The Reason To Pay It Backward

As anyone does, I take everything Matthew McConaughey says very, very seriously. So when his character on True Detective said “time is a flat circle” while trying to explain why time is a flat circle, I paid attention. Until that point, I considered time to be fairly linear. Except during a 60-minute workout. Do you know how long 60 minutes takes at the gym? About 4,00,000000,00,2 minutes. In that instance time is less like a flat circle  and more like a tremendously annoying parabola. But time being a flat circle? That was such a super-fancy way of describing that what goes around, comes around, that it got me thinking about the unpredictable ways that karma will serve up tasty goodies. Like reading a powerful book, then meeting the person that wrote it. (I’m not a namedropper so you’ll have to wait to find out I met Dr. Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine. IN PERSON.)

But first, a word about fangirling. Fangirling is hard work, y’all. It’s a nuanced art form requiring endless hours of practice to strike just the right note of obsessive incoherence. After all, when meeting someone you admire, why behave in a rational, mature way? It’s so much easier to give in to temptation and collapse into loud babbling. If you are the kind of person who can keep your cool when you are introduced to someone of whom you are a fan, I congratulate you and can you please tell how you do that? Because when I am introduced to someone I think is awesome, my feelings tend to fling me around like a rodeo bull, flailing me awkwardly all over my immediate vicinity. It makes the idea of meeting a familiar stranger a horrifying prospect. Like The Hulk, I must carefully avoid situations that might trigger my fangirl mutation. Except when I can’t avoid them, like when I got to meet Dr. Terrence Roberts. IN PERSON.

In 1957, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas was desegregated, forced by the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision to end the “separate but equal” education policy that divided life by race in the South. Attempts to integrate schools were routinely met with hostility and defiance. In Little Rock that manifested in targeting the nine African-American students who desegregated Central High School with daily death threats, harassment, and violence. This organized campaign meant to drive the Little Rock Nine out of Central resulted in the dispatch of the 101st Airborne to ensure the students could attend school.  Dr. Terrence Roberts writes about living that experience and the subsequent path his life took in his memoir Lessons From Little Rock. It’s a powerful book, in no small part because of the way Dr. Roberts recreates the unbelievable day-to-day atmosphere of danger and terror that he endured.

Dr. Roberts is retired as a college professor, owns a private management consulting firm, and speaks all over the country. I was fortunate enough to see him speak, IN PERSON, at a local school. Keeping the attention of a room full of restless students for the better part of an hour is no small feat, but you’d never know it by Dr. Roberts. He is a gentle, unassuming man with a compelling presence. I think he commands attention because he doesn’t deal in platitudes. He doesn’t have to. He spent the better part of a year willingly walking into a building where the majority of the people he saw wanted him to go away and die and would have considered themselves heroes for making sure he did just that, so the conviction behind his words isn’t power-of-positive-thinking-hug-it-out stuff. He lived a truly ugly powerlessness, and when he describes how he lived with that fear, persevered, and made decisions that eventually carried him up and out of that world, it’s hard not to listen.

At its essence, fangirling is about gratitude. When someone you don’t know impacts your life, they become a part of your everyday world. It’s a weird, one-sided intimacy that doesn’t translate well into three-dimensional interactions because there just isn’t a way to make gushing not moderately creepy. The gratitude is a silent message, sent into the ether. ‘Thank you. What you did was so hard. I don’t know how you did it. My world is better for it. Thank you.’ Then you meet your hero and it’s all “HI. I LIKE YOUR BOOK. I LIKE IT FINE. I’VE BEEN SENDING YOU THOUGHTS SORRY IF THEY GOT ALL OVER YOU.’   There aren’t words that are adequate to the task of expressing the depth of “What you did matters”, so I’ll pass a story on instead.



Autograph. Would also have accepted “Thank you for suppressing your crazy.”


About a week after the assembly, I was talking with a friend who was there and who also got to meet Dr. Roberts IN PERSON. We were basking in our shared fangirl glow. She’s a teacher, and she was telling me about one boy in particular in her class who has very little patience with himself. As she put it, “He’s a smart kid. He just gives up.” She’s been coaching him all year on how to work through his frustration with little success, watching as he fell further behind, which only served to increase his frustration and decrease his patience. The opportunity to break the cycle presented itself the day after we saw the speech. Her student brought her yet another blank worksheet, saying he didn’t want to do it and when could he go outside and play? Flashing back to the speech the day before, she channeled her best Terrence Roberts. Remembering her student loves soccer, she asked him if he would give up, stop running on the field, while going for a goal. When he said he wouldn’t, she pointed at the worksheet. “Then why are you giving up on that? It might scare you. But you don’t give up.” And in the way that words make magic, that lit a fire, and suddenly she has a student who won’t give up, no matter how much crossword puzzles aren’t soccer. A man given the opportunity to stay in school made a difference for someone with a different struggle. It’s a full circle.

I’m glad I exercised enough self-restraint not to scare Dr. Roberts in public. Since maturity is a goal of mine, I’m chalking that as a win. I was able to control myself mostly because my inner voice was threatening me in my head (shutUP!shutUP!shutUP!) It’s not the kindest of mantras but it prevents me being removed from the premises most of the time.

True story: my inner voice sounds exactly like Matthew McConaughey.


Action Items
Check out Atlanta’s Center For Civil And Human Rights .



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