I just learned that I have been offered a research assistant fellowship in the Alfred I. duPont Center for Broadcast and Digital Journalism! Here, one might expect a writer (particularly bloggers, whose sole platform is “look at me, read what I write!”) to gloat or to expect or solicit praise. That’s not what I’m about. It’s here that I turn back to my summers spent with my grandfather. I remember vividly what he has told me many times. “You’ve got to have humility,” he says.
Humility is a funny thing. It’s an interesting mixture of self-pride and appreciation for those who have helped you accomplish. I know I have accomplished a lot, and know that I’m proud of myself. But, I also know that there have been a lot of profound influences on my life. I have been paid for, as Maya Angelou says. “Never be modest,” she told me backstage. “Be humble. Know that you’ve been paid for. Modesty is telling people ‘oh, I didn’t do that.’ Take credit for what you have done, but know that you didn’t do it alone.”
Our president recently said, controversially, “if you are successful, somebody along the line, gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.” Without getting into politics, I have to agree wholeheartedly with this one sentence of that speech. (I’ll make no comments about the others or the recent controversy surrounding them.) I have had several teachers who I can point out and say have drastically changed who I am, who I strive to be and what I aim to do. I have been paid for.
I have been paid for. That’s such an extraordinary thing to understand and internalize. While I have been paid for, that doesn’t mean I stop being and doing. I am paying for the next in line. I am paying for the next generation. Their future rests on my shoulders, and I fully intend to pass this world on to them much better than it was when it was passed on to me. It’s up to me to take full advantage of every opportunity placed in front of me. I was able to go to journalist conferences last year. I spent a weekend at an NABJ Multimedia Short Course, with influential black journalists from around the country coming to teach the up-and-coming journalists at Florida A&M University.I was taught, for that weekend, by CNN employees, a television anchor in Tampa and another reporter from Sacramento. During undergrad I learned from Ben Davis, a man who has done so much brilliant journalism it’s hard to mention his name without mentioning his stellar list of work. I have had so many teachers who have molded me. Some did nothing, showing me what not to do with others, but some did so much it’s nearly unbelievable. I have a family who believes in me, pushes me and constantly makes me better. I have parents who never slighted my dreams, who only pushed me closer toward it. As Beyoncé sang this year at the United Nations, “let the hearts that I’ve touched be the proof that I leave that I made a difference, and this world will see I was here. I lived, I loved. I was here. I did, I’ve done everything that I wanted, and it was more than I thought it would be. I will leave my mark so everyone will know I was here.”
That’s the goal of everything I do. I only want to make one difference for one person. If I can do that, I’ll have accomplished my goals. Mother Teresa says, “if you can’t feed one hundred people then just feed one.” If I can make a difference for more than one person, that’s amazing. But I live my life hoping to make a difference—a real difference, not a banal, never-talked-to-you, disconnected difference—for just one person. Each person is one difference at a time. That is how I am paying for the next generation. If I can make a difference for one person, maybe—just maybe—they’ll be empowered to make a difference for someone else. Then someone else. Then again. And again. Then, suddenly, differences—even the little ones—are everywhere.
Here’s the caveat to paying for the next generation though: once you’ve made one difference, make another one. Keep making differences in the lives of others. I know I’ve made differences for others. That doesn’t stop me; it can’t stop me. It only inspires me. That’s why I do what I do. Journalism is a constant inspiration. Everyone has a story. Everyone has troubles, and sometimes people only need to know others have been in similar situations to know they’ll make it through. There is tremendous power in words. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I’ll never believe that phrase. I think the best way I’ve heard words summed up is by Ms. Angelou through her Master Class on Oprah Winfrey’s network. “Words are things, I’m convinced,” she says. “You must be careful about the words you use or allow to be used in your house. In the old testament we are told in Genesis, that in the beginning there was the word. And the word was God, and the word was with God. That’s in Genesis. Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names—using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Someday we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls; they get in your wallpapers. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, in your clothes, and finally into you.”
I have learned so much in the past month at this university. Growing up in a public school system, with all its pitfalls, faults and the increasingly rare silver lining, coming to a private institution is a welcome, albeit interesting, change. There are no more “grades.” I’m not getting As or Bs on my assignments; I’m not getting graded in the traditional sense. I am getting graded, but in a system much more beneficial for journalistic students: critique. My instructors come from making news. For a class of 18 students, there are three instructors—two professors and one adjunct. All of them are equally well-respected in their own accomplishments. Betsy West worked as the vice president for CBS News for seven years. Edward Schumacher-Matos works as the ombudsman for NPR. My adjunct, Merrill Perlman, worked at the New York Times for 25 years.
They know they’ve accomplished. But that boils back down to humility. They know what they’ve done. That’s the most important thing: for you to know what you’ve done. What have YOU done today to make YOU feel proud? Whether someone else is proud of you makes no difference. The true emotion is when you feel proud of yourself and your own accomplishments. The only thing you have to give others is your word. Use it wisely.