If a task is once begun,
never leave it till it’s done.
Be the labor great or small,
do it well or not at all.
Yup, that’s it. The most influential thing I read in the second year of grammar school. It was in my elementary Reading textbook (dated 1973). It wasn’t an assigned reading or anything I had to get through, but my grandfather was on a mission. He was going to teach me English and undo the damage done by untrained staff yelling loudly and slowly in English to my ESL group. I wasn’t technically “ESL” at all, just tri-lingual since the time I started to speak… and demoralized by a poor performance in my first year of school, where I was repeatedly referred to as being “different” by teachers and peers — not in the complimentary sense, and always with a sneer. People asked questions without really wanting an answer. I could tell by the sneer that accompanied their words. What was that extra word I had used? Where was I from? I was placed in the smaller pull-out group, reading as I always had, but now reluctant to do the work. What was the point if I was just going to be in that little room for the rest of the year, regardless of how well I performed?
One brisk Friday afternoon when Papou came to pick me up from school, my teacher pulled him aside and said that I was most likely to repeat the second grade. He stood up straight as a rod and looked at her. “What must she do to pass?”
The teacher gave her explanation.
Papou gave my shoulders a tight squeeze — in tough times, I can still feel that hug and the confidence he had when he addressed my teacher that day. “She will NOT repeat the grade. May I go in and collect all her books?”
Though the school was so strict about such things at the time, the teacher allowed it. That evening my dear grandfather read through my reader and all my other books from cover to cover.
The next morning, I awoke, freshened up and tossed on my thick fuzzy robe and slippers to go join Grandpa outside and watch the sun rise, as was our usual habit. He smiled when I came up and planted a kiss on his rugged, prickly cheek and gestured for me to sit by him in the warmth of the sunny terrace. “I want you to read something to me today.”
Wondering what it could be, I watched him intently. I loved him so dearly that I’d likely do anything he asked of me.
He reached for the reader and went to the bookmarked section. Before I could question the request, he pointed to the first of four lines and asked me to read it — not *IF* I could read it.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I did as he asked, in the clear loud voice of a child who feels confident and at peace with her surroundings. Papou beamed at me, letting that feeling sink in.
We sat there silently for a few moments. “Do you know what it means?”
I nodded. “Finish whatever you start.”
He nodded. “Yes, but more than that. You must do it WELL. I know you can do anything you focus upon.”
I rested my head on his arm. “I can?”
“YES!!!! OF COURSE!!!! Are you not the daughter of…” he outlined my family tree, starting from my very intelligent, determined and accomplished mother to every known relative in our line dating back to Charlemagne on one side and Alexander the Great on the other. “This is your legacy. It is our family’s legacy.”
I had closed my eyes a moment, listening to him speak, letting the horrid little week disappear and grinning as he spoke. I could see the faces of some of the people he was describing. My people. My legacy. Would it stop here, with me? It was quite a question for a little kid to contemplate on a Saturday morning….
Papou put out his hand for me. I looked at the giant palm, the long fingers, always loving and capable of moving everything forward, then I looked up at him, his warm brown eyes beaming at me, his smile lending me a more strength and warmth than the sun itself. I leaped up and hugged him. “Okay, Papou. I understand.” I hugged him a second longer, wondering, for a moment, where to start this vast quest.
As if sensing my concern, he chuckled, patting me on the back. Setting me back down, he cleared his throat and gave me a very stern look. “We will recite this poem every day with our prayers. You will do all your work with me from now on and we will conquer this. Together.”
I stood up very straight, wide eyed, expectant, and nodded in the determined way of a child.
I can’t imagine what I must have looked like, but Grandpa had trouble keeping the serious look on his face. Grinning, he took my hand and walked back inside with me so we could enjoy breakfast with the family.
Ever since that day I was always fairly close to the top of my class, always on the honor rolls and awards/scholarship lists, always in some rigorous new Advance Placement program…. It was, as Papou had put it, my legacy.
Now every hero has his/her flaws, and the “legacy” certainly has not been an easy thing to maintain, but I recite this poem to myself and my children every day now and wonder what they will add to the legacy and how I can help them to achieve their goals. It’s a principle I share with my students as well, as I was lucky enough to have a fantastic guide and the good fortune to come across this little poem, which I hope you’ll enjoy and take to heart.
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Dedicated to my wonderful Papou, who was one of a kind.