My mother was one of nine children born in Jackson, MS in the mid-1950s. Curious and headstrong, she quickly became known as the “why” child. She lived through the US Civil Rights Era hearing speeches by Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio and reading about Medgar Evers and James Merideth . She was influenced by their fight to be recognized as human and delivered the rights promised to them in the Constitution. My mother grew up to become the first Black woman to work at the Mississippi capitol. She would also grow up to retire from teaching in the Mississippi Delta after 20 years.
When she passed away in 2011, she made my brother and me promise three things, one of which was that she be cremated and her ashes spread at her favorite place: the trails at Arkabutla Lake, MS. It took me seven years to work up the courage to do this. In April 2018 I traveled home to Jackson, MS to carry out this promise. But I found that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even bring myself to breach the topic with my brother. At the end of my visit, I drove back to Little Rock regretful and defeated, my mother’s ashes riding passenger-side. I felt like a failure. I told myself that I would come back next year and not leave until I did what I came to do.
In April 2019 I called my brother, told him I’d be home later in the month and that we would be spreading our mother’s ashes at Arkabutla Lake. He was excited and asked why I had waited so long. We drove together in the rain, found the trail, parked the car and gathered our mother’s ashes. As we walked along the trail, we took turns spreading her ashes, spoon by spoon. We shared stories about growing up and about mom. We laughed and talked about the future.
Ashes are not neat. Almost like sand, not quite dust; a fine powder that covers everything in a bone-white aura. By the end, our hands were covered in our mother’s ashes. Filled with awe and with the resolve of a promise kept, we took a moment to just look at our covered hands. From that day, I vowed that I whatever I did, whatever I created with these hands, would be something she would be proud of. It was a reminder that my mother works through me and all the things I do are in her name.
Things sometimes feel like failure in the middle, but failure only occurs when we give up. When we stop trying and refuse to get up. What I thought was a failure, was the kick I needed to complete a sacred promise.
I’ve been reflecting on this since it happened. Not only to relive the success and triumph, but also to craft it into something sharable. Sharing empowering stories is important, both for the storyteller and the listener. A release for the storyteller, an opportunity for listeners, empowering stories keep us engaged. They help us build resilience in ourselves and others. They inspire us to boldly self-reflect and confidently plan for the future. They help us remember our “why.”
Telling empowering stories help us identify and uproot problematic thinking and beliefs and help us re-frame narratives from stories of tragedy to stories of triumph. According to Elena Agular’s Onward, “when we experience a strong, distressing emotion [we] leap to… unhelpful patterns of interpretation,” such as black-and-white thinking (I’m a failure because I didn’t keep my promise). For a full list of these patterns, and how to break them, take a look at page 76 of Onward.
Empowering stories are necessary for our students too, especially now. Tell empowering stories to your students and challenge your students to do the same. Envision the way it may shape and change your classroom.
You all have empowering stories that are inspiring, that break stereotypes, that overcome self-doubt and the doubts of others, that break unhelpful patterns of interpretation. Share them and empower yourselves and your students!