I believe that everyone has a story. Many stories, actually, that when put together make up the arc of a person’s life. Out of the billions of people on the planet everyone’s story has two points in common – birth and death. It is what comes in between, however, that “makes life interesting” and separates the masses into unique individuals.
My own story has taken me from a rural, impoverished county in northeastern North Carolina to Hollywood, where I work on low budget movies and TV shows. Like everyone, my life has had its share of drama, comedy, tragedy, and triumph.
Extraordinary truths can be found in the lives of ordinary people. One of the first documentaries that I made in film school was about Lola. She was a chain-smoking, big-haired, Caucasian waitress who moved to Chicago at the age of 14 and shortly thereafter married a Puerto Rican man and had a daughter. The couple’s relationship was strained, money was tight, and they soon separated. Fifteen years later, my camera found her working at a greasy spoon in Logan Square. Lola said in her thick West Virginia accent, “I’m just raisin’ my daughter the best way I can.” Lola had a dignity that I still cannot describe. She wasn’t panicky or desperate about being a single mom living paycheck to paycheck. Instead, I found her strength quite courageous and inspiring.
An elderly African American woman named Mrs. Gatling lives down the road from our family farm. Her daughter and two young grandsons also stay with her in a cramped, wood-framed house. The family’s main source of income is Mrs. Gatling’s Social Security check. Whenever I see her in town or elsewhere around the community, she seems weary yet resigned. Once she said, “At my age, I never thought I would put another child on a school bus.”
Sometimes, my son and I go to see Mrs. Gatling and her family, bringing veggies from our garden, a pie, cookies, or toys and clothes for the boys. During these visits I have learned details from Mrs. Gatling’s life of hard work. As the child of a sharecropper, she spent countless hours in the fields, planting, cultivating, and harvesting tobacco, peanuts, and cotton. As a young woman and for her entire adult life, she worked as a domestic and nanny for a well off Caucasian family in a nearby town.
Mrs. Gatling’s story is powerful on many different levels. Is it filled with overindulgence, sex, glamour, or movie stars? No. Is it filled with strength, love, hard work, and sacrifice? Yes.
My son Marlon is almost four years old. When he starts school he will learn about the stories of many people – Rosa Parks, Thomas Jefferson, Nelson Mandela, and Anne Frank. He will also have to filter current events, people, and history through his own lens, focusing on what is important to him. I hope that fairness and caring are integral parts of his own story and leave jumping on Oprah’s couch to other folks.
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