I cry easily. In fact, I cry at everything. I boo-hooed for a good ten minutes when Elliott said goodbye to E. T. in the movie "The Extraterrestrial." I was moved to tears when Buster Douglas upset Mike Tyson for the heavyweight championship of the world only hours after his mother had died of a heart attack, and I still get choked up every time I hear Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
What moves me most though is when I see men and women push themselves beyond what others believe is their breaking point. When I see people succeed against the odds. I am not just talking about great men and women doing great things. Of course, that makes me cry also. Like I said, I cry at everything. When ordinary and not so ordinary human beings do wondrous and magical things with their lives. When men and women push their brains and hearts to do the farthest reaches of which they are capable. Such incidents really move me, not only to tears, but many times to action. They motivate me to be the best that I can possible be.
Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about. Looking back on my life I would have to say that one of the most crucial developments for me was finding Elaine McCain. Few people in my life have motivated me more than Elaine. No one has made me cry as much. When we first met she was a poverty stricken black woman from Cedartown, Georgia. I was in my first year of teaching at Albany State College. I was teaching a class in Sports Psychology, and she was one of my students - a freshman.
Elaine always sat in the back of the room with her head down. At best she looked like a "rag-a-muffin." She wore the same wrinkled clothes every day of the week. Her shoes were torn at the sides and her socks were worn paper thin. Her jeans were torn, and her blouse always had an assortment of stains on it. It was her hair though that really stood out. I am not sure what the style was. It could have been plaits, dreadlocks, or even a weave. Hell, it could have been damn near anything. It looked horrible. In all candor, it looked like she combed it with a weed eater.
In class, Elaine was super attentive. Nothing got by her. Whenever I'd say something she would write it down. In fact, she'd write every thing I said down. I'd say it's hot in here, and she would write that down and I would think damn, I'm really communicating with this girl. Something beautiful is happening between us; it's going to be great. She's really learning something. And then I would look at her clothes and remind myself of what my father told me when I was a little boy. He'd say, "don't ever be ashamed of being poor. It's not what you wear, it's who you are. That's what matters." And I'd think Elaine may not have nice clothes, but she has brains.
When it came time for me to administer my first test I figured Elaine would "ace" it. After all, she had taken all of those notes. As soon as the class ended I went through the tests looking for Elaine's. Not once had this girl given me eye contact, but for some reason I felt like we were really communicating - really grooving together. I graded her test as soon as I found it. It looked like she did it in crayon. It was squibble, chicken scratch at best. I looked at it and thought, "Oh my God, brain damage."
The next day I found Elaine and took her to my office. In all honesty, I was going to tell her that she didn't belong in college - that she was just wasting her time and money. (I know - I'm a "pompous ass.") Well, I couldn't do it. (I'm also a "cake.") After talking to her for twenty minutes - or to be more accurate after talking to the top of her head for twenty minutes because she never would look at me - I realized that she was special in many ways. First of all, as I had guessed, she was dirt poor. She had nothing much beyond the clothes she was wearing - worse yet, she had no money for food let alone clothes. It was sad. She was functionally illiterate. I'm serious; she could barely read or write. How she got into college l'll never know. If I had to guess I'd say she could have recognized about twenty or thirty words. What she did have though was one very special gift. She had a dream. People who dream are people who go beyond themselves into the stars. Our history has dearly shown us that the dreams of today are the realities of tomorrow, but yet we've forgotten how to dream. Not Elaine, though - she could dream.
I remember asking her, What do you want in life?. and she said a beautiful thing. She said, 'I want to learn. .. I want to matter. " She wanted to go into the stars and beyond.
Well, it wasn't easy for her. She earned an F in my Sports Psychology class. Actually she earned a G or an H but I cheated and gave her an A so that she wouldn't flunk out of school. She took a number of other courses from me over the next two years. I cheated for her in some of those courses, too. I know what you're thinking, but I don't give a damn. People are more important than grades. I also tried to help her with her reading and the work for her other courses. Don't misunderstand me, I said I helped her with her work, I didn't do it for her, and I didn't teach her anything. She did it all honestly. People learn themselves. I'm convinced that anyone who wants to learn will learn. It just takes time and effort. Elaine put in the time and the effort. I never had a student who worked harder. She literary studied ten to twelve hours a day. She was extremely disciplined and strong willed. By the end of her sophomore year she was reading at the tenth grade high school level, and she was passing all of her course work on her own. There was another change. She was starting to look at people when they talked to her.
It was also at this time that Elaine invited me to Cedartown so that I could meet her family. When I agreed to go, she said something to me that almost broke my heart. She said, "Judd, please don't tell my family that I'm dumb. I'm the first member of my family to go to college, and they think I'm smart."
Her words took me by surprise. At first I said nothing. Then I told her, "You're not dumb, Elaine. In fact in many ways you are one of the most intelligent individuals I know. You are going to be a success in life. Believe me, you will matter." When she got up to leave I caught her eyes. She was smiling through a light sprinkle of tears.
My next big surprise came when I got to Elaine's home. It was the pits. It looked like a 1960 Butler building. The entire home was made of tin. The place couldn't have been more than a thousand square feet, yet it housed fourteen people. Inside there was no furniture - just beds. In fact there were beds every where you looked. There was even one in the kitchen. When we ate dinner that night, we sat on the edge of a bed and ate off of TV stands.
Elaine's family was wonderful. They were loving and caring people and so full of beautiful things to share - the entire evening was magical. An experience I will never forget.
When it was time for me to leave Elaine walked me to my car. Then she said one of those beautiful things. Elaine had a way of saying a lot of beautiful things very simply, she said, "You see how my family has sacrificed and suffered so that someday I will matter. You see why I have to count, why I have to stand for something, why I have to make a difference." I understood.
For the next two years Elaine drove herself unmercifully. Every time I saw her. She had her face in a book. There was no doubt that she had become functionally autonomous. She was learning for the sake of learning. I know this may be hard to believe, but she was becoming intellectually awesome. At the beginning of her senior year she took the National Teacher Examination (NTE) and scored in the top fifteenth percent in the nation. Three months later she scored even higher on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). When it was time for her to graduate she was by far one of the smartest kids on campus. I remember vividly when she walked across the stage at graduation. Her head was held high, her shoulders back and chest out. She exuded confidence and power, I thought to myself, "What a beautiful human being. What character, what endurance, what spirit. " I was envious.
Like I said Elaine was one of my most crucial developments. She gave me some major gifts. She taught me that nothing is impossible. That you can be anything you want provided you're willing to suffer a little bit, willing to work at it, because nothing comes naturally. But if you work it will work. Elaine showed me that it doesn't matter where you start in life, but where you end that counts. No matter what you are, or where you are in life you can change. You can become better - great even. Like Elaine you can go into the stars. What Elaine taught me most though was that dreams truly are the realities of tomorrow. That if you dream and work towards those dreams you can make the impossible possible.
Coincidentally, a few months ago I received a little note in the mail from Elaine. She said one of those beautiful things She said, "Thank you, Judd."
I boo-hooed for a good ten minutes.