THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS.
The Star-Spangled Banner never sounded so good, and tears of joy never felt so welcome, spontaneous, or more germane as she stood at the podium with the gold medal glinting against the Klieg lights flashing. The pride of one’s accomplishment powered the bellows of her lungs, making the insufflation of air easier and their quality purer, along the way enlivening the oxygen carried, puffing up the endorphins and the feel-good sensation. Be darn that some would call it euphoria, but Philomène couldn’t help but savor every single second stretched to the slowness of an hourglass. The moment doubled as a lift to a pinnacle, the ultimate elevation to the summit of her young life. She was drowning in a surfeit of good vibration, a combination of good karma and the newness of success. Although it was always sought after for a long time, it came in with the speed of a swift wind, a stunning happening, with an extent, a meaning, and its very existence, difficult to grasp.
Philomène, mind you, wasn’t supposed to succeed at anything in life. Her mom had only a third-grade education, her father bolted the house when she was a toddler, and he was never to be heard from again. She came to America as a poor immigrant living in a drug-infested neighborhood where a young girl faced the preordained choices of either a bad or a worse outcome in life. How she managed to turn the narrative upside down is itself the stuff of fairy tale or in the US lingo, a true Horatio Alger construct. Many would unfortunately have culled this from the realm of possibility and tag it into the bin of farfetched stories. So much for the shrewdness and wisdom of naysayers.
Philomène Bolas arrived in the US at age nine. Her mother worked as a maid for rich folks in Westchester County, outside of NYC. At times her mother would bring her along when she couldn’t find a babysitter, because she feared that her daughter would wander into the streets or end up with the wrong crowds. But if truth be told, it became possible due to the goodness of her employer’s heart who also had a child of the same age, Alice. As a scion’s daughter, Alice had all the amenities one could wish for. She had a private instructor each for piano, swimming, and tennis lessons. As luck would have it, on a whim one day, after Philomène watched her take a tennis lesson, “Won’t you take a racket and exchange balls with me,” exclaimed the daughter. Lo and behold, Philomène was a natural. She mastered the strokes rapidly and as a quick study she was progressing at rapid pace and began beating the partner steadily.
“Your daughter is talented. It would be a waste not to allow her to develop it to the fullest,” her employer one day said. Philomène’s mom didn’t pay much attention to this observation and great was her surprise when she received this unexpected letter,
Dear Mrs. Bolas,
Congratulations! The Carlton-Madison School is offering your daughter a scholarship that will cover full tuition as well as room and board. She will have full access to the tennis lessons under renowned coach Richard Levell.
The academic year will start in a couple of weeks since she will have to partake in summer classes.
Hence Philomème escaped a potentially harrowing life situation by the slightest wisp. However, far from a slam dunk of a decision about living in and leaving a slum, she parried one set of problems to face another set. Like hurrying to flee a disaster to end up being harried. Her schoolmates were far from being welcoming. Not uncommonly the “N” word flew at her direction. Some would say that such an unfriendly environment would increase her chances of failure in the unfortunate but paradoxical situation of famine in the midst of plentiful harvest. Had she been a different person made of thin skin, or of an inferior stock, she would have withered under the stress. At the same time, she had the providential advantage of two nearby resources that played a crucial role. One was the lone African American teacher and the other was a geographic coincidence. The teacher by far had the most influence on her. “The choice of Philomène didn’t happen by chance. Yours truly fought hard to have people like you receive the exposure to a place like this one. You have no other recourse but to succeed lest others be denied such chance. Count on me and I will help you.”
The sprawling campus abutted the butler’s section of town, predominantly made up of minorities. There resided a Baptist church and on Sundays, she would go and find solace and fellowship among the congregants. That was a saving salve for her ego bruised during the preceding days. That neighborhood became her home; her mother moved from the former and dangerous one to be closer to her.
Philomène was operating in the whiplash-provoking ride of American society. She would later find out that half of her school expenses was borne by Alice’s parents and the school itself was providing the other half from philanthropists. She would constantly pit this reality against the rabid bias she would constantly face. She was toeing a delicate line that could unravel irrevocably without a steady head. A lot of weight, she was carrying. Fortunately, she had come from a mindset that didn’t seek victimhood nor craved for blame seeking. She was loath of hosting a reputation of a craven girl. She had felt very conflicted because she could have suffered from folks of her tribe had she stayed in that neighborhood as many of her friends who had stayed, had experienced. Falling from the pot to the fire is never a good set of options but is the burden of many of us citizens who want to maneuver between the opposites of demographics. Fitful rancor being traded for fretful disdain, an exchange unpalatable under any circumstance.
Philomène in no time conquered the blackboard and the pitch. Her academic performance ran on a par with her athletic supremacy. However, she had a closely guarded secret: stage fright due to a deep-seated shyness. Playing in front of others was a considerable obstacle course. The optics of stage fright leading her to the humiliating position of derision instilled a fear in her, even an obsession. Keeping her composure was the biggest challenge she had to overcome. This was the undertone of a personal struggle she had to contend with. That demon, the skeleton in her closet, could derail all the sacrifices she had consented to. “Failure was not an option”, she kept convincing herself. Yet as a normal and flawed person, she came close to failure on numerous occasions. She was enmeshed in a maiden voyage of fighting through sweats on the field and tears on the pillow. Yet for all the efforts she mustered, she was always in dire need of a mulligan for a do-over. Though precocious, she was yet very fragile.
She received plenty of guidance on this matter from that teacher, a history buff, who regaled her with tales about several outstanding men and women in history who succeeded. One of her favorites was our own Toussaint Louverture who rose from a weakling to a master horseman, from a ragamuffin to the highest ranking general of the land and for that matter from an illiterate lad to a world-class strategist, the likes of which come maybe once in a century. Such recitations helped nurture her self-confidence. The teacher also helped to protect her from the pitfall of a head full of facts but short of sound analytical capacity. “Never forget your roots. Don’t turn your back on your origin.” This was a phrase that Philomène never tired of repeating or of hearing being stated. She resolved this conflict by delving soul and spirit into excellence and ignoring the background noise. The price was the considerable time she invested into honing her skills on the playground, as well as the long hours spent at the library to keep up with the rigorous academic load. The reward was there for all to see, even to a casual observer, she was on a fast track in advancing through the ranks. She often had to attend summer sessions due to time taken to go to competitions. She never had anything handed to her on a silver platter. She received help but she mostly helped herself.
She competed at several levels and many a time was one of the rare dark-complexion persons in attendance. She became accustomed to the pattern of glacial reaction by the crowd at the beginning of a tournament to lukewarm and occasionally to overwhelming support at the end. Except she would never know what the reception would be regardless of her steady and superb ability. The worst part was becoming oblivious to catcalls those fans liberally lobbed toward her with the same intensity and suddenness of her powerful volleys. This not-so-subtle aim entailed detracting her from her steely concentration. Hard as she tried to ignore them, the catcalls had the nasty feature of hurting her feelings in the worst way. She would not admit to it publicly, but withholding tears in those tense and heart-rending moments, was a perennial and very painful fight and one she had almost surrendered to. “This is the one thing you must never do. No matter what, don’t let knuckleheads get so under your skin that they mess with your head. You will never recover because you will lose your confidence. Remember this like a prayer,” her teacher had advised her.
Somehow, and even to her surprise, she refused to give in to boos, hoots, hisses, catcalls, and pretended they were instead applauding her. That was a neat trick and an outstanding feat, especially from someone who was shy to begin with; the average person would be so unnerved as to lose control on the spot. She kept thinking about her heroes who succeeded despite all the hurdles, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Toussaint, Queen Yaa Asantewa and her brilliant battles against the British. It wasn’t long before word had gotten around that she couldn’t be swayed by such prickly maneuvers. Nonetheless, she garnered respect from her opponents. She was keen at detecting seething ire from a losing foe and had become proud at breaking the foe’s resolve through her tenacity and unending aggressiveness as if her life depended on the outcome.
Fortunately, her initial sponsors remained faithful and followed her career and development. She remained friends with Alice throughout. The fact she never harbored any resentment toward Philomène etched a lasting impression. At times it would be an eerie scene to have just a couple of fans, Alice and her family, vociferously lending their support in the midst of a cold shoulder treatment of a crowd. Somehow and not infrequently, that fervent support would become contagious among the close by spectators. The support of Alice’s family as well as the friendship she offered were part of the ballast that kept her on an even keel. The teacher was her guidelight. Her mother was all into one, her perennial anchor.
She was smart enough to realize that tokenism was at play, and that was an issue she handled deftly. “I need to come out a winner. They may showcase me, but I will definitely get something out of this exercise,” she kept saying to herself. For one thing she refused to join the fray over the ever-consuming debate of innate athletic gift absent any academic ability as a binary set of options. “I like to perform at the top in any activity I am involved in, period.” She announced this at the end of a championship as if to inform all listeners what her official creed was. This was also a diplomatic way of corralling the support of sorely needed financial backers issued from the fragment of society known to harbor conservative sentiments on matters of racial concern. Her mom certainly could not have afforded to pay for her private lessons, her traveling expenses to participate at competitions. She had to finely calibrate her path to avoid offending but not being seen as submissive. “I like my warm milk with a toast, a milquetoast that doesn’t make me,” she would joke with a reporter, gallantly expressing her thought through a pun for the learned and at the same time letting the average dimwit know she is not one to trifle with.
Even with her incredible talent, qualifying for the Olympic team was a long shot. “My darling, I pray for your success all the time. You make me feel so proud of you. You have no idea.” This was like a refrain her mom would recite every time before a tournament. Her mom had her wear a rosary that was consecrated at the time of her first communion as a talisman. She did it out of respect for her mom but not out of her own personal conviction. The competition was very stiff and at times she had some self-doubt. Her coach also reminded her, “The difference between winning and losing at your level is not the talent but concentration and execution. You can’t have the latter without the former. Always concentrate on the task at hand.” Usually, the coach would follow this advice by an intense practice session. On the rare occasion when the blues seemed to make her falter, all she needed to do was to remember this saying by Mandela, “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.”
Give up she never did, against all odds. She dared to be bold when that seems a foolish pretense; she had the gumption to pursue the impossible dream held in place by the slimmest thread and the largest heart full of hope. That she made the Olympic team was an achievement of its own scale. The grandest of stage for the whole world to see was yet to come. At every level, the competition increased by leaps and bounds. The chance of success diminished even more. The odds stocked up against her. Her level of confidence increased linearly as the odds veered south. As she advanced, the very idea of winning it all became more of a plausible happening. Yet being the overall winner was still an idea she had to remind herself wasn’t a dream. Needless to say, she had to become a US citizen to be eligible for all the financial support she needed to carry out her grand plan.
That day of crowning rewarded her. She remembered with bittersweet memory all the days of training, the painful leg cramps she had to overcome during training and or matches, the unfriendly crowds, the baleful stares that would kill if they could, the fake smiles that made her uneasy. Yet, they all paled in comparison to the roar of this crowd that was shouting her name, clapping in sign of appreciation and made it all worth it.
She lifted her gold medal, kissed it and blew a kiss her mom’s way as if to say, “Thanks, and I love you for all the support.” To the family that helped her get started, she waved and then blew a kiss at them since they had also made the trek to watch her make history. She reminded herself that good and bad people come from all walks, genders, ethnic groups. Her taste buds went into high gear in the face of the thrill of victory. The resulting savor was next to impossible to describe in words other than it was sweeter than honey
Reynald Altéma, MD.