‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ – Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962, three years before I was born. She would have made a great example for the young women of today. Wish I could have seen that. She dealt with her husband’s infidelity and a controlling mother-in-law, Sara. Eleanor convinced her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, to stay in politics despite his disability – losing the use of his legs after he contracted polio in 1921.
She was a humanitarian above all, guarding against the short shrift of women. Instead, she sought expanded roles for women. She was once referred to as “The First Lady of the World” by one of our other presidents, Harry S. Truman, who bespoke Eleanor’s human rights achievements as a United Nations representative.
My Pops, who died rather young at the age of 62 in April 2004, said something similar. His body gave out after he let his diabetes get out of control. He also did not follow a lot of his own advice.
Ironically, he played counselor to two people who later became millionaires – one of them was a landscaper from Mexico who emigrated to this country illegally. The other owned a string of convenience stores. Talk about living American dreams. My pops made up mantras that people took to heart. Among sayings he drilled into my head, “your mind is not for rent.” I often fretted those moments when I cared about what people thought of me during those formative, vulnerable teen-age years when we’re so busy awkwardly trying to discover ourselves. For a small-town boy living in a big city, I took my fair share of lumps.
Like my Pops, I became a teacher. He took the hard knocks as a Substitute –the path less traveled, a fill-in, a ridiculed back-up to the ‘real deal,’ but he was the real deal. When he could, he preached about life to them, the not-so easily molded young minds, some who might be our leaders today. Starting out in 2009, when I taught seniors and juniors at a few at-risk high schools in Las Vegas, I’d reach back in time to pull out a few of Pop’s gems from my bag of teacher tricks.
Almost 500 kids passed through my classrooms. Usually, his well-worn sayings acted as a stun gun, giving my students pause, and quieting them for at least half a second while they grinded the gears in their heads to process the information. The pause gave me time to regroup after things got out of control, which often they did. I gave my kids way too many liberties.
My Pops often wore a suit jacket to the schools and AA meetings in Pomona, California, the city where I finished high school. His favorite was a blue pin-striped suit jacket, brown trousers, red suspenders, and a loud tie (Take your pick. He had dozens, including Betty Boop in honor of my mom’s collection of the cool cartoon figure. The exaggerated drawing of a woman was on several things, including bath towels, handbags, refrigerator magnets, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera). He also wore sensible brown Derby shoes, and most importantly, mismatched socks.
He was a walking conversation piece. On the lapel of his suit jacket, he wore a huge button – you know the ones used for campaign slogans? His button very simply said, ‘It Don’t Matter.’ It was the ultimate defense for any rebel without a cause. Obviously, being comfortable in his own skin, plus having a thick skin, his wardrobe really didn’t matter. To stress my point, he also kept a maroon velvet blazer and another, a lime green color, hanging in his closet. I suspect, the latter was one he picked up during the 1970’s disco era. The loudness of his clothes spoke volumes. And, his nonchalance fooled no one.
Eleanor’s elegant phrasing speaks to a different time. Though, it is ageless wisdom. Her life story said much about what she had to endure as a woman, what caused her to take advantage of a world platform for advancing many good causes for humankind, not just women. Of today’s politicians, who would have stood up to her? My Pops, who most admired Malcom X, must have liked her. She carried the same message: “Do the right thing.” No doubt, she was tough.
My Pops. He was tough, too. He grew up in a hard-scrabble neighborhood in Compton – a.k.a. South Central, L.A. – during the 1960s, playing the Dozens, a game in which kids insulted each other’s moms. The street contest required the crude skill of managing words creatively under pressure. He’d tell me the embarrassment was worse if you didn’t participate and failed. He witnessed the Los Angeles riots in 1965. He was an alcoholic, drug addict and successful con artist before turning his life around to finish law school in his mid to late 30s. He never took the California bar exam. In his mind, what more did he have to prove? Why did he have to pay someone to approve his education? Instead, he retired a fabricator of wings and fuselages for Lockheed’s lucrative aerospace contracts. There were two forms of good. The way he did his job. And the money. He taught me there was no shame in being blue collar. Take any job, if it makes you happy.
“You can write your own ticket, Franky,” he’d say when he saw my grade reports during my last years of high school. I barely missed a day and half there; I earned mostly A’s and a few B’s. “You can go to college, go anywhere you want to go.”
He maintained this sort of the-world-is-your-oyster mentality. I believed him even though he didn’t always walk the walk, and talk the talk. His spirit was alive with following his own unique path. At times, I felt like he was trying to live vicariously through me, to make up for his own shortcomings as a young adult.
After my own several knock-down and fall-down experiences in college, I found out that wasn’t the case. He was there to catch me every time. He wanted me to celebrate myself. He wanted me to know it was OK to find success, and failure. “Don’t worry about someone looking over your shoulder,” he’d say. As Eleanor would say, they don’t have your consent. That’s the part that don’t matter.
To finish my Pop’s quote, “If you don’t let them into your head, they ain’t gonna mess with it.” He was right. Today, when I need this reminder, when someone calls me names, gives me a dirty look, or thinks of ways to trip me up, I think of him. The Rebel? Not so much. He was a modern-day Don Quixote, the champion of lost causes, and my inspiration.