This summer, I was given the task of learning from different experiences and taking the lessons I’ve learned with me to college. I have read two books: Night by Elie Weisel and From Boss Crump to King Willie by Otis Sanford. Along with these books, I interviewed two community leaders. And, as you may have guessed, I have learned a great deal about my city, about people’s values, and about what success means to each individual. This idea of success is what motivated me to name this project The Success Project. Not only did I ask others what success meant to them, but I was also able to evaluate my own definition of success alongside watching people’s successful or unsuccessful endeavors.
I read the book Night by Elie Weisel, which is a book about the author’s hauntingly honest depiction of what it was like to live inside a concentration camp during WWII. After I completed the book, I headed into an interview with Rabbi Micah Greenstein. I asked him several questions pertaining to his Jewish identity, and what I gained from those questions was a better understanding of his worldview. He stated that being Jewish is like being a part of a family and, as someone of a Jewish upbringing, he sees the image of God in each individual. He believes the idea of “you are what you do” and that you forfeit your right to Godliness when you purposely aim to harm another human being. As a rabbi, he stated that instead of work setting one free, like the infamous words outside of Auschwitz conveyed, he believes education sets one free. From his point of view, everyone deserves the right to an education, and that Memphis’s education system needs to be improved. Alongside education, Rabbi Greenstein emphasized the importance of improving poverty rates. He placed extra emphasis on the Step Ahead Foundation and the positive mentorship occurring within the organization. Rabbi Greenstein had the overall opinion that with positive mentoring programs for women and men, educational success will go up which will, in turn, improve poverty and violence within the city.
Following these same ideas, I had my second interview with Professor Otis Sanford, the author of the book From Boss Crump to King Willie. He also emphasized the importance of a strong educational foundation. He viewed education as the bedrock and looked at Memphis’s issues as a cycle. If the city placed more emphasis on early childhood learning and preparing young people for the world, this would generate more jobs. Not only that, it would decrease the amount of violence and poverty. He stated that he is passionate about teaching for the very idea that students need to be well equipped to build a better future for themselves. He then proceeded to state that this book is relevant to someone like me, a young African American girl who grew up with two black mayors and a black president, because there were a lot of female role models within the book who made a difference throughout the political unrest occurring in Memphis. In his opinion, the similarities between then and now are still racism and intolerance. “Those will never go away,” he said, and I knew that. “It’s just not as overt nowadays.”
However, he said the difference between then and now is that my generation has so many opportunities to pursue interests and challenge authority. In terms of careers, he said that we now have opportunities that black people definitely didn’t have during the 50s and 60s. Overall it was a very informative interview that left me exiting his office with a broader perspective than when I walked in.
On the note of success, my last point was about success and understanding how different people’s experiences have shaped their definition of the word. When I was in Montgomery for the Fourth of July with my grandmother, I asked what success meant to her. She said, “It means a great deal because I was able to educate my children, see my grandchildren go off to school, and have a home to live in.” I proceeded to ask, “So you think family is what makes you successful?”
“Yes. A whole lot. Without family, I couldn’t make it.”
When I asked Rabbi Greenstein what success meant to him, he said something similar. “Success, to me, means clarifying what your greatest achievements are. Ironically, the word connotes material. The irony is that to me success is something you can’t buy. My greatest success, which I owe to my wife, is Julia, Cara, and Jake. The greatest thing I can do for the world is to lead another generation of children who will make things even better than the way they found them.”
And likewise, Mr. Sanford stated that success is not materialistic but instead about relationships: relationships with God, true friends who care about you not for what you have but for who you are, and family. Mr. Sanford also added to his definition that success for him “means that you gave it your all.”
So after completing this project and taking into account all of the life lessons, experiences, ideals, thoughts, and advice from those around me, I have finally completed my definition of success. Along with the academic aspect of this project, I also had the task to stay in contact with fellow peers and teachers. I went to the movies, ate lunch, went to concerts, and just overall had a great time making memories with my friends, who are also headed off to college. And with each of those fun experiences and with each of my interviews and meditations, my definition has been shaped by the common opinion that success is not materialistic. Success to me is found in relationships. Whether I am interviewing an author about a book about Memphis, interviewing a rabbi at Temple Israel, talking to a mentor about my fears and dreams for college at Panera, or speaking to my parents about how we can grow from hardships, I noticed that success was woven into all of that. Every person is made up of their favorite things from other people. We can only grow when we have taken the time to get to know others and whatever stories they hold. Success is in the way people love you for you. It’s in the way that people care for you when they don’t have to. As my grandmother stated so simply but so eloquently, “Without family (and friends for me), I couldn’t make it.” So success to me will always be rooted in the relationships I have with others.
This has been The Success Project.