(Below is an abridged version of a talk I gave at Johns Hopkins University on Women’s Day, March 8 to an audience of vibrant students gathered for a day-long Summit for Emerging Women Leaders, sponsored by the Women’s Initiative for Social Equity.)
I arrived at Johns Hopkins as a graduate student in the Writing Seminars straight from a small college in the Midwest with a combination of confidence and concern that Hopkins had made a mistake admitting me. I was sure the other students would be more widely read and experienced. I spent the whole spring and summer when I wasn’t working, reading. I was assigned the very first seminar paper focused on a controversial novel at the time The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. The controversy arose around whether a white novelist could or should take on the first person narrative voice of a slave. I’ll get to my answer later in this talk. I got an A on the paper and knew I was going to be all right.
Hopkins let me know I could meet the challenge. That was my first lesson.
When I arrived on campus, there were no women undergraduates. At the time my social conscience was focused more on civil rights than women’s rights so while the role of women in the larger society concerned me, I think I viewed the ratio at Hopkins as a social advantage. But here comes my next big lesson. When I had a disappointment on the romantic front and was feeling low, a voice in my head challenged:
“If you have time to mope about, you have time to reach out and help someone!” That voice was not echoing my parents; they would be kinder. It was my own voice taking me to task, and so I listened.
I went to the Hopkins Tutoring office and signed up to tutor in the community. I was assigned a family who lived in West Baltimore and later moved to the projects on Druid Hill Ave. One evening a week I drove over to their house and tutored the mother of five children, ages 4-12. She only had an eighth grade education and wanted to read better. I also helped the children with their homework. The 10-year old daughter and I shared the same birthday. I tell you that because I’m still in touch with this family, and recently when the mother and I were talking on the phone after that birthday had passed, she asked me: “Do you know how old I am?” And I answered, yes, you’re ten years older than me and your daughter is ten years younger, and none of us should be counting anymore.” We both laughed. Three of those children went on and graduated from college and the oldest son finished high school and is a grandfather himself now. One of the treasures of my time at Hopkins was getting to know this family and having them part of my life over the years though we don’t see each other as much lately.
My Hopkins education opened worlds to me of all kinds, showing me I would be okay in the larger intellectual world as well as in the inner city of Baltimore.
When I arrived at Hopkins, I thought I was entering a two-year program only to find out I would have a Master of Arts in nine months and had to get a job. No one hired aspiring novelists, but during college I’d been editor of the campus newspaper and each summer worked as a journalist so I applied to a leading international newspaper The Christian Science Monitor in Boston where I’d published a few articles. When the editor-in-chief met with me, he opened the interview, “I hear you were a thorn in the side of your college.” After I explained the issues I’d written about—the need to recruit minority students, the rights of workers on campus, removal of restrictions on women, protests abroad against the Vietnam War—he said, “You’re hired!”
But I was not hired to start tracking down important news stories but to be a copy kid. A copy kid in those days was the person who ran copy between departments—this is before the internet—and generally was at the beck and call of editors to do whatever they needed including getting them coffee and when work was slow filling the rubber cement jars because back then the pages of a news story were typed and then glued together in one long streamer and dropped in the copy editor’s box. But I’m a writer, I wanted to protest. I have a masters from Johns Hopkins University! The editor saw the disappointment on my face and added, if you show us what you can do, you’ll get promoted to reporter. So I took the job.
Here is the third important lesson which includes advice from my father:
Don’t worry where you start in a job, just get to the place you want to be with smart people around you, and you’ll learn and rise to your level of excellence.
I spent every minute when I wasn’t transporting copy or coffee working on my own stories…in the evenings, every weekend. After a month I handed in a four-part series on Cambridge housing, examining the causes, effects, and solutions to what I had identified as a problem. The New England news editor accepted the four long stories, put them on his pile of stories to read, and that was that. I don’t recall how long it took him to read them. They never ran in the newspaper. I now realize how unlikely it was the paper would give space to a four-part series on such a local issue. But after seven long weeks, I was promoted to reporter.
Looking back, I can see that the editors were evaluating how hard I would work, how honed my skills were and perhaps whether I had the humility to do what was needed in a newsroom. Actually I don’t know if they were evaluating humility, but that was another important lesson for me. The experience deepened my appreciation of everyone around me, including those who cleaned up the newsroom at night when I was still working, those who set the type, those who delivered supplies. I appreciated that not everyone had his dream job.
The journalist’s mantra is: who, what, when, where, why, and how. These are the questions all journalists try to answer in their stories. In one’s own life I think the most important of those questions is who. What you do, where you do it, and when may be influenced, sometimes even dictated, by the actions of others, but no one can dictate who you are. You are responsible for the values and qualities of character you bring to the world. These will open doors for you.
I’ll end my career journey here, addressing the early years where most of you are. I broadened my work as a writer, expanding from journalism into fiction. Over the years I’ve also had many opportunities to go into the world to work on issues of human rights, education and refugees.
A number of years ago I attended an international conference on human rights in Katmandu, Nepal. On the flight there, the airplane suddenly lost altitude and then dropped again. The clouds were so thick that it looked as if we were flying through cotton wool as the rain and wind hit and shook the airplane. Around us, though we couldn’t see them anymore, rose the ranges of the Himalayas. The captain ordered all passengers and flight attendants to take their seats immediately and fasten their seat belts. I found myself hoping that the captain, whom I had never met or even seen — but in whose hands I’d put myself — had been trained well and had taken his training and his subsequent flying very seriously. I hoped that he had studied hard, hadn’t cut corners, and didn’t perform at 80 percent of capacity when the highest performance was now required of him. I also hoped those on the ground who maintained this plane had taken their tasks — even the smallest — just as seriously. The plane diverted to Delhi, and we waited out the storm on the runway, then finally landed in Katmandu.
A similar, though less harrowing, journey occurred just a few weeks ago when I was driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in a fog so heavy that I could see only a few feet in front of me. I was surprised the bridge was open. All I could see was a foot or two of a double yellow line. I trusted that the architects and builders had constructed a sturdy bridge, but most of all I trusted that line, that it would keep me on the path, that whoever painted it—and that may not have been his or her dream job at the time—executed it accurately, and it would not veer off to the edge or into other lanes of traffic.
Over the years I’ve been outspoken and advocated for women’s voices in all the venues where I’ve worked. But today I also want to emphasize that each task in our lives is important even when we don’t find ourselves at the pinnacle of where we would like to be. That doesn’t mean we don’t continue to work hard, strive, advocate, even protest, but our journeys are formed by the dedication we bring to each activity, even if, at the time, we may not see how the activity links to a greater plan and purpose.
As a writer I’ve worked with an organization called PEN International on behalf of writers who have found themselves threatened or imprisoned, or who have disappeared or even been killed because of their ideas and their writing. The work has involved some heart-breaking stories, but it has also involved stories of real courage. Many of the individuals survived because they refused to yield to the harsh realities they found themselves in. Instead they dwelled in their imaginations, and they held to their inner dignity.
I’ve also had the privilege over the years of being engaged with education projects in some of the more problematic regions of the world, visiting school rooms where the learning materials are hung from the ceilings of the huts which have no doors so the cattle who wander in and out don’t trample them, school rooms under trees. The mothers and fathers of the children in these schools sacrifice so their children can learn and have a fuller future.
Recently I visited refugee centers and camps in the four countries—Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—bordering Syria where the refugee crisis is the largest in a generation. As many as three to four million people are expected to have fled Syria by year’s end because of the violence of the three-year old civil war. The flood of people into countries which have their own problems seems overwhelming.
What can one person do in any of these challenges? Individually, a limited amount—witness, tell the story—but collectively we are all citizens of the world, and that world is a function of how we behave and also how we think about it and act towards our fellow citizens.
–Are we up to the task? Hopkins taught me, yes, I am.
–Does the plight of the world depress—yes, it can, but I learned at Hopkins that if I have time to be depressed, then I also have time to get up and reach out.
–Is what we do important enough to make a difference? Maybe. It can be. But whatever path or avenue opens, we can act with vigor and integrity—whether flying the airplane or tightening the screw on the wheel, whether designing the bridge or painting the line on its road. Whatever the task, others will depend on how well we do it. The question is do we have the courage and also the humility to do it with a full heart? I think the answer is yes.
My answer on that seminar paper years ago was also yes. A novelist should/could take on a voice very different from his or her own. That is what artists do. But success depends upon how well and carefully one listens and observes and empathizes with those who are not oneself.
In my generation the rights of minorities and women and others expanded significantly, at least in the U.S. My final observation today is:
Society can change for the better and you can be part of that.