MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
When a man starts out to build a world, he starts first with himself.
The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.
How do you figure out what it is that you’re really meant to do in this life? How do you find your point of entry? How do you begin?
A few people I’ve met seem to have been born to their calling, with gifts and dreams that stood out early on. Most of us don’t fall into that category. Most of us have no idea at the start what we’re meant to do or even what we’re capable of. Some of us don’t find our thing so much as it finds us. And sometimes it’s only because of some special person who introduces us to possibilities we might never have imagined for ourselves.
Like many others, I have an early educator to thank for helping me make that initial connection. Mrs. Frances Turner was my fifth-grade social studies teacher and my very first mentor.
I was a rowdy, unfocused ten-year-old when I arrived in her classroom, and I can’t say we hit it off right away.
Back then, I couldn’t think of a subject more dry and joyless than social studies, and I held Mrs. Turner in contempt for having voluntarily chosen it at some point as the subject she would teach. What kind of a person would choose social studies?
Mrs. Turner never smiled. She was all business and immune to my limited charms.
What bothered me most, Frances seemed to understand me in a way that was unsettling.
I WAS a HANDFUL.
I was a handful. That had been the case since kinder-garten back in New York, where I spent the first seven years of my life.
In my kindergarden classroom, we had what was known as the “Sad-Face Box.” It looked very much like the name suggests. It was a box drawn each day in the bottom left corner of the blackboard. At the top of the box, Ms. Lewis drew … well, a “sad face.”
Looked kinda like the emoji ?.
Names of the students who broke rules would go into the box. She kept a running tally of naughty kids and mine was, without fail, the very first name in that stupid box every single day. Half the time it would be so early in the day that she hadn’t even gotten around to drawing the thing yet when I’d give her a reason to reach for her chalk.
I’d purposely speed through an assignment so she’d be faced with the hassle of finding me something else to do, or I would crack a joke that only my section of the room could hear and get a bunch of toddlers riled up.
Ms. Lewis would draw that Sad Face and put a box around it in a fit of rage. She’d break the chalk pressing too hard as she spelled out my name. You could feel her wishing it had more letters or that she could add punctuation after it, she’d be so pissed off.
Children who were well behaved for the remainder of the day would find their names erased from the box as easily as they had been written.
In a particularly nice touch from Ms. Lewis, before the end of each day, she would find a way to erase all the names still left inside the Sad-Face Box. If, for a full minute, you could manage to sit with your hands folded, your back straight, and your mouth “zipped,” if you could find some discipline and self-control for the final minute of the day, you’d start the following day with a clean slate. A kindergarten teacher’s lesson in redemption was also baked into the Box.
Still, I didn’t have the tools yet to understand how to make myself behave like the other kids. I had no clue how to begin to put my energy to better use. It would take five more years and the help of a no-nonsense social studies teacher to help me figure that out.
* * *
As I got older, I realized that part of my problem was the fact that I was one of those kids who felt (to himself anyway) like an adult on the inside.
When I turned thirty, I thought: Yeah, this is the age I’ve felt like since I was eight. Maybe even younger.
As a kid, I had trouble with rules and unquestioned authority. My mouth got me into a fair amount of trouble. I wanted to know why I was being asked to do a particular thing before I was going to do it.
“Put your heads down!”
Hand raised and question posed in a polite but thinly veiled accusatory tone: “Why?”
“If you finish your quiz before the bell, use the extra time to check your work. And no talking.”
In a tone laced with suspicion and distrust: “Why?”
Today I understand that in classrooms filled with more than thirty other students, my teachers didn’t have the seconds or the engery to take my earnest but ill-timed questions to heart. Back then, I wanted my concerns to be on the record.
Mom and Dad were fairly strict. If I found myself in some sort of trouble at school, I knew my transgressions would always have to be defensible. There would have to be a gray area that I could highlight. There would have to be Their Side, and My Side. When I pleaded my case at home there needed to be nuance and perspective. Or my goose would be cooked.
My parents would always hear me out. They would never ever take a teacher’s word or anyone’s word completely over mine.
That was the law, never to be changed. Until one day in the fall of 1991 when Frances Turner summoned my father for a parent-teacher conference one morning before school.
Monday through Friday, Leslie Odom, Sr., was wound tight, tight, tight. He had the shortest fuse of anyone I knew. Dad worked in sales. He spent the bulk of our childhood years (my baby sister, Elizabeth, came along when I was six) climbing the ladder in corporate America, and while he rarely let the world know it, the pressure took a toll.
Mom was Dad’s partner in upward mobility. She worked in the field of recreation and rehabilitation therapy for as long as I can remember. Her pure goodness and capacity for empathy never ceased to amaze me.
Yevette Marie Nixon filled my world with light. Always slow to anger where I was concerned, she was my first teacher. She taught me to add and subtract, she read to me, and eventually she taught me to read to myself. My little sister takes after Mom, too. Sweet as can be.
With two educated, working parents, I understood their expectation of me extremely well very early on.
Dad’s position was straightforward: “The same way I go to work every day and your mother goes to work every day, that’s what we expect from you. School is your job. No excuses.”
If I was falling down on my job and it made it harder for him to do his job … it wasn’t just the anger and discipline to be meted out later that twisted my stomach in knots, it was also the fact that I was letting down the whole family unit.
But I simply couldn’t get it together in school. I was a prideful, mouthy kid (with a bit of a short fuse myself), who couldn’t resist the urge to make it known if an adult was being hypocritical or arbitrary. My mini-crusades were almost always about some injustice.
* * *
As I sat in the front seat of the car with my dad, driving to this meeting with Mrs. Turner, I had no way of gauging what he would think of her. Today I have a better sense of how formidable she must have been in person.
Frances Turner was brilliant, elegant, and economical in life and in her style as an educator. Frances was distinguished among her peers, and I always felt that she carried herself more like a tenured college professor than a fifth-grade social studies teacher. Well-read and well-traveled, Fran rocked a short, cropped Afro and one-of-a-kind frocks she picked up on outings to the Kenyan marketplace. There was a dignity and regality in everything she did. It came from a clear understanding of her place in the world and of her personal power within it. She was charged with shaping minds.
While it’s true that in the first couple of weeks in her classroom I never saw her laugh, I never saw her scream, either. She wouldn’t have wasted even a bead of sweat on a behavioral issue. Not at Masterman, one of Philadelphia’s prestigious and elite “magnet” schools, which required testing and interviews to attend. Her attitude implied that if you were fortunate enough to be here, you would respect the privilege.
Mrs. Turner ushered my father into a closed-door meeting in her classroom that morning. I waited in the hallway.
The meeting extended on and on. Dad was in there forever.
I could not see this ending well for me.
When he emerged from the classroom twenty minutes later, nothing in his face gave me any hint whatsoever as to what the lady had said to him. “Enjoy your day. See you at home,” he said. And then he was off.
The tense good-bye told me all I needed to know about what would eventually happen when I saw my father at home that night. I spent the day working on My Side.
IT WAS ONE of the LONGEST SCHOOL DAYS that I CAN REMEMBER.
It was one of the longest school days that I can remember.
That night, Dad came home from work, and there was still no mention of the meeting. Dinnertime came. I dragged myself to the table, where the conversation was muted.
When my father finally spoke, I was expecting his rage. Instead, he was measured.
“I have never ever taken somebody’s word without hearing your side first. I have never done that.”
I waited for what was coming.
“With Mrs. Turner, I will take her word. With Mrs. Turner, you don’t have a side.”
The law had changed. I was on notice.
“If you misbehave in her classroom or if you ever disrespect her again, you’re going to have a real problem with me.” That was his final word on the matter.
Dad had given Frances all the power.
I let it sink in.
Dad has always been tough on me—though my behavioral issues in school were tough on him. My folks were only a little older than children when they started a family and began having children themselves. I believe he really was doing his best. I believed it then, too.
At the end of the day, I trusted my dad. And if he trusted Mrs. Turner, it meant that I could, too.
* * *
Trust opened the door to one of the most formative and valuable relationships of my young life.
The tension and hostility faded away. Frances and I became congenial, even friendly, over the time after her meeting with my dad. I began to regard Mrs. Turner as someone in whom I could confide.
TRUST OPENED the DOOR TO ONE of the MOST FORMATIVE and VALUABLE RELATIONSHIPS of MY YOUNG LIFE.
Trust meant that when Mrs. Turner told me I should enter the citywide African-American Oratorical Competition because she felt I had a real shot at being a contender, I would take heed and get to work.
Having a platform to speak my mind was unheard of. Like most ten-year-olds, I’d been told that I was supposed to be seen and not heard. Now I was being encouraged to take a stand and speak truth to power in front of a room of adults.
Kids from all over Philadelphia wrote and delivered original speeches. The orations were judged on content and delivery. Prizes and trophies went to top scorers, but the greatest reward was seeing my potential in a new light.
It’s impossible for me to overstate the effect that oratory and the competition had on me as a young person.
With patience and diligence and grace, Mrs. Turner led me to the writer, and in many ways, the warrior within me. Every kid needs an outlet, a world in which they can discover and see themselves at their best.
That first year that I entered the competition, my best wasn’t quite good enough to win the grand prize. I came in second but vowed I would be back the following year to try again. I failed to come in first, but I loved the process so much, I used my near miss as motivational fuel.
When I hear people complain or bemoan coming close to a sought-after goal and missing by inches, I am quick to reassure them. Celebrate the fight and the proud run. Coming close can be confirmation you are on the right path. What can you do better the next time? What can you do to make yourself more prepared for the next time?
Mrs. Turner was just as motivated. We went back to the drawing board. We retooled and reentered the following year.
EVERY KID NEEDS an OUTLET, A WORLD in which THEY CAN DISCOVER and SEE THEMSELVES at THEIR BEST.
For the next four years—the rest of my time in middle school and even my first year of high school—my coach and I went undefeated in the Philadelphia competition. We had quite a run.
Our winnings included thousands of dollars in savings bonds (which went directly to my college tuition in my first year), two brand-new Apple desktop computers with printers (the very first computers my family owned), and a scholarship to begin studying drama (my first formal training of any kind) at Philadelphia’s Freedom Theatre, one of the oldest and most prestigious African-American repertory companies in the country.
Located on Broad and Master streets in North Philadelphia, the Freedom Theatre was a rose growing out of the concrete. Inside the walls of Freedom was an oasis of learning and empowerment.
Each student who entered the theater was greeted by Thom Page, the director of the training program. Page acted as threshold guardian, a job he took as seriously as a heart attack.
You had to know the password to get past Mr. Page. It sent the message right away that inside these walls, there was something worthy of protection.
“What’s the password?” Mr. Page would ask.
“I respect myself!” you would offer.
“You’re beautiful!” was always Thom’s reply.
To every single child who walked in. Every single day.
Maybe I would have found my way to Freedom Theatre and to my eventual path without the guidance of Frances Turner. But I can’t be sure.
Oratory was the gateway to the theater and Mrs. Turner helped me discover the password. She reframed notions that I was bound for trouble. She freed my voice and gave it back to me with style.
Mrs. Turner was a vessel for small miracles.
On the way UP, there’s plenty you can do on your own. There’s a great deal in these pages about how to make the best use of an hour of private time. The work you put in when no one is watching will matter far more than the work you do when the cameras are rolling. The private hours of hard work you dedicate in the dark will be their own testament when you’re finally standing in your light.
You can do a lot on your own. But no one can do it all alone.
Who is your Frances Turner?
Even if you aren’t exactly where you’d like to be, I’m willing to bet you have a host of people to thank for the best parts of your journey so far. There’s a mentor, there’s a teacher, there’s a friend who believed in you. Let’s make your rise to the top the way you say thank you to the person who helped you see your own magnificent potential.
You’ve more than likely encountered bullies and naysayers on the path as well. There will always be people around us who are invested in proving their skepticism right. Make this the moment you wrestle your life back from the hands of bullies and the tormentors of your past and the ones you’ll face tomorrow.
This is your time.
We owe it to our mentors and we owe it to ourselves.
Copyright © 2018 by Leslie Odom, Jr.