April 15, 2005


Trying to Make the World a Better Place

By Ernie McCray

NPR (National Public Radio) is soliciting personal essays from people about their beliefs and how those beliefs were formed or tested or changed.

I like this kind of thing so I wrote to them about how I get up every morning and try to make the world a bit better than it is. Now I know that to many people such  thinking might sound lofty and touchy feely and unrealistic but I’m just doing what my mother and grandfather raised me to do.

I can’t help but chase rainbows, if you will, because they were two of the most “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” people I have ever known. And their approach to life just rubbed off on me. They taught me through example what getting involved is all about. Like, for instance, I could come home from school with,say, a story about somebody being teased on the playground at recess, and they most likely would respond with: “So what did you do to get the kids to stop?”

Oh, without their love to lean on I don’t know how I would have survived emotionally in those days because Jim Crow was all over the place. And second class citizenship made me entertain some dark hateful thoughts every now and then. If God had answered my fervent cry back then there would be absolutely no evidence of caucasians ever having existed in the universe. But those ancestors of mine would throwout the names of some decent loving white people I knew and I’d come to my senses and realize you can’t judge a people by the actions of a few.

I learned from them that an individual can, indeed, make a difference in the world. And having worked with kids most of my life I’ve seen evidence of such a notion over and over again.

I don’t know how many times I’ve run into old students of mine who give me a big sunny smile and a big tight bear hug and then say to the person on their arm something that affirms that I’ve touched their lives. l can hear in my mind a compilation of their voices: “Hey, honey, this is the teacher I was telling you about, the one who hung in there with me, the one who did Prince’s “1999” with my homeboys and me at the talent show, the one who helped us write the poems we sent to our dads in Vietnam, the one who could dunk a basketball...” Then they proudly tell me about how they’re giving back to their communities, how they’re changing the world. These encounters absolutely thrill my soul.

And nothing has made my heart sing and made me feel like I’ve made a difference more than an experience I had not too long ago. I was in a large crowd of people at a peace rally when one of the speakers pointed at me and said into the microphone: “I wouldn’t be standing here today if it hadn’t been for that man, my elementary school principal. He taught me to look at what the world needs and then ‘do something to make it better.’” Moments later hundreds of voices are chanting: “No more war! No more war!”

I left for home that day feeling so good inside, so loved, so validated as a human being. And on the next day I was off to my old tricks: trying to make the world a bit better than it is.

Ernie McRay is a resident of San Diego and a retired high school principal.

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