Saturday, October 16, 2010

Condoleezza Rice and Me

I have long suspected that I had a little Condoleezza Rice in my make up. Oh yeah. She rocks. I rock…on occasion.

You can be sure I was feeling it when I saw her on the Today Show this week. Of course she was pitching her newly released memoir, Extraordinary, Ordinary People. I joined a local “Writing Life Stories” group this week. My memoir’s in its early stages.

Some people who know a lot more than I do are wishing she had told the story of her time in the Bush Whitehouse. I am touched that she instead chose to tell the story of her remarkable youth, growing up black and brilliant in Birmingham, Alabama.

When my book is on the editor’s desk, it will tell the story of my growing up skinny and stringy-haired in Tulsa; running like a heathen with my stringy-haired cousins, popping tar bubbles on the shimmering pavement in the searing Oklahoma heat.

Condi (that’s what she likes to be called) was a prodigy on the piano. My mom couldn’t afford lessons for me after she and my dad divorced. She was too proud, or too angry, to ask him for the money for me. So I learned to read the treble clef and pick out melodies on my own when I sang in the church choir. That’s why it’s such a thrill now for me to own a digital piano, to be playing with both hands, to have lessons lined up. I’m playing for my own amazement, uh, amusement. Condi might appreciate the effort.

My mom was a teacher, just like hers. I talked to her everyday until she died, just like Condi did with her mom. My mom encouraged me too, but somehow, I didn’t become the “sleek, heat-seeking success-driven missile” that Condi did, as described by the New York Times. I haven’t been described by the New York Times. Still, stepping delicately here, deliberately there, and luckily many times, I made it this far…that’s good isn’t it?

My family is white. We didn’t fear much in the 50’s and 60’s except the commies and the bomb. They were pretty far removed from urgency until the Cuban missile crisis, and even that passed. My cousins and the neighbor kids and I played hide and seek in the neighborhood until it was so dark on a moonless night you only needed to stand still to be hidden. Condi recalls sitting on her front porch in Birmingham with her dad and his gun, anticipating a visit from the Ku Klux Klan’s Night Riders. Okay, I’ll give her that one.

I think young adulthood is where she truly left me behind. I got married at 19 mostly because I wanted to get out of the house and didn’t know another way to do it. I moved to California with my first husband, a drinker and a Navy ensign, and gained the confidence to divorce him during the time I lived on my own in Long Beach, while he cruised the Gulf of Tonkin on the USS Wichita.  I started college six years later, graduated at age 27, and finally began teaching high school English in Tulsa Public Schools. I got my master’s degree with the express intent of getting a raise.

Condi seems to have had a larger vision.

At more-or-less the same time as I was teaching full time and working part time in the University of Tulsa library, Condi was getting her doctorate after hanging out with Stokely Carmichael, Josef Korbel (Madeleine Albright’s dad), Brent Scowcroft and George Shultz. I guess it makes sense that our paths diverged about then. She went on to the National Security Council and Secretary of State. I…? I became a high school principal --- a noble calling as well. We were both high profile fish, I was just swimming in a much, much, much smaller pond.

While we would have disagreed about many things, when asked about retirement from her power-packed position in the Bush administration, Condi answered much as I have on leaving the principalship: “It’s good to be out of the pressure cooker. I can observe from afar, like any citizen. I can say, ‘Isn’t that interesting?’”

She’s optimistic about the state of global affairs, as I am about public education. On both fronts growth is complex and comprises a long arc. We’re glad to be cheering from the sidelines, Condi & me.