‘It’s often only by doing something we realise we can do it’
Coping: Eleanor Roosevelt was right, self-belief is a powerful aid to attainment
‘Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote Tomorrow Is Now – her manifesto on responsible citizenship, building a constructive political system, and collective responsibility – while she knew she was dying’
We are all born into various levels of advantage and disadvantage. There’s no denying that. I started to have my suspicions about the mechanics of Christmas as a child when I noticed that many of the children I perceived to be less well behaved than I – some of whose parents were wealthy – always got fancier presents from Santa than I did.
We were never left wanting at Christmas. My mother would save for months to ensure we had presents and a wonderful feast. But when a girl in my class at school who cried and threw a tantrum every morning (despite being nine years old), came back in January declaring that she’d got a coveted Furby, the jig was up. Santa wouldn’t reward that nonsense.
Here I was at nine, quiet and well behaved and polite as could be, without so much as a sniff of a Furby. I note that those objectively awful, drunkenly jabbering toys were back in vogue this Christmas, and feel nothing but pity for the parents who were exhaustedly jamming batteries into Furby’s bottom at 4am on Christmas morning.
While the reality of life’s unfairness brought the truth of Christmas crashing around me, across the sea in England lived a 12-year-old boy I wouldn’t meet or know existed for another 18 or so years. He, too, was being raised by a single mother, but he had it harder than I did.
Mixed race, Jewish and somewhat disruptive in class, he was starting to grow into a young man who felt he didn’t fit in with the people around him. He was also starting to lope greasily into that most tragic of phases in life, adolescence.
It was becoming evident that he was going to be inexplicably much taller than everyone else in his family and class, and as the space between school trouser cuff and ankle grew exponentially over the next few years, he would adopt that slump that teenage boys do when they are shooting too quickly skyward. As though hunching would stave off the hairy terrors of manhood.
While I was in Limerick (wrongly) associating all of my personal value with high achievement at school, the boy was doing well in subjects that interested him, but ignoring the rest. This led some teachers and even some family members to form low expectations and, as people sometimes do with the noisy child in the classroom, dismiss his potential.
While I didn’t realise until I was in my teens that university wasn’t a mandatory tertiary level of education, there was no real expectation that the boy would go at all.
In his late teens, he decided that he was going to attend university. A teacher at school told him he shouldn’t apply – it was a waste of time to try as he couldn’t do it. The teacher had written him off, but the boy persevered.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote Tomorrow Is Now – her manifesto on responsible citizenship, building a constructive political system, and collective responsibility – while she knew she was dying. As I read the book, I thought about the little boy who vowed to better himself in the face of systemic obstacles.
Roosevelt wrote “In the long run there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly. Action brings with it its own courage, its own energy, a growth of self-confidence that can be acquired in no other way.”
The boy could have got angry – blamed others, blamed the government, looked outward and despaired at the many legitimate obstacles in his path, but instead, he embarked on a path of self-determination that would kick over every barrier the world placed in his way.
These days, the boy is a man of 31, and has just finished a PhD in the politics department of an excellent UK university. It was he – the man who beat every statistic dictating what he was allowed to be – who introduced me to the inspirational work of Eleanor Roosevelt.
When I feel demotivated, I look over at him, usually working at his desk, and remember what can be achieved by force of will. Roosevelt was right – often it is by doing something that we realise we are able to do it.