Saturday, June 13, 2015

A Tribute

I wrote this piece in 2011 about a wonderful teacher who taught me about the civil rights movement as a college student. After two plus decades, I saw him frequently during the last year when I came back to John Carroll University as a teacher. He was older and grayer but still inspiring. 

I'm reposting it even though it's not Black History Month because Rev. Valentino Lassiter died last night. I'm so very sad and so very glad his life touched mine and the lives of so many others. He is irreplaceable but lives on in many of us as do all great teachers. Godspeed, Rev. Lassiter.

Fuel Someone Different

February, 12, 2011

During my senior year in college, I took a course on the history of the civil rights movement, taught by one of the few African American professors on campus. Like many in his generation, he participated in the movement. He volunteered, organized and marched with the greats, felt the triumphs and the heartbreaks, and was still plugging away in the early 1990s at shaping the future through his teaching. I had reached that point in my education without learning much about the movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., so

I devoured everything he had to offer. I was enthralled by every lecture, every speech, every letter and every book. I simply loved every bit of it. At the end of the semester, I finished my exam early and began to walk out of the class. The professor followed me and asked if I have a minute to talk. Standing just outside the classroom, he said, "Don't stop now," referring to my upcoming graduation. 

While I don't remember exactly what followed, the essence of his words was something like this: Use your brain and your heart. Learn more and do more. There are scholarships out there. Go on and get graduate degrees and share what you know. There's no limit to what you can do. I was floored. I had no idea he thought highly of my ability. I was flattered and grateful that he intentionally reached out to me to encourage me and let me know he had high hopes and expectations for my future. I was particularly touched because very few people had taken the time to say such things to me—not in this country.

Ten years earlier, I was the awkward kid who couldn't make it through the school day without consulting my thick Arabic-English dictionary. I knew precious little about American history or culture. I was an immigrant who looked, dressed, spoke and acted a bit strangely for the all-American kids in my suburban school, which made friendships, compliments and plain old conversation difficult to come by.

Most likely, this professor does not remember me or what he said to me. But to this day, I still remember and I marvel at how such kind words can give a young person so much fuel to go out into the world and make a difference. When was the last time you encouraged, praised or set high expectations for a young person? Start with the people you see every day--the intern at the office, a young associate, a fast food worker, your child’s classmate, and so on.

One last thing...In honor of Black History Month and in this time of strong anti-immigrant rhetoric, make a point of reaching out to someone who's different--in skin color, ethnicity, language, religion, or whatever. You may just fuel something or someone awesome.


  1. I was moved and inspired by your tribute to Rev. Lassiter. It is important to remember the words engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." and that this nation was founded by immigrants who traveled a great distance in squalid conditions for the chance at a better life. Embracing diversity it what makes us a strong, inventive and resourceful nation. It's what makes America great. Building walls and isolating ourselves from the rest of the world will only make us weak.

  2. Beautifully said! I couldn't agree with you more. Thanks a million for commenting. Recent events require we all speak out more about the importance of diversity, immigration and our America's uniqueness in this world. If we sit back and do nothing, those words engraved at the base of Lady Liberty will become meaningless. We cannot let those who betray those very words triumph. America is too great for that. Thank you again for your comment!