Skating and Emptying Trash Cans: The Most Valuable Lessons I’ve Ever Learned

September 8, 2016

Your past doesn’t have to dictate your future, but if you are smart, you will figure out lessons from it that will enrich your current and future endeavors. I surely have. I know what it’s like to start life at what many pundits may call a disadvantage. I also know that your circumstances don’t define your character nor do experts ever really tell the whole story when they pontificate about the urban experience. They usually miss the important lessons learned and the gems like my grandmother Doveanne Bell and Godmother Ethel Mae Thomas.

My disabled wheelchair-bound grandmother, Ms. Dovie, as she was affectionately called by friends, and her best friend Ethel–Ms. Ethel– worked multiple jobs and although they had limited financial resources, our two bedroom apartment in the Carr Square Village housing project in North St. Louis was always immaculate. Both of these amazing women taught me the value of hard work and a good education. Ethel, a janitor, often  took my brother and me with her on her night shift, after our homework was done.  We would empty trash cans, clean desks in fancy office buildings in wealthy and very white St. Louis suburbs, and most of all, witness how hard Ethel worked. She gave 100% all the time– and this was just the night job! She worked just as hard all day.

My grandmother and Ethel scrimped and saved to send me to a strict Catholic elementary school-St. Nicholas- which became a safe haven for the thousands of families in the Carr Square Village and surrounding communities. People from miles away came to St. Nicholas to experience it’s famed skating rink and if you lived in the Carr Square Village, learning to roller skate was as important as learning to read. Not only did skating provide the perfect opportunity for physical activity, but the rink was a place of refuge as the surrounding community grappled with a drug epidemic that resulted in related gang and criminal activity.

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I spent countless hours at the rink. I wasn’t a natural and I quickly learned that falling down wasn’t so bad. The real test was figuring out how to get back up with your ego in tact and to continue to forge ahead. As much as I wanted to spend every moment of every day honing my skating skills, my grandmother and godmother were adamant about my studies. In fact, there was no skating unless I completed my homework everyday. As a special treat, my grandmother would read to me from “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. She insisted it was a book that every adolescent girl should know and love.

Although I was just a kid from the tough streets of St. Louis, I won an academic scholarship to the prestigious university of Chicago. On campus, I found myself surrounded by some of the most well educated and wealthy suburban kids in the country. I felt completely out of my element.  I didn’t know what to do except keep following the lessons I learned from my grandmother and Ethel. I knew that hard work could be an equalizer. For me, that meant 12 to 14 hours in the library with my head down studying, reading and playing catch up.

When a bunch of guys I met on campus applied to Harvard Law school, I said to myself “I’m a smart as they are,” so I applied too. To my surprise, I not only got in, I was invited by other top law schools to apply.

Welcome to Harvard

Harvard Law School was an interesting place. Many of my classmates were second and third generation members of their families to have attended Ivy League colleges. Some carried that like a badge of honor, while others used it as a weapon to beat down those students like me who were the first in their families to ever graduate from college. I had to quickly learn the art of survival and develop a mental toughness that would sustain me as I navigated the nation’s most celebrated institution. Key to my survival was never forgetting my past and the lessons learned from my village.

I often look back on my college and law school days and I smile. I’m grateful for the many people that sacrificed so that I could succeed. I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from friends and mentors in the Carr Square and at St. Nicholas. Those relationships and lessons sustained me through the dark days of isolation that I, like many minority students, experienced on predominantly white university campuses.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but falling and learning to get back up as I learned to skate taught me how to persevere through life’s challenging times. Cleaning offices taught me that no job is too small or too menial. As an entrepreneur and business owner, this is critical to being successful. Witnessing the sacrifices of the single mothers that prepared food for the kids at the skating rink and who often walked us to and from to keep us safe, taught me that as a mother and community activist, one of my most important jobs is safeguarding children and helping ensure their futures. Living with two women whose sheer  determination was often all they had to lean on when bills were past due and resources were in short supply taught me to never give up.  Collectively, these experiences have convinced me that each and everyone of us has within us everything we need to survive.

These experiences also taught me that no matter where you start in life, there is something in your environment and relationships that is of value. Famed author Alex Haley told us to “find the good and praise it.” I concur and add-reflect on your past as I guarantee there is something in it that will inspire and motivate you today and tomorrow. Skating and emptying trash cans keep me fired up and ready to go.


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