We hired you for your opinion and the minute you cease to give it you lose your value.
And that’s the moment you stop trusting your voice.
Song of the Day:
“Je T’aime,” Lara Fabian
To live well, I believe you must have a positive mentor and become a positive mentor. Miss Dittus, my seventh grade teacher, was one of those mentors to me.
Before my first trip away from my family and community, my first time flying in an airplane, my first time outside the United States, I timidly shared with my seventh grade class my curiosity about living short-term in another country, meeting other families and going to school there. I had no idea how to achieve my dream, or if it were even possible.
“Gael-Sylvia,” Miss Dittus said, “you can! It’s called being an exchange student. You can go when you’re in high school.” Mind you, I was twelve-years old and being in high school was as difficult to comprehend as hopping on a plane, yet it sounded right. The potential of learning, seeing, and experiencing life with people from around the world sounded amazing, but how could I do it? How could I afford it? Would my parents allow me to go? I asked all these questions out loud.
That’s the thing about a great mentor. Miss Dittus didn’t have all the answers, but she planted seeds of hope and a belief in great expectations. Her interest in my softly spoken dream ignited the spark of encouragement we can all use when setting out in new directions. Perhaps because of her sincerely spoken words of encouragement, along with a life of encouragement from my grandmother and father, for the first time, I truly felt my own life’s value and the possibilities my dreams and musings could open to me.
After class, I asked Miss Dittus where I should begin; she pointed me to the library. When I questioned how would I handle potential homesickness a world away, she inspired me with enthusiastic words to override my doubt and fear: “Gael-Sylvia, can you imagine all the new friends your age you’ll make? Can you imagine all the people who will be so happy to share with you?” Seeing what the Swiss do in their everyday life? The new music you’ll hear? Can you imagine the new tastes you will experience? Can you imagine?”
I could, with her help. Within that moment and many more to follow, I learned the necessity of sharing my voice. Speaking up, even if it’s a whisper. This was 1970, in Pomona, California—The civil rights marches transitioned into Vietnam War protests, hippies, Sly and the Family Stone, afros, dashikis. And even with all this upheaval and change, Jet magazine didn’t show people who looked like me traveling to and living in other parts of the world. I’d have to imagine it.
Miss Dittus had told our class many times that “It’s hard not to judge people solely by their appearance, but you must try.” My parents had taught us the same thing—whether it was skin color, style of dress, or mannerisms. Miss Dittus was Caucasian, of German descent, from South Dakota. Yet she filled us with tales of her world travels to bring the boring parts of geography and English lessons to life, to connect us with those places we read about. Her teaching style was strict and without laughter, in alignment with the tight bun she wore daily, her mouth and nose pinched as tightly as the compression stockings she wore to reduce discomfort from standing all day. All this made her appear unapproachable and closed off. It made her seem different. Yet the excitement, encouragement, and open mindedness I heard in her words that day contrasted sharply with her outward appearance.
Within that moment before the school bell dismissed us, I felt a warm, non-restrictive open heart which seemed to have been searching, waiting for one of her students to see beyond the textbook, see beyond all that held her within the boundaries of that classroom. In my own way, I wanted to let her know that I saw her too. I lingered after class and then I spoke in my small, still voice, and for the first time, I felt she heard and saw me loud and clear, much louder and clearer than I saw myself. She saw a new world waiting for me and lying within me. Had I not spoken up, that world of possibilities may have been deferred. Fortunately, it was because I shared my heart openly with her that she was able to speak words of belief into me.
Her eyes sparkled as she smiled. She looked different to me, and I would look at possibilities differently from that point forward. I was thankful to have openly shared a part of myself with her. This time, someone saw more potential than I knew existed. And from that moment, I also saw the difference inspirational dreams can have for others, including an entire community.
There are moments filled with the voices of people speaking hurtful and discouraging words because they have no imagination left and their own dreams have died within. Hurt people, hurt people. It’s hard to ignore them and sometimes it takes years before we can see what took root and began to produce its own kind of strange fruit. We may not know what others have imagined or do imagine, but we can encourage them with “Can you imagine . , . ?” We can encourage ourselves.
That was the seed Miss Dittus tucked deep into my heart and mind: Imagine. It would be many years later that I would associate a new name for imagining: visualizing. Miss Dittus assured me that just as others had found a way, I would too. From then on, I’m sure she and I saw each other differently as I reciprocated her enthusiasm each time she handed me a brochure or an article about foreign exchange students. In other words, my mentor was watering that seed she’d planted.
Eventually, she moved back to Germany and I became a summer exchange student in Switzerland. During that time, we connected for a few days of travel around Germany. Me sharing with her the surprises from my summer experiences of staying with a Swiss friend and his family at their summer chalet, hiking the Alps to pick blueberries, and buying cheese from a local dairy farmer to eat with our daily home-baked bread.
My knowledge of Black history deepened as I sat one bright and sunny afternoon on the patio of a busy German restaurant. Miss Dittus had suggested we meet there. It was one of her favorites because of the schnitzel, the delicious dish of meat, pounded thin, covered in flour, beaten eggs, and breadcrumbs, then sautéed. We recounted our versions of our history together that had brought us to that moment, my diligence as a pen pal, and why she had returned to her family’s homeland. We were adding to our story of friendship in a place filled with special memories for her.
The waiter took her order for Coke and Schnitzel, then the manager came to our table and a fierce exchange ensued between Miss Dittus, the waitress, and the manager. Although I didn’t understand German, I understood universal body language and tone. I knew their words had something to do with me. It turns out, they wouldn’t serve me. Miss Dittus was furious. The blind ignorance and hatred sparked by Hitler’s years in power had lingered into the next generation who lived alongside those who also felt shame and remorse. The manager and waitress insisted. Miss Dittus persisted. They pointed at me, and I looked at her, perplexed. They refused to serve a Black person, not even a happy, high school one.
Miss Dittus grabbed her purse and walked away briskly. With a peace in me that’s hard to explain, I followed. No schnitzel. No Coke. I took one last look back at all the staring faces and felt sad for them.
Later, what I remembered most were two things: First, how outraged Miss Dittus was and that a White lady would be more upset about their treatment of me than I was, me the Black focus of the upset that caused all eyes to turn in our direction. And second, the prayer that ran through my head, Lord, is this possibly a time I can learn to love through prayer? When I get to pray for someone who’s hurting so badly that they can hate with confidence?
Internally, I spoke words of confidence in my faith in Christ, asking love to heal and for love to prevail. This was my opportunity to look, learn, and understand what the textbooks, Dr. King’s speeches, my parents and ministers spoke of: the ugly side of anger and the danger of hate when allowed to fester, the power to love through prayer when no other words would make sense, prayer can do the impossible—peace. Then I prayed to God of all creation to show me how to love in ways greater than all that’s possible, so that hatred would never be planted within me.
Despite this experience filled with hatred and prejudice my memories of Germany are filled with the kindness of my mentor and sunny days walking together in a dream come true. Upon my departure, Miss Dittus presented me with a cherished Hummel figurine to make up for the bad experience of my not being served at a restaurant because I’m Black. More than forty years later, the figurine sits on my mother’s bookshelf. Embracing and believing in the power of possibilities to love bigger, wider, and intentionally, is how I learned to lead from a place of joy. When I hear German or see something about Hitler, I don’t recall that afternoon; I recall Miss Dittus, someone who encouraged me to believe that no dream is impossible and to hold tightly to mine.
I encourage you to avoid putting limitations on yourself or others. Be open. Be an explorer. Be a pioneer in your thoughts. Seek new paths. Create new tracks. Aspire to dream bigger with eyes and heart wide open to see what’s possible, even when you don’t yet see the clear path to getting there.