Role Models

My friend Cesar works with homeless and troubled people, and he’s really good at it. But when he asked his Goodwill job training class in San Francisco if they had ever been leaders, they were baffled. Some got angry. “How can I lead anybody else when I can’t even stop drinking myself?” one woman asked.

Cesar disagreed. He asked them about their families. Did anyone there think of them as a leader? And within the program itself, and in other places, did people ever look to them?

People thought hard. “One man said he had a young nephew who sometimes asked him for advice. Another remembered that people at his last job would sometimes ask how he did things. You could see people straighten up and look more confident, remembering these things.”

So when Cesar told them that they were, in fact, leaders, they listened. His rap went something like this: You’ve got people you hang with, right? People who see you every day? Well, those people pay attention to you, just like you notice them. If they see you acting the fool, they are more likely to screw up themselves. If they see you doing right, that encourages them to do better, too.

Martha, a woman who has been drinking, living in welfare hotels and on the streets for years, started crying. “I didn’t think anybody cared what I did,” she told me later. “Or even noticed. In my mind, I was completely alone. Now I know I’m still here. I still count.” She told me she was going to take care of herself a little better, starting by going to a clinic for treatment for the skin infections covering much of her arms and legs. “I’m going to go back to AA, too,” she said.

If a homeless alcoholic woman can be a leader, we all can, whether we realize it or not. A woman named Linda told my multiple sclerosis (MS) support group how seven years of increasing disability and depression had left her feeling useless. “I couldn’t do things for my family or anyone any more. I couldn’t do things I used to do with my friends. So I withdrew.”

Today, at age 55, Linda is pretty, with wavy brown hair and big green eyes. She sits up straight in her wheelchair and speaks in a strong voice with a hint of laughter behind most of her words. But ten years ago, five years after diagnosis, she looked different. In pictures from that time, she looks sad, defeated.

“I was bringing everybody down,” she said. “My brother Peter stopped coming to visit; then he stopped talking to me on the phone. He said it was too painful. I thought people were abandoning me, but actually I was driving them away.”

One day a 23 year old niece named Angela appointed herself Linda’s “personal trainer.” She started coming over once a week “just to be on your team.” Gradually, Linda started to accept to her young relative’s support. Angela suggested Linda could try to ride in an MS bike event, using a recumbent handcycle, which you lie back on and pedal with your hands.

“At first, I was like, right, maybe I can make one block. I didn’t find the bike easy to use at all. But my brother Peter is a fix-it guy. He modified the bike so it worked. That kind of brought him back into my life. I built myself up, and when I rode in that MS event, my whole family was there.”

That day, Linda realized that she did have a major impact on her family. “I saw that if I was miserable, I was bringing them down with me. But if I was positive, my family would be happier. If I was at peace, I could calm other people. If I feel love or show joy, other people pick up on it.”

These are the kinds of roles we can all model. Disabled people often hear how inspiring we are. “I’m amazed the way you keep going in spite of…whatever.” Some of us hate that, because nobody is trying to be inspiring. We’re just trying to live. But I have learned to appreciate those compliments. If I make people feel better, what’s wrong with that?

I used to work out at the YMCA pool with a guy named Joseph who was born without arms. He swims by wearing huge fins and breathing through a snorkel. He can do a lot of things with his mouth. One day, he told me had just been to the supermarket, and the checkout clerk told him how inspiring he was, being able to shop by himself and all. Joseph replied, “I’m sure if I knew what you were going through, I’d think you were inspiring, too.”

Everybody I tell that too thinks it’s a great answer. The clerk didn’t want to hear it, though. “Oh, no, my problems are nothing compared to yours,” she said. She hadn’t accepted yet that she was a role model. Have you?

David Spero is an author and an activist for peace, ecology, and Palestinian rights, living in San Francisco. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.