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Sister leaves behind a lifetime's worth of lessons

Posted: 2007-01-18

from the Press-Republican, Jan. 14, 2007.

This lovely tribute reminds us where kids learn the lessons that count.

My sister didn't mean to, but she was always teaching me. When I was a kid, I learned by watching her live her life, a girl marching to a "different drummer" long before we ever heard of Henry David Thoreau.

Later, we talked about books, movies, growing up, growing old, kids, everything. Over the years, I paid a lot of attention to what she said and what she did.

She taught me perspective, courage and dignity.

"Don't look at the outside of him with the inside of you," she corrected me after I explained someone's motivation. It's easy to look at people's actions and from them decide what is going on in their brains. "I know why he's acting that way because I know why I would act that way," we say. It's easy, it's logical and it's often wrong.

Her warning reminded me of Edwin Arlington Robinson's famous poem "Richard Cory." Everybody in the town envies Cory because they know, they're absolutely sure, they would be happy if they had what the very wealthy Richard Cory has. But they're wrong, because Cory, "One calm summer night, went home and put a bullet in his head."

She had courage, which allowed her to be different in high school. Her school offered no athletic opportunities for girls. So each day after school she got on a train and went to Queens, N.Y., to practice with young women who wanted to run. They called themselves the Queens Mercurettes, and they competed in the Armory near the George Washington Bridge, and in other parts of New York City like Downing Stadium on Randalls Island and Macombs Dam Park in the Bronx.

Around this time, school sports for girls didn't get much discussion (and no funding) because people saw no reason for them to play sports. They didn't reject the idea of athletic competition for girls any more than Trappist monks ponder the possibility of forming a hip-hop marching band and then decide against it. The idea just didn't come up.

Girls were supposed to study and sometimes cheer for boys during the games.

She didn't see it that way. But you know how risky it is to do the unusual in high school. The school wants you to follow the rules, and then the kids have their own very strict code. So much is about fitting in, doing what everyone else does and being popular. The social pecking order, the cliques and the cruel focus on appearance probably make high school more painful for girls than for boys.

But she ignored that culture. She didn't ask her friends to join her, or even agree with her. She just got on the Long Island Railroad, went to Queens and ran.

Her courage also took her across racial barriers. Before Congress passed the Civil Rights bill, she had her own view on racial equality.

But it wasn't a protest, a petition, or a demonstration. It was a date.

And when someone worried, "What will people say?" about this violation of the status quo, about a white woman dating a black man, she said, "The people who matter don't care about it, and the people who care don't matter."

Sometimes her courage brought her into conflict with her religion. When she thought her church was wrong, she stepped away from it. Asked to agree to something she did not believe, she would refuse. It wasn't a big deal, she didn't argue her point and she didn't ask anyone to join her. She lived her life as she thought she should and expected others to do the same.

Finally, in a lesson we did not want to learn, she taught us about dying with dignity. She fought the disease. She followed the protocols and the advice. She endured the loss of her hair, but kept her sense of humor. And though she eventually had to use a cane and then a walker, she never really lost her balance. "Oh, I got angry for a while. But that didn't do any good. Besides, it's been a wonderful ride." And then she said, "I'm ready to die."

And a few weeks later, she did. Lucid, and at peace, a daughter and a friend with her at the end.

Jerry McGovern, the Press-Republican's coordinator of Newspapers-in-Education, taught for many years in New York state's public schools. He writes about his various experiences in education, as well as about current educational issues. He can be reached at gmcgovern@pressrepublican.com or 565-4126. This column is the opinion of the writer and not necessarily of this newspaper.

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