failed the exam and if you don't buckle down, you're going to flunk the course. Now, what's it gonna be?"
I read a story years ago about a man who told exhausted, unlovely women they were beautiful in such a convincing way that, he said, sometimes they transformed right before his very eyes. Osceola McCarty scrubbed clothes with her bare hands and lived as a pauper to be able to change the lives of others who would follow behind her. I am much less sacrificial, but I do drive a funky car and buy my clothes at thrift stores so I can help to feed street kids in Haiti and support local legal battles against organized racist institutions. And I do often forego time to "relax" to give a struggling student a safe place to reconnect with their own sense of hope. I'm not trying to suggest that I'm in her category because that would be far from true, I'm sure.
But I get a lot of satisfaction knowing that I make the world a better place for somebody every single day. Osceola did her part. I'm doing mine. And there are millions around the globe who also work for change, which entails not only huge considerations, but individual ones, as well. Sometimes, I forget how many there are. Sometimes when I think about the men in the gulag at Guantanamo Bay or the families trying to run the gauntlet at the Mexican-American border or children huffing glue or people being bombed or women being raped for profit, I think we might be helplessly careening toward ultimate extinction. Then, I watch a little band of budding sociologists sprouting their wings and singing of social change. Or somebody drops by my blog and reminds me of a woman who quietly modeled love. And I know that love conquers all; that even as I warn of how crucial it is for us to face reality and quit causing pain; that even as I threaten us all with the possibility of our social demise; that I believe in the power of love. And I love being loved and loving. The rest is just bugs on a windshield, a momentary inconvenience, a challenge to address, making it hard to see where we're going, but never, never stopping us from getting there.