The Courage to Speak
Animated, outspoken, and bold, my father never found himself at a loss for words. He was born
in 1910 to a family of poor farmers in rural Georgia, so by the time I was a teenager, he had eight
decades of life experience from which to draw upon when handing down his fatherly wisdom.
He often condensed this wisdom into three major pieces of advice. First, he told me to stay away
from (and outperform) all boys, every one of whom, he was sure, was "nothing more than a
damn sorry bum." Second, he told me never to wander far from the American South, a region
whose land and people he deeply loved and had been good to him. Third, my father told me to
always treat everyone with kindness, especially the people who were less than nice to me.
To date, my life has given me plenty of opportunities to test out this final, and most frequently
offered, piece of advice. One day in my middle school cafeteria, that most traumatic of places,
the taunts of a particularly cruel thirteen-year old boy sent me home in tears. My father was
outraged. He immediately threatened to use his metal walking cane to put the boy in his place, an
idea that for a moment, I wholeheartedly endorsed. After my tears had passed, however, my
father recommended his typical solution: "No matter how mean that boy is to you, never be mean
back. Don't stoop to his level. If you're always nice to him, someday he'll realize his mistake."
Apparently it was ok for my father to fight injustice with whatever means he felt necessary, but
he wanted his young daughter to use only kindness to defend herself against life's bullies. It
didn't seem fair. A week later at the school dance, that boy continued to torment me. In a wave of
anger, I walked up to him and slapped him hard across the face. I never told my dad.
Ten years later, I continue to flout my father's advice, though he is no longer alive to know it. I
live in a house with seven men, and India is nearly as far away from the American South as you
can get. And though I haven't hit anyone since that night in my middle school gymnasium, I still
struggle with the questions, "When should I fight back? And how can I do it gracefully and
In India, I've had to learn how to pick my battles. With some things, I've learned that it's wiser to