This Land Is Your Land

I recently finished reading a book about one of my all-time favorite movies—High Noon.  In High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, author Glenn Frankel chronicles the creation of this film against the backdrop of one of the darkest periods in American history: political inquisitions by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) leading to the Hollywood blacklist and other infringements on civil liberty.

High-NoonAs the story unfolded, I grew increasingly troubled by the correlations to current events. The “threat” today, according to some, resides not in Communism but in the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in the United States. The situation is particularly heart-rending when we speak of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the so-called Dreamers, young people who have come to America with their parents. These young people do not remember any country but America, and they would be strangers in their so-called countries of origin.

As I read and learn more about the plight of the Dreamers, I find myself thinking about my mother and her family. Her parents and oldest sister came to the United States from Italy in the early 20th century. Although my mother, her three other sisters, and a brother were native-born and her parents and oldest sister became naturalized citizens, my mother’s family faced extreme hardships and unimaginable—to me—racism and intolerance.

Sadly, their story was not an unusual one.

As each successive wave  arrived in the United States, all immigrants faced hardships and prejudice. They lived in ethnic communities—partly because they felt comfortable living with people who spoke their language and partly because they were unwelcome elsewhere.

Yet these newcomers, once established, did not welcome those who followed.

Why did the Irish who arrived in the mid-19th century shut themselves off from the Germans and Scandinavians who came around the same time? Why did those people shun the Italians and other southern Europeans who came to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Why did the Italians not welcome people from Eastern Europe who were fleeing turmoil and repression in their native lands in the mid- to late 20th century?

Photo by Ludovic Bertron

Photo by Ludovic Bertron

Today’s immigrants—both documented and undocumented—face the same barriers. Despite the Statue of Liberty extending her welcome from Liberty Island in New York Harbor, Americans do not always welcome newcomers.

We hear a lot about building walls along our southern border. While it’s true that nearly 80% of Dreamers’ families come from Mexico, the Pew Research Center notes that Asians are the fastest-growing group of undocumented immigrants. Overall, about 20 percent of DACA recipients come from Asia, with the majority from South Korea.

Yet even those coming to the United States from south of the border are doing so out of dire need and not a desire to take advantage of our country’s generosity. Just like my mother’s family and countless immigrants and refugees before them, they are looking for a place where they can live peacefully and raise their families in safety.

The immigrants and refugees coming to the United States from places like El Salvador and Honduras are fleeing terrible dangers posed by gangs, drug traffickers, and human traffickers. Those fleeing to our shores from the Caribbean must leave their homelands to escape continuing hardships due to natural disasters.

When we look at the bounties of America and compare that to what people have in many other nations, we cannot deny that we have much to share. One of my favorite patriotic songs has always been Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Do we believe this? Or do we want to share America only with those who look like us and think like us?

The word united is part of who we are as Americans. Unity is difficult to find in these troubled times. But it is not impossible.

I am looking for signs of hope.

Mo’ne Davis: Three Years Later

Philly girls rock!

So often, people flash onto the world stage and disappear before we get to know them. One-and-dones. One-hit wonders.

Not Mo’ne Davis. She won’t let us forget her name.

As a 13-year-old member of the Philadelphia Taney Dragons, Mo’ne Davis became the second girl, and the first African-American girl, to appear in the Little League World Series. She is the first girl to pitch and win a game and pitch a shutout in Little League World Series history.

HarperCollins Publishers

HarperCollins Publishers

Mo’ne also amassed an impressive list of honors and achievements in the wake of her World Series performances:

Time magazine chose her as one of 2014’s 25 most influential teens.

— She won the 2014 ESPY award as Best Breakthrough Athlete.

Sports Illustrated named her the 2014 Sports Kid of the Year.

— She recounts the story in her memoir, Mo’ne Davis: Remember My Name, coauthored with Hilary Beard.

— A Spike Lee documentary, I Throw Like a Girl, tells her story with professional polish.

What Have You Done for Us Lately?

Now 15 years old, Mo’ne still plays sports. Four sports to be exact.

A student at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia, Mo’ne plays for the school’s varsity basketball, soccer, and softball teams as well as basketball for Philly Triple Threat on the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball circuit and baseball for the Anderson Monarchs Baseball Club.

Most recently, Mo’ne added another championship to her resume. Playing on the Philadelphia Phillies and representing the Mid-Atlantic region in the 2017 Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) World Series, Mo’ne and her teammates won the Junior Baseball Division Championship.

Although Mo’ne continues to excel in baseball, her first love is basketball, and her ultimate goal is to play in the WNBA. Several prominent colleges—include perennial champions UConn—have been watching her progress. Although she once expressed desire to play at UConn, in a recent interview with Anthony Castrovince of mlb.com, Mo’ne says, “I have a different playing style, an old-school playing style. I like to slow things down if the team’s on the run, get the ball moving a little bit.”

So, She’s a Talented Athlete. Big Deal.

Fine. Mo’ne is an athletic phenom. There’s more to life than athletics.

Absolutely. Mo’ne agrees with you.

“Hopefully, that’s not going to be the peak of my life,” Davis says of her Little League World Series experience in a recent interview with Owen McCue of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I have to keep going up and keep working hard and staying focused and just being myself.”

Photo by Lorie Shaull

Photo by Lorie Shaull

Despite all the accolades, she knows that her successes have come as part of a team, and she’s quick to give credit to her teammates and coaches. The 15-year-old honor-roll student also takes her responsibilities as a role model seriously. She points to hard work and dedication as keys to her success in life, not just in school and sports.

She also looks to the wider community. Mo’ne lent her name and support to M4D3 (Make A Difference Everyday), creating a collection of sneakers for children and women. Proceeds from the sale of Mo’ne-branded sneakers benefit Plan International USA’s Because I Am a Girl initiative, which seeks to aid girls living in poverty in developing countries.

At the 2014 Little League World Series, Mo’ne Davis captured our attention with her poise, charisma, and talent. Three years later, she is determined to prove that she is not a one-hit wonder.

Philly girls rock!

I’m Back

People never seem to know what to do in the quiet.

Embarrassed boy-666803_1920This line from my current work-in-progress strikes me as emblematic of my current writing problem: My blog voice has been silent for a very long time. In the quiet of those weeks, then months stretching between posts, I had no idea what to write. Embarrassed by my failure to remain faithful to my self-promise to post once a month, I started pretending I didn’t have a blog at all. That became a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I’m not blogging, of course I have no blog.

As I often do when I find myself wallowing in self-pity and self-doubt, I turned to Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird. She tells a story about her brother who had three months to write a report on birds, but waited until the day before the report was due to start. Understandably overwhelmed by the task ahead of him, he sat staring at the books and paper in front of him, close to tears of despair.

Their wise Bluejay 00423father—a writer himself—put his arms around Lamott’s brother and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

That story speaks to me because I am a writer who loves birds. So I am going to get back into this blog thing bird by bird, post by post, and month by month.

Books, Kids, and Cats—Purrfect Together

I seem to be ping-ponging between inspiring teen stories and inspiring animal stories. It’s only natural. I’m a writer of YA stories. And as a lifelong cat lover, I spend a lot of time thinking about cats, playing with cats, and catering to the every whim of the three cats that adopted me.

Cats are even dominating my writing time. My current work-in-progress is a young adult novel about a cat-hating runaway who finds herself living in a shelter for homeless cats. Dare I hope that the cats will win over Abi Rose?

But I digress.

For me, the perfect day is relaxing in a comfy chair with a cat on my lap and a book in my hands. So I was intrigued to learn about the many programs springing up around the country encouraging children to read to shelter cats.

A Reader Is Born

Photo by David Peterson http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/tip/6020/photographing-human-animal-bond/

Photo by David Peterson
http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/tip/6020/photographing-human-animal-bond/

The program that seems to have started it all is the Book Buddies Program run by the Animal Rescue League (ARL) of Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Go on. Check out the website. The first picture alone is worth the visit. I dare you not to exclaim “AWWWW!”

In 2013, then-ARL program coordinator Kristi Rodriguez was at her wits’ end trying to help her young son improve his reading skills. Like many reluctant or slow readers, he had particular difficulty reading aloud in front of his classmates.

Studies at Tufts University suggested, “Human-animal interaction can make the learning process more comfortable and enjoyable for children.” Studies also showed that animals could be a “non-evaluative presence that can provide support and comfort to participants without judging them.”

Rodriguez was ready to try any approach that might help her son. She took him to the shelter and suggested he read aloud to the homeless cats living there.

He enjoyed it so much, he begged to return. Eventually, his reading improved, and he began reading aloud at home to the family dogs.

A Win-Win Situation

Rodriguez noticed that the cats seemed to enjoy the attention as well.

Many strays that land in shelters have been abused or alone for so long they are frightened of human contact. But Rodriguez’s son wasn’t trying to play with them or pet them. He was simply reading. Soon, even the most skittish cats seemed to calm down when he came for his visits.

Rodriguez wondered if the cats would benefit from regular visits with other children reading to them. Thus, Book Buddies was born.

Today, homeschooled children, Brownie Troops, autistic children, and other students in grades 1 through 8 participate in the Book Buddies Program. They read to the cats and, yes, play with those that feel comfortable enough to do so.

Shelters in other states, including North Carolina, Georgia, and Illinois, have teamed with libraries to launch similar programs.

In Indiana, the Johnson County Animal Shelter teamed up with Webb Elementary School.

Jennifer Bartram, literacy specialist at Webb, worked with shelter director Michael Delp to launch a reading-to-animals program for her second to fourth graders.

“It gives the kids an opportunity to practice reading in front of an audience that’s not going to judge them and then they’re also learning the importance of volunteering and giving back to the community,” she says.

Delp says the reading program brings noticeable benefits to the shelter cats as well. “I’ve seen some animals that are really normally agitated and anxious settle down, lay down in their kennels, and listen to the kids and watch the kids as they read to them.”

I’m all for any program that introduces kids to the idea that reading can be fun and that also helps socialize shelter cats—and dogs—and make them more likely to find their forever homes.

Remember: If you want to add a cat or dog to your family, ADOPT. Please do not go to pet stores or breeders or puppy mills.

The cats and dogs in shelters need homes. They need you.

Don’t let them down.

Recommended Reading

Although Trouper by Meg Kearney and illustrated with paintings by the incomparable E.B. Lewis is not about a boy who reads to dogs, it is a heartwarming book based on a true rescue story. Animal lovers of all ages will enjoy this book.

Read it to your favorite child, cat, or dog.

 

revKidLit

From Homeless Shelter to College Dorm

I remember high school.

• The stress of keeping up in class.

• The jealousy, hurt feelings, and shifting loyalties of friends and frenemies.

• Parents telling me to work harder so I could win a scholarship to help pay for college.

• The teacher who crushed my soul when he declared my SAT scores a “disappointment” for someone as “gifted” as I was.

Despite all the perceived “tragedies” I faced, I had a home to return to at the end of the day—a tiny twin home on a tiny street in Philadelphia, but more than big enough for my parents and me.

Destyni Tyree deals with the same issues I dealt with when I was 16 years old. IMG_0351-e1439839834467

• She goes to school every day.

• She keeps up with her after-school job.

• She tries to stay busy with extra-curricular activities and find time for friends.

• She dreams of going to college.

But far from living in her own home, she is a resident of one of the most overcrowded homeless shelters in Washington, DC. I’m sure she would give anything to live in a single-family home or apartment, no matter how “tiny.”

That is not the hand Fate dealt her.

Overcoming the Slings and Arrows

A few years ago, Destyni’s mother lost her job, forcing the family to move into a homeless shelter. Life was hard. No privacy. No space. No hope.

Destyni was angry. So angry she fought with her mother, her teachers, and other students. She transferred from school to school, finding trouble everywhere she went until her mother enrolled her at Roosevelt STAY, an alternative high school in Washington, DC.

Switching to STAY switched a light bulb in her head. She decided she wanted to be a good role model for her younger sister. She realized if she wanted to avoid living in shelters forever she had to take charge of her life.

Girl, did she ever take charge.

Destyni not only attended regular classes at STAY High School, she enrolled in online classes, took weekend classes, and attended summer school. Suddenly, she was in a hurry. She finished high school in only two years.

“Quite frankly, I’m just ready to go and live life,” she says. “I know there’s a better life out there for me.”

A Well-Rounded Life Well Lived

graduation-cap-in-airBut Destyni doesn’t just have her head stuck in books—although her studiousness and hard work garnered her a 4.0 GPA and a full scholarship to Potomac State College of West Virginia University.

She also formed the first-ever cheerleading squad at STAY and became team captain. Her classmates selected her Prom Queen, and she works 25 hours a week at an ice cream parlor.

STAY Principal Eugenia Young calls her “a natural leader,” “a joy to be around,” and a person with “a good heart.”

Destyni didn’t let Fate have the final say in her life.

“We’re not a statistic and we’re not all the same,” she says of her family and other homeless families.

Her goal is to one day give back to the community that encouraged her by becoming a school principal.

I have no doubt that Destyni will reach her goal.

Rescue Dog to the Rescue

I’m taking a detour from stories about inspiring teens to write about an inspiring dog. My current work-in-progress has a no-kill shelter for cats as its setting, so this detour isn’t too far off my beaten path.

German shepherds make loyal family pets.

German shepherds make loyal family pets.

Anyone who has read my posts—or looked at the pictures on this site—knows I’m a cat person. In fact, I’m a bit frightened of most dogs.

But I’m sure I would love Haus, the two-year-old German shepherd adopted in March who repaid his new family in spades in May when he saved his young owner from a rattlesnake.

Fearless Haus

Donya and Adam DeLuca say that Haus is a “goofy, happy-go-lucky dog” that everyone loves. He is also very protective of their two children, barking at strangers and “sweeping the yard” whenever he goes out with Molly, 7, and Joey, 4.

Those protective instincts went into high gear when a rattlesnake slithered into the family backyard while Molly was playing. She didn’t see the snake, but Haus did. Molly’s grandmother, who was babysitting that day, later reported that Haus jumped in front of her granddaughter and then leapt backward several times.

They didn’t realize what happened right away, but Haus was limping and bleeding, so they took him to BluePearl Veterinary Hospital. The dog’s condition quickly worsened, and he was having difficulty breathing. Only when the vets shaved his leg did they see three bite marks.

Based on the size of the bites, vets believe that Haus was bitten by an eastern diamondback rattlesnake, one of the deadliest snakes in North America.

The venom affected Haus’s kidneys and red blood cells, prompting the doctors to administer a continuous drip of anti-venom medication when normally only two or three injections are given to counteract a snakebite.

Saving Haus

Haus spent more than a week in intensive care, receiving a blood transfusion, IV fluids, and pain medication in addition to the anti-venom serum.

The DeLucas never wavered in their determination to save Haus.

To help with the vet bills, they set up a GoFundMe account. Donations poured in from across the United States and from people as far away as Sweden, quickly surpassing their goal. They have since taken down the account.

The family plans to donate the funds that exceed their vet bills to Heidi’s Legacy Rescue, the shelter where they found Haus, as well as to other local animal rescues. They hope that Haus’s story encourages people to think first of adopting adult pets rather than puppies or kittens.

The “Heroic Dog Award”

A representative from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) visited the family and presented Haus with the “Heroic Dog Award” in recognition of his bravery. PETA also gave him a “doggie bag” containing a blanket, an eco-friendly squeaky toy, a Nylabone, and a bag of vegan dog treats.

Now home with his family, Haus continues his recovery and basks in all the well-deserved attention.

Before long, however, I’m sure Haus will be back at his post, sweeping the yard and protecting his grateful family.

Save a Life; Adopt a Shelter Animal

I’m a big proponent of adopting animals from shelters rather than purchasing them from breeders or stores. So many puppies and kittens are born, and so many older pets languish when their owners die. It’s heartbreaking to think of the unwanted animals on the streets and in shelters.

Pandora, the Muse Cat

Pandora, the Muse Cat

I’ve owned fifteen cats during my life, and eleven have come from animal rescue groups. We adopted the other four from family members or friends whose cats had given birth to kittens. (This is a good time to proclaim my other mantra: Spay or neuter your pets!)

Every one of those cats has enriched my life in some way.

• As a child, I learned to be responsible for my cats.

• As a teenager, I found confidantes when I couldn’t bear to tell my secrets to another human.

• As an adult, I even had one cat that made sure I wrote every day. As soon as I cleared away the breakfast dishes, Pandora went to the foot of the stairs until I followed her up to my office. Then she sat next to me and purred inspiration as I wrote.

I can’t imagine life without a cat sharing it with me.

No Excuses: Stick That Landing!

I find it easy to make excuses for myself.No excuses_8714066449_fe3b1db477

• I didn’t meet a deadline because I wanted to make sure my story was absolutely perfect.

• I didn’t visit a friend as I promised because I was tired.

• I didn’t clean up the kitchen because . . . well . . . I hate to clean.

Those are all sad, sad excuses.

Sixteen-year-old Kate Foster, on the other hand, had the perfect excuse for giving up gymnastics.

She didn’t take it.

Kate’s Motto: Modified, Not Broken

Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, Kate Foster was like many little girls. She enjoyed spending time with her family and friends. She went to school. But, as she told Good Morning, America, she never found anything she liked as much as gymnastics. Her mother said she eagerly went to extra practices. She dreamed of competing on a national level.

At age twelve, Kate was living her dream as a level 5 gymnast when tragedy struck.

Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, she needed a life-saving bone marrow transplant. Although her younger sister was a perfect match, Kate contracted an infection in her left leg that doctors could not control. The only way to eliminate the infection was to amputate the leg.

Kate’s first reaction was to tell the doctors she would not allow them to amputate the leg. She needed it for gymnastics. But doctors told her she had to make a difficult choice: Lose the leg and save her life. Save the leg and lose her life.

Ultimately, Kate chose life and the doctors amputated the leg. After the surgery, her father told her that she was “modified, not broken,” and she would need to find new ways to do all the things she loved.

Although she was fitted with a prosthetic leg, continuing her gymnastics training seemed out of reach, especially after she suffered a relapse. She underwent more rounds of chemotherapy, a second bone marrow transplant, and long stays at University of Wisconsin-Madison Children’s Hospital and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Kate Sticks Her Landing

Kate wrestled with the agony of having to give up her lifelong dream.

Shawn Johnson at the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Photo by Judy Shen
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

The most important thing a competitive gymnast must do is stick her landing. Leave the judges with that final image of power, grace, and control.

How could someone with one leg stick her landings?

Then, her coach told her something that changed Kate’s perspective. Her coach said, “I’ve never coached a one-legged gymnast before. I’m willing to try if you are.”

Kate was willing.

Kate returned to training. She had to relearn everything: all the moves, how to balance on the balance beam, how to tumble, and how to stick those all-important landings.

Now cancer-free, Kate is competing at the national level once again. She must meet the same standards as her competitors—all of whom have two healthy legs. She must complete the same tricks and compete on the same apparatus.

She does, indeed, stick her landings.

Kate’s experiences have given her a long view of life. She knows that her gymnastics career will someday end. But she already has a new goal in sight: she wants to be a doctor.

Who dares doubt she will achieve that goal?

What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced when working toward your goals? When you face doubts or setbacks, how do you overcome them?

Teens Give Animals a Second Chance

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged
by the way its animals are treated.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Our nation has a long way to go regarding treatment of animals. Whether it’s our pets, farm and zoo animals, or wildlife, some people look on animals more as possessions than as living creatures of value. In contrast, two teenagers from Colorado believe that “every animal, no matter the personality or species, deserves a second chance.”

Ariana Brooks and Tabitha Musich, both 16 years old, have been lifelong animal lovers. No animal is too insignificant to escape their care. From moving grasshoppers out of the road to rescuing abused farm animals to reuniting cats and dogs with their owners, the teens have been saving animals for as long as they can remember. Last year, Ariana and Tabitha opened Save a Soul Animal Rescue. Located on the five-acre and forty-acre homesteads known as Cottontail Acres and Western Skies Ranch in Calhan, Colorado, Save a Soul is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) animal rescue. Since its founding last year, Save a Soul has rescued twenty animals.

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”—Anatole France

Easter chicks are often abandoned after the holiday excitement wears off.The girls take the work seriously. They are not simply rescuing animals and leaving their future welfare to chance. With the help of volunteers and community fund-raisers, they provide love and attention to every animal that Save a Soul takes in, and they ensure that every animal is spayed or neutered and receives any necessary medical treatment and proper immunizations. They have developed a rigorous interview process to screen the people who want to adopt their animals to ensure that every animal goes to a safe, loving forever home.

Sometimes, despite their best efforts, a new home doesn’t work out. When this happens, Ariana and Tabitha take the animal back and look for a new home. All animals that cannot be placed in the community will make Cottontail Acres their forever home.

The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?”?Jeremy Bentham

Rescued SistersSome people consider the plight of humans and the plight of animals an either/or proposition. You either care about the welfare of humanity OR you care about the welfare of animals. You cannot do both.

In reality, a generous soul finds room for all living creatures and finds ways to treat all with kindness and compassion. Ariana and Tabitha exemplify what one or two people can accomplish if they care enough and work hard enough.

Animal rescues come and go. It’s a difficult calling. Tabitha and Ariana are determined to continue their work rescuing creatures that cannot save themselves.

On this Presidents’ Day, consider what this quote from Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, means to you: “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”

Their Brother’s—and Sister’s—Keeper

Imagine receiving a personal message from a revered world leader recognizing your commitment to resolving a global crisis.

A group of teens assisting immigrants along the Arizona-Mexico border don’t have to use their imaginations. In December 2014, Pope Francis (@Pontifex) sent them a letter after learning of their work advocating for more humane immigration legislation.

Known as the Kino Teens, the young people sent messages to the pope describing their mission and asking him to visit the border. In his response, Pope Francis praised them for showing “a church that extends to the world the culture of solidarity and care.” He exhorted them “not to tire in their labor . . . against discrimination and exclusion.”

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/ep_jhu/5046106632/ cc 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/ep_jhu/5046106632/ cc 2.0
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

The Kino Teens, who are students at Lourdes Catholic School in Nogales, Arizona, are part of a larger organization, the Kino Border Initiative (KBI). Founded in 2009 by a group of Catholic organizations in the United States and Mexico, KBI describes itself as dedicated to helping “make humane, just, workable migration between the U.S. and Mexico a reality.”

They not only study principles of social justice and learn about the plight of immigrants, they literally “walk the walk.” They spend time on the trails migrants use to cross from Mexico into the United States and work in the comedor, the KBI soup kitchen that serves deported migrants. In this way, they experience for themselves the difficulties migrant families face when they undertake the difficult and dangerous journey.

Kino Teens have spoken to teens at other schools about their experiences, hoping to rally others to their cause and raise awareness about the plight of immigrants. They also visit farmers and ranchers near the border to learn how illegal immigration affects them. They sell “credo” bracelets to raise money for the comedor and speak to state and national leaders about immigration.

Who among us is not descended from immigrants? Ordinary Americans and political leaders alike can talk about the legality of illegal immigration. But there are faces behind the headlines—the faces of people fleeing real danger and hardship in their homelands.

With their passion for and commitment to the plight of migrants, the Keno Teens are living examples of vibrant social justice in action. To learn more about the migrant experience, check out the books on the KBI website.

When the Going Gets Tough . . .

With the U.S. women’s national soccer team winning the 2015 World Cup championship and ballerina Misty Copeland rising to the rank of principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, it’s been a banner summer for pioneering women and girls.

"The Ballet Class" Edgar Degas

The Ballet Class
Edgar Degas

Achieving the rank of principal dancer is difficult for anyone. Misty Copeland faced additional obstacles as an African American. On top of that, as one of six children living in poverty with their single mother, she had no opportunity to attend the ballet let alone take classes.

Many others have written about the significance of Misty’s rise to the top of the ballet world. (Search for “Misty Copeland” and you will find additional articles and interviews.) For me, beyond the issue of race, a key part of the story is her faith in herself.

As an African American, Misty had few role models. Although she had a gifted and supportive mentor in Raven Wilkinson, she saw a world of white when she looked at the stage: white leotards and white tutus, white skin.

Despite that, she refused to allow others to dissuade her from becoming a classical ballerina. In an Under Armour commercial viewed by nearly 9 million people on YouTube, we see Misty dance as she reads from rejection letters giving a litany of reasons why she could not be a ballet dancer.

I don’t know that I could overcome such devastating rejection. She was the wrong body type and had the wrong feet? She was too short? Everything the ballet academies rejected about her were essential to who she was and what she looked like. They could not see her as a ballet dancer because so many of her component parts did not fit the classic ideal.

Misty finally had the opportunity to take ballet class when she turned 13. Although many considered her “too old to be considered,” she had caught a glimpse of a wondrous world, and her hard work and talent soon won her both critical acclaim and scholarships to continue her training. By the time she was 15—two short years after beginning her training—Misty was performing and winning recognition as an up-and-coming ballet star.

Misty Copeland as Swanhilda in "Coppelia" By Gilda N. Squire Gildasquire

Misty Copeland as Swanhilda in Coppelia
By Gilda N. Squire Gildasquire

She didn’t stop there.

She set her sights not only on becoming a professional ballet dancer, but also on dancing for one of the world’s premier ballet companies. Even after she achieved her dream of dancing with the American Ballet Theatre, she still wrestled with doubts about herself. Yet she continued to work, she never gave up, and she set new goals.

We all fall prey to self-doubt whether we’re the student waiting to hear if he’s been accepted to his dream college or the athlete hoping to make her varsity soccer team. It’s how we face those self-doubts that defines us.

So often the difference between those who achieve their dreams and those who fall short is not a lack of talent but a lack of faith. In a previous post I quoted philosopher William James who said, “People by and large become what they think of themselves.”

What dreams do you nurture for yourself? What obstacles have you faced? What do you think of yourself?