When you ask someone to choose a number between one and four, odds are they will pick three. It’s a numerical phenomenon, and fun to try with friends (who didn’t read the previous sentence). Maybe three is lucky, but no doubt about it, this trio is powerful.
Their power doesn’t come from perfection, but from determination. They reach for the stars and have been knocked down, but they get back up and reach a little higher. They are an inspiration to women of all ages to believe in yourself and defy the odds.
HAIR BY: VICTORIA BOONE & SAVANNAH BRUNO OF GROW – A SHANE ARCHER CONCEPT
When people first encounter me, it’s easy to have the impression that I have never known hardship or darkness. They hear the copious Disney references; they see the tears over stories written for children; they tilt their head to the side at the relentless optimism. Sometimes, they cluck their tongues about how, one day, I’ll understand that life isn’t a fairy tale. But I know that the latter group is wrong, because I have been studying stories since I climbed onto my grandmother’s lap when I was two-years-old and learned how to read my first book, Miss Spider’s Tea Party.
In the years following, I grew my imagination and my vocabulary with Anne Shirley; I learned how to make even a drafty attic feel like a palace with Sara Crewe; I longed for adventure and developed compassion with Belle; I absorbed the importance of my voice and dreamed of new worlds with Ariel; I traveled to those worlds with the Pevensies; I learned how to have courage, be kind, and go after my dreams with Cinderella; and I went to Hogwarts and found a home with Harry.
The older we get, the more often we’re told to relinquish the wide-eyed wonder and persistent positivity of childhood tales. It’s Cool™ now to hate the Disney Princesses. Think piece after think piece alleges that The Mouse hoodwinked us all into believing that our lives will be nothing but bliss and a handsome prince, only for us to grow up and find out that the emperor has no clothes. To which I say: Really? Did we watch the same movies? Because from where I’m standing, the most common thread in every narrative I’ve consumed, from The Little Mermaid to Star Wars to the Bible, is this: “In this world, you will have trouble.”
The characters of fairy tales and children’s stories don’t have hope because darkness has never touched them, but rather their hope is forged because of that darkness. Rapunzel remains kind under cruelty; Mulan is bold enough to do what seems impossible; Belle looks beyond appearances and defense mechanisms. Moreover, Rapunzel doesn’t stick around to be trod upon for the rest of her life, she breaks free to pursue her dreams; Mulan doesn’t accept misogyny, she calls it out; Belle doesn’t fall in love until the Beast proves he’s changed by letting her go. Do most of the Disney princesses end up married? Sure. But there aren’t surgeons in Corona and Arendelle—from an influence standpoint, the best place from which to make positive change in a fairy tale (no matter your gender) is the throne. And fairy tales taught me that we have all the tools to build our own crowns.
When I had to sell iced tea on the side of the road for food; when I couldn’t go to school for most of my elementary years; when my best friend and godmother died in car accidents within six months of each other; when I faced a depressive episode that lasted for years, those experiences didn’t expose the fiction of my beloved stories—they validated my role in the center of my own.
To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, we already know that dragons exist; fairy tales tell us that they can be beaten. In this world and in those imagined, we cannot stop the storms, but we can be ready when the tide rises and the wind blows. We can stand up for ourselves and others. We can pass the mic and make way for those whose voices have been silenced. We can stare down our demons and remind ourselves of who we were before the world said we were inadequate. And in the midst of it all, we can sharpen that most crucial weapon in all rebellions, whether internal or galaxy-wide: Hope.
My career as a national educator was influenced and strengthened by family members, past and present. When I started teaching kindergarten in 1956, I joined five relatives and my husband who were all professional employees. My grandmother, Bessie Payne, graduated from a normal school in the late 1800s and taught Latin to Negro students in Indiana until she married William Payne, a Pullman porter. The depth and breadth of my life and career expanded from my ability to seize opportunities at just the right time, to take risks without fear, and to complete difficult tasks without complaining.
When I attended the National College of Education—a small women’s college north of Northwestern University in Evanston, lllinois—not many students were people of color on either campus. I was fortunate to receive a scholarship that enabled me to obtain a good education and meet many luminaries. One spring evening, instead of joining my friends at the coffee house, I accepted an invitation from a small group of colored students to listen to a young pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Mars Lecture Series. His words were powerful and inspiring, but truly life-changing when he personally spoke to each of us afterward. He smiled warmly, held our hands, and asked if we were being treated well. He encouraged us to stay the course and return to our communities and do the work after graduation.
Three years later, I followed Dr. King’s direction and returned to Chicago to teach kindergarten in a depressed area of the city called Cabrini-Greene. Amazingly, our school had a closed-circuit television studio that distributed instructional materials—mostly written and produced by Caucasian men—to other inner city schools in the area. In 1965, the curriculum began to include Negro History and it just so happened I was asked to fill a last-minute vacancy as a producer because of my reputation as a proper and reserved teacher.
Throughout that summer, I found a voice deep inside my soul that allowed me to speak power to the truth that I was discovering. I became a warrior teacher-learner writing lessons about subjects that were systematically banned from textbooks. I started wearing Dashikis (colorful West African garments), grew a huge Afro, and constantly talked about civil rights with students and community members. I endured the pain of not having my so-called “controversial” Martin Luther King tapes presented, until he was assassinated three years later. I wrote other scripts about living legends such as John Hope Franklin, Lerone Bennett and Gwendolyn Brooks, who lived and worked in Chicago. Artists, musicians and writers flocked to our schools because of those tapes and I became known for my production of great tributes to Negro History. In spite of the pain and humiliation inflicted by some professional peers, as I experienced the dominant theme of King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail that “unearned suffering is redemptive,” and in many ways, the seeds of biblical grace, those tough times grew into wonderful opportunities. I learned to be patient, to accept things I could not change, to pray and seek wisdom, and to ask for help when needed.
During the ‘80s, I became the principal of Chicago’s Alexandre Dumas School and had the privilege to appear with Tom Selleck in the movie, See Dick and Jane Lie, Cheat And Steal, about the school’s transformation through the implementation of great academic, art and character education programs. The film caught the attention of an entrepreneur named Chris Whittle, who asked me to move to Knoxville and join The Edison Project as a Founding Partner. It was an exciting opportunity to frame other school reform initiatives and speak to audiences from coast to coast. As I approach my Octogenarian years, I believe that I can do anything because that voice, compassion and drive borne so long ago in Chicago’s community of Cabrini-Greene is still a part of me.
Since I was a little girl, I’ve loved competing in pageants—the glitz and glamour and the feeling of getting dressed up. I never imagined that my love for pageants would lead me to become a passionate speaker about emotional and mental abuse. I never expected to be on the receiving end of such abuse.
I had been an independent, strong, kind-hearted person—until my marriage failed. After that, my self-confidence was gone and I was vulnerable to the unknown. I quickly met a man younger and charming and seemingly perfect for me, but I was wrong. My fragile state made me completely miss the signs that he was mentally and emotionally abusive. The next several years were absolute hell as his drug-induced rage made my life full of pain and arguments. From being forced outside in very cold temperatures because he thought I looked at someone, to being verbally abused so loudly in public that people would yell, “GIRL, YOU DESERVE BETTER THAN THAT!”
If only my story stopped here, but I stayed with him. When he did something wrong, silence stretched out for days—until I apologized—then everything was fine again. For a little while. I got pregnant, while on birth control, and he marched me into an abortion clinic because he wasn’t ready to be a father. Thankfully, I ended up running out because I knew that his not being ready wasn’t a good reason to abort our baby. He claimed to support my decision and made promises to be there for us, but three days later, he ditched. I continued the pregnancy without any help from him, which turned out to be for the best. I couldn’t have endured any more abuse, especially while pregnant. God knew what He was doing, even when I did not.
After my daughter was born, he came back around with more empty promises that he had changed and wanted to give our relationship another chance. Well, he NEVER CHANGED—from lying and cheating on me to more alcohol-fueled fights, and using me to pay for everything. Finally, God intervened again. For once, I started focusing more on myself, my children and my career. So many women and men have reached out to me with their stories. Emotional and mental abuse is all too common in today’s society and the people committing these actions should be held liable. I believe it is my duty to help accomplish justice through my pageantry platform, and I will not stop advocating for those without a voice.
Staying with a resentful, jealous, angry, emotionally and mentally abusive partner leads to destruction of your health, happiness and values. You lose your sense of self and falsely identify with the bad things that happen to you, as though you’re damaged. Healing is only accomplished through an emphasis on growth, empowerment, and focusing on the future.