“If a task is once begun,
never leave it till it’s done.
Be the labor great or small,
do it well or not at all.”
Yup, that’s it. The most influential thing I’ve ever read in my life was in my grammar school reader (dated 1973) — signomi, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Arianna Huffington, who I also love but had much less impact on me than this little poem that Papou copied and fixed to every notebook and binder as he tutored me past the most challenging year of my life.
It wasn’t an assigned reading or anything I had to get through, but Papou was on a mission. He was going to teach me English and undo the damage done by untrained staff yelling loudly and slowly in English to my ESL group. I wasn’t technically “ESL” at all, just poli-lingual since the time I started to speak… and demoralized by those mocking my funny pronunciation of American words. Labeled as “different” very early on by teachers and peers — not in the complimentary sense, and always with a sneer, I listened to people asked questions without really wanting an answer. Being only five or six, I found the response confusing, but I could tell by the sneer that accompanied their words that these were not friends. Many asked where I was from and would nudge the person next to them as I tried to answer until one day I decided not to answer… not to speak… and I was placed in a small group of “outliers” every day, reading as I always had, but now reluctant to do the work. What was the point of working to present good work to an instructor who would never see it as good? I was exiled to that little room for the year regardless of how well I performed….
One brisk Friday afternoon when Papou came to pick me up from school, my teacher pulled him aside and said that I was most likely to repeat the second grade. He stood up straight as a rod and looked at her, his face calm. “What must she do to pass?”
The teacher gave her explanation. “And so you see, she will never REALLY be able to read and speak at the same level as the other children her age.”
Papou gave my shoulders a tight squeeze — in tough times, I can still feel that hug and the confidence he had when he addressed my teacher that day. His bushy eyebrows arched in quiet determination and he pronounced every word of his response in his best Oxford English. “She will NOT repeat the grade. May I go in to collect all her books?”
“Certainly, Sir. When would you like to come in.”
“Now, Miss. Right now.”
Though the school was so strict about such things at the time, the principal allowed it. (Years later, as I was graduating, She and my fifth-grade homeroom teacher gave me the best pep talks ever. They were the only people in that place who truly believed in my potential.) That Friday evening my dear Papou sent me off to bed pored over my reader and all my other books from cover to cover.
The next morning, I awoke, freshened up and tossed on my thick fuzzy robe and slippers to go join Papou outside and watch the sun rise, as was our usual habit. He smiled when I came up and planted a kiss on his rugged, prickly cheek and gestured for me to sit by him in the warmth of the sunny terrace. “I want you to read something to me today.”
I smiled up at him. I loved him so dearly that I’d likely do anything he asked of me. “Yes, what is it?”
He reached for the reader, flipped to a bookmarked section and pointed to read it out loud.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I did as he asked, in the clear loud voice of a child who feels confident and at peace with her surroundings. Papou beamed at me, letting that feeling sink in.
We sat there silently for a few moments. “Do you know what it means?”
I nodded. “Finish what you start.”
He nodded. “Yes, but more than that. You must do it WELL. I know you can do anything you focus upon. It’s how we are in this family. This is inside your heart.”
I rested my head on his arm. “It is?”
“YES!!!! OF COURSE!!!! Are you not the daughter of…” he outlined my family tree, starting from my very intelligent, determined and accomplished mother to every known relative in our line dating back to Charlemagne on one side and Alexander the Great on the other. “This is your legacy. It is our family’s legacy.”
I had closed my eyes a moment, listening to him speak, letting the horrid little school week disappear as he spoke. I could see the faces of some of the people he was describing. My people. My legacy. Would it stop here, with me? It was quite a question for a little kid to contemplate on a Saturday morning….
Papou put out his hand for me. I looked at the giant palm, the long fingers, always loving and capable of moving everything forward, then I looked up at him, his warm brown eyes beaming at me, his smile lending me a more strength and warmth than the sun itself. I leaped up and hugged him. “Okay, Papou. I understand.” I hugged him a second longer, wondering, for a moment, where to start this vast quest.
As if sensing my concern, he chuckled, patting me on the back. Setting me back down, he cleared his throat and gave me a very stern look. “We will recite this poem every day with our prayers. You will do all your work with me from now on and we will conquer this. Together.”
I stood up very straight, wide eyed, expectant, and nodded in the determined way of a child. I can’t imagine what I must have looked like, but Grandpa had trouble keeping the serious look on his face. Grinning, he took my hand and walked back inside with me so we could enjoy breakfast with the family.
Ever since that day I was always fairly close to the top of my class, always on the honor rolls and awards/scholarship lists, always in some rigorous new Advance Placement program…. It was, as Papou had put it, my legacy.
Now every hero has his/her flaws, and the “legacy” certainly has not been an easy thing to maintain, but I still recite this poem daily and share it with those in my care as we discuss how I can help them to achieve their goals. It’s the reason I face things head on and never just sit back in despair. It’s the reason I believe in mentoring and in the initiatives of our program, despite minor set backs. The initiative moves ahead, siga siga, and stronger than before, with every person helped and every assistance offered.
This post is dedicated to my wonderful Papou, who was one of a kind, and to our many dedicated Young Professionals, who inspire countless others daily by example.