I have spent some time wondering about why I decided to run in a local election. My life is pretty full already, so what was I thinking? It comes down to this: I believe if you live long enough and have been blessed with a good life, you must give back. Volunteerism, money, energy and time; whatever you have in abundance, you owe something to the common good. I was not raised in a political family; my daddy believed you couldn’t fight City Hall. If you tried, you were courting disaster and frustration. In his philosophy, you were born into a certain station in life and you died there. My decision to run is not an indictment of his beliefs, that’s just who he was.
Thinking about this, I remember reading Thomas Hardy in high school Lit; the teacher noted this was Hardy’s theme as well. His fictional characters fought against their social circumstances, only to find tragedy as their reward. I enjoyed reading Hardy’s novels, and daddy and I never discussed them, but I guess this lesson stuck to me like bad glue. Sometimes, fighting City Hall seems the only way to change things. As a teenager, I returned a pair of shoes to Sears. My father was incredulous. Why would I take back something just because I didn’t like it? Furthermore, how did I convince the saleslady that this was a valid reason? He would never have considered doing such a thing, so he commented I might be one of his sister’s kids instead. “Helen would go to the back door if someone slammed the front door in her face.” I thought that was clever of Aunt Helen!
Daddy also told me this one afternoon when I got in from school expecting to see my bedroom all wall-papered and painted.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, Madelaine. But then again, you weren’t the supervisor on that job.”
I didn’t mean to be pushy. Patience is something I’ve mediated about quite a bit though. I am still impatient with how the world works, but inequality has bothered me from the time I thought my siblings got a bigger chunk of the candy bar than I did. Over the years, however, I have learned it bothers me more that some folks never get a candy bar at all.
My younger brother and I were discussing how we grew up recently. As he noted, all we were missing was money. We didn’t live dirt scrabble poor, going without food, clothing or shelter. We didn’t have abusive or neglectful parents. There was no rampant alcoholism, drug abuse or heinous addictions in our family to rob us of our innocence. Reading and observing have taught me that many folks wished they’d had a childhood as good as mine. Every night, the four of us went to bed knowing our parents loved each other and that daddy wasn’t leaving for his night job without making the Sign of the Cross at our bedroom door. My father was identified as disabled by age 41, after four hernia surgeries in one year took away his ability to continue working as an electrician. To supplement his meager pension, he took a security guard position at LSU Medical School in New Orleans. He walked six blocks nightly to catch the bus, no matter what the weather, unless he caught a ride with a visiting relative. Daddy went to his grave never learning to drive. Mama learned how in her fifties when he got too crippled from diabetes to walk long distances. We grew up depending on public transportation to get where we needed to go or learned how to beg others for a ride. Looking back, all that walking was undoubtedly healthy physical conditioning. As lagniappe, I got to meet some real interesting characters riding on NOPSI busses.
In later years, I learned from my daddy’s youngest sibling that he’d once offered us his old car. “Eddie, I don’t have the money to put oil, gas or insurance into that thing. Take it away before I get embarrassed in front of my family.” Daddy was proud; that I did inherit from him.
Taking the bus for four years of high school taught me lots of things, among them were empathy, patience, gratitude and how to tell the bad guys from the merely eccentric ones at a bus stop. Public transportation was, and still is, a necessity for many folks. A community does well to remember that.
Those four years of high school also taught me about diversity. When I was ten, my folks pulled me out of swimming lessons because the pools were integrated. Eavesdropping, an art I developed early and well, let me overhear words that didn’t make much sense. Clearly, two worlds existed outside my front door and they were not supposed to collide. One time, daddy came to a father-daughter lunch event at St. Joe High. We sat with my friends and it truly puzzled me later when he asked why I hadn’t made many white friends.
“I make friends with everybody,” was my answer.
My high school had about 200 girls, white, black, creole, Hispanic and giggly. All of us wanted to find love and get our diplomas. I studied with friends in the housing projects, mourned with those who lost loved ones and learned I had two left feet on the blacktopped school “gym” behind the church. “You ain’t got much soul,” I recall hearing more than once, as we practiced our routine for our annual Field Night dance.
“My mama used the rhythm method and I guessed she used it all up,” was my perennial alibi.
In his heart, I believe my daddy was secretly proud that I made friends easily. Some of those girls are still my friends all these decades later. It does sadden me to realize that both my parents were products of an era and culture fabricated by Jim Crow’s mendacity. My folks were good people, shirt-off-their-back kind of people. Sitting on their laps, I learned my first lessons about caring and fairness. Daddy’s last visitors were two black gentlemen who worked with him at the medical school. Richie and Charles probably brought home the same pitiful salary daddy did. They provided for their families the best they could and loved their children wholeheartedly too. No color difference there. They came because, in their words, my father was the one of the funniest and finest men they’d ever worked with. They laughed with him, recalling how they always knew it was daddy’s artwork when a mustache appeared mysteriously on bulletin board photos. They reminisced about the night one of the research monkeys got loose from a lab and about how some of the braver pranksters would hide in the body freezers to scare the night watchmen. There was genuine respect in that room when they shook his hands that last time. They shed tears as my daddy’s equals when he passed and daddy would’ve been the first to confirm that. From this, I learned life would always contain a lot of grey areas, mysteries for which I’d forever search for answers.
When I became a parent myself, I learned the depth and true meaning of unconditional love. Motherhood is an extraordinary teacher, instilling in us the importance of family, as well as why quality of life issues, such as healthcare, education, food security, safety and shelter, are critical. Any mother who’s awakened to a child’s cry at 2am, wiped a fevered brow and held a crying teenager who’d lost a friend knows the anxiety of every other mother with whom she shares a doctor’s waiting room. Whether you eat vegan, vegetarian or carnivorous, good parents also spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about what’s in the food, air and drinking water their progeny eat, breathe and drink. Rocking a teething, colicky child for hours is only the first step to obtaining your PhD in parenthood. Not sleeping until they come in from a date is also a required course. You grieve with anyone who’s ever lost a child to miscarriages, accidents or illnesses, hoping against all hope that you won’t have to join their ranks. Being a mother taught me the truth behind a friend’s saying: “Every mother bear protects her cubs to the death.” Don’t try to disprove this theory. We have fangs and we know how to use them.
I volunteered to be a PTA President when my daughters first entered school and learned about meeting organization, public speaking and humility. I once organized a fundraiser for playground equipment; not one person sold an ad. That left it up to me to do so to make the deadline; after all, it was my name on the signature line. Through that, I learned about delegating and persistence even as I gritted my teeth and plastered on a fake smile. Once the new swings, shoot-the-chutes and see-saws were in place, gleaming in the sunlight, I proudly patted myself on the back. That same afternoon, the mother of a special-needs child caught me in the parking lot to remind me that her child also deserved fun at recess. Driving home with tears in my eyes, I learned there was one more basic human right that I needed to recognize: Inclusion for all.
As an adult Literacy coordinator, the value of education, reading and encouragement were always evident. My parents never finished school, but our bathroom always had Reader’s Digests piled high in a basket. The living room had a shelf overloaded with their thumb-worn collection of poetry, history and fiction books. Sunday mornings meant daddy was home to read the comics to us. A neighbor once asked him why he read aloud to my infant sister. “She can’t understand what you’re reading, John.”
“How do I know which day she will? I’ll just keep doing it in case this is that day,” he answered, bouncing her proudly on his lap.
From their example, I learned books could take me anywhere I chose to travel, into the minds of great thinkers and evildoers alike, as well as help me find answers to questions I could not yet articulate. If I was out reading in the redbud tree in front of the house, I was safe from hearing the call for chores. And while they never dreamed of college for me or my three siblings, when daddy died in 1980, my older brother had already attended school on the GI Bill. When mama died fifteen years later, my sister and younger brother had obtained their college degrees. As for me, I was getting mine, course-by-course while raising my family. Neither lived to see me finally get my BA in Political Science and MS in Communication. The degrees themselves would probably not impress them all that much. Our determination to earn them certainly would. From this, I learned that every generation is expected to do a bit more than the one preceding it. Public policies relative to education? They matter.
For a few years, I worked in parish government – just long enough to learn more than I cared to learn about some politicians. There are many who will whip out a lie so fast, you get whiplash trying to keep up. Others will cheat the voters while waxing eloquently about character and integrity in their campaign speeches. Still others laughingly disparage their constituency behind their backs. Knowing this was the easy part; watching it happen in real time was eye-opening and repulsive. It was here I first worked with grants, learning how to find funds for infrastructure projects and to help disadvantaged communities. I also helped write press releases and speeches, learning that my ten-dollar vocabulary words were going to get red-lined. I still feel sorry for those wonderful words that end up being deleted, but I finally learned you had to write to engage and interest the audience, not impress them.
I attended governmental conferences where I saw the best and worst of human behavior that occurs when folks are out of eyesight of their spouses and partners. And gentlemen, no offense, but three of my favorite politicians turned out to be female, mayors of small towns. Sorrento, Port Allen and Eunice were blessed with resilient, female leaders who taught me that being in politics wasn’t about the lying, cheating and disparagement. It was about listening, building goodwill and caring. This isn’t about gender; there are many fine male officeholders. However, this did make me realize just how broad the shoulders of suffragettes and feminists were. In research methodology, I learned that a small sample is not valid, but I will always treasure what two Lynns and a Brenda taught me about how high one’s dreams can take our daughters, sisters and mothers. No one gets anywhere pulling up their own bootstraps. Someone, somewhere, at some time, had to make the boots.
In Graduate school, I worked as a stringer for The Advocate newspaper. I covered human interest stories, learning about what common people can accomplish when faced with challenging situations. Twice monthly, I drove to Franklin to cover the St. Mary Parish Council meetings. It was a great way to learn what happens on the other side of the political aisle. Fairness in reporting and the people’s right to know: those are two of our most cherished rights. It was then I began the habit of carrying a copy of the U.S. Constitution in my purse. Many of us have declined the invitation to spend the half-hour or so it would take to read its text, but they are fine words backed up by blood, sweat and tears. It was ordained in our name; its promises and provisions are like marriage vows. And that first amendment’s protection of free speech? It possesses the same duality of nature as all human beings possess. Words can be useful tools and expressing them is a sacred privilege. Words are also powerful weapons. They possess no meanings, in and of themselves; we the people put the meanings into them, based on our personal mental templates.
My grad assistantship was to travel with the ULL Speech and Debate Team. I remember the Communications Department Director calling me to see if I would accept. “I can’t recall, but it seems like you were over 25. You have to be to serve in this position.”
Although I didn’t admit it then, when he called, I was assuaging my insecurities with a glass of wine, wondering why a woman of fifty would even consider going for a Master’s degree. I drowned my nervousness and registered anyway. Hurricane Katrina hit right when classes were starting. Then her ugly stepsister Rita showed up. Relatives from both sides found shelter with us. One commented that I was very studious, spending so much time at the University’s library. Today, I must confess I spent as much time napping as I did studying. Did you know college libraries now contain coffee-shops? August and September 2005 taught me a great deal about giving and about how trying it can be to let other folks rattle the pots and pans in your kitchen. But everything I experienced in Grad School, including traveling with the kids on the team, reinforced what I knew about the power of words to inform, persuade and entertain. A year later, I sat in a wheelchair after breaking my hip in a freak fall. It was then I learned that there are times in life when givers must learn to take graciously. It was then I learned we are all one freak accident away from belonging to the community of the disabled. It was then I learned that sometimes we must look hard to find the positive in a bad situation. I had no choice but to finish writing my thesis while I sat on my broken butt. When the pupil is ready, the teacher will come.
My first job ever was at the local TG&Y, doing inventory the summer I turned 14. In high school, I worked at a movie theater and a bookstore, learning much about customer service, the angels of our better natures and the demons of our nastiest. When I retired from LSUE as the Foundation director at age 60, I knew I wasn’t done working just yet. Work gives meaning to our lives, and teaching, although I came to it late in my career, continues to be the most meaningful work I’ve ever found. The students I’ve been privileged to “teach,” have taught me invaluable lessons. However many years I have left, I hope to spend them teaching in some capacity. In retirement, I sadly learned that our state’s policies serve mostly to keep dedicated, qualified and passionate teachers out of the classrooms they loved throughout their careers. “The personal is political” is not just a rallying cry; it is a truth that highlights the relationship between politics and personal experiences.
So here I sit, typing about some of the life lessons I have learned, to confirm my commitment to run for local office. As I consider issues that unite us as families, neighbors and members of communities everywhere, I remain convinced the while things that divide us may slightly tip the scales, they will never outweigh what unites us. No matter which version of the Golden Rule one subscribes to, clearly, we must recognize we depend on others to survive. Local politics is literally where the rubber meets the road for every one of us when we back out our driveways onto asphalt, gravel or mud. The value of each individual matters when policies are being determined, whether in education, economics, health, safety or security. If the ditch is overgrown with weeds, who isn’t concerned that they may run into a car, dog or child? Utilities like clean water, sewage treatment, power and technology are the lifelines we pay for and expect to receive without a hitch. There isn’t some magician behind the curtain keeping these things going. It is our neighbors and the local people we trust when we pull the voting lever.
Not everyone is as addicted to politics as I am. Some don’t wake up in the morning and check their political newsfeeds before they brush their teeth; I get that. At no time in human history have people been satisfied with the way things were getting done by the folks that were doing them. Each era has had its challenges, but now is the era we live in. As a Communications major, I still believe civil political discourse is not only possible, but essential. Things will get done whether you voice your opinion or not. Bottom line is, I am running for a local office because I think I can be a voice for my community in my own way. Life lessons learned and career experience are part of the package. Willingness to give it a go and learn about the issues that most affect my district in Jeff Davis Parish are the rest of the package I offer.
I firmly believe in the cliché that life is a journey. If we don’t use what we’ve learned, give of ourselves and our abilities, at life’s end we may be asked to explain why. I’m good with words, but not that good.