To endure is greater than to dare; to tire out hostile fortune; to be daunted by no difficulty; to keep heart when all have lost it…who is to say that is not greatness? William Makepeace Thackery
Can the words of an early 19th century, British, white, male writer possibly resonate with the primarily young, 21st century, African American women who pass through the doors of Caroline Center today? Maybe. Maybe not. But it is a quote that resonated with me more than 30 years ago, and since then I have kept a clipping of it on my desk as a reminder to “keep on keepin’ on.”
I make reference to it now because recently some of the staff at Caroline Center quibbled over the use of the word “heroic” to describe the Caroline Center trainees. It was not a petty discussion, but rather thoughtful and discerning. It matters to everyone that the women are portrayed accurately. One staffer said, “I’d call them ‘courageous’ but not ‘heroic.'” Another said, “What’s the difference?” You be the judge. Semantics may be arguable, but the facts are not.
It is safe to say that all the women who are or have been enrolled at Caroline Center have seen more than their fair share of hard times. All live at or below the poverty level. Most are single mothers struggling to make ends meet. Very few if any of them grew up in intact, nuclear families with married parents and siblings from the same 2 parents. Who they call mom, dad, sister, or brother may or may not technically be so. It doesn’t matter one iota to them. It is just the way it is. It matters to others only in the sense of trying to determine who and what shaped these women and how that might be different from one’s own experience. What society thinks is beyond the scope of this post. One thing is for certain, though. None of them grew up with the kind of safety nets and support systems we take for granted. And yet- in the words of Thackery – they endured. They endured drug-addicted parents and murdered brothers. They endured inequitable school systems and poor grades. They endured dropping out and then fighting back to earn a GED. They discovered not so much how to avoid mistakes as how to learn from them. And they did so, pretty much on their own. Making it up as they went along. Speaking only for myself, I had parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, church and religious leaders, coaches, scout leaders, teachers, professors, friends, advisors, mentors, supervisors, clients, and “connections” to shape and guide me. As my career took off, if I was interested in a job, I had only to call a colleague to put in a good word for me. ‘Networking’ for the women of Caroline Center means getting a tip about a job fair while waiting at the bus stop. And still – as Thackery would say – “they keep heart”.
Those for whom it is all too easy to say, suggest these women made some bad decisions in life. Those who understand them know they made the best decisions possible given their rotten choices. More often than not, their choices are impossibly difficult while, on the other hand, their decisions are incredibly selfless and creative. When was the last time you had to make ends meet for a family of 4 or more on $20,000 a year? What bills would you decide to pay on time and which to pay late? When was the last time you had to choose between paying the electric bill or putting food on the table? Letting your kids go to school hungry or do their homework by the light of a street lamp? When is the last time you stayed home from work with a sick child at the risk of being docked or worse, fired? These are the kind of very real decisions these women and their families have to make all the time. And though it is unlikely any of them would ever use the words of Thackery, still nearly all of them can honestly say they have been “daunted by no difficulty.”
Sr. Patricia McLaughlin, the Executive Director of Caroline Center knows all this and more about the women of Caroline Center. And recently, after a particularly challenging week of training for the women, Sr. Patricia read them a poem by the African American, former poet laureate of Maryland, Lucille Clifton. It is certainly more historically and culturally appropriate for the women of Caroline Center than William Makepeace Thackery. But in many ways, the message is the same:
Won’t you celebrate with me
what I have shaped into
a kind of life? I had no model.
Born in Babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did I see to be except myself?
I made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my one hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Thackery’s question was, “Who is to say this is not greatness?” I for one, say it is. I think the women of Caroline Center are great. They certainly are courageous. And to me… they’re heroes.