My father has many sayings. For example, when my siblings and I were growing up, he rarely allowed us to watch TV, but when he caught us watching something he would always say the same thing:
“Why are you watching the TV? Instead of watching the TV, you should go to your room and study so you that one day you can be on TV, so that others can watch you.”
The more I think about it, the more it seems that my life is merely a constellation of his eccentric little sayings. Another of his favorite sayings was “second place is first loser.” He often said this whenever I came home with a second place trophy, or if I told him that another student had performed better than me on a spelling test. At the time I thought he was cruel – I, like all of my peers, had been raised in a culture that attempted to emulate the narrative arcs of our favorite sitcoms. My father was supposed to hug us after our failures; he was supposed to assure us that all would be ok as the credits rolled. We had no such luck. In retrospect, however, it was all for the best.
My father is a hard working man. He had two primary jobs when I was young: in the winter he cleaned trailers and during the summer he sold ice cream from decommissioned postal service trucks that he had purchased from the government. He expected us to accompany him to each of these jobs, so we spent the winter picking up the refuse that he blew out of the trailers with his leaf blower, and we spent the long summer months presenting him with cool little packages of ice cream as our customers demanded creamsicles and ice cream sandwiches. We worked in shifts, but we never had an opportunity to play. In the winter we read in the car as our father drove us to the trailer depot, and he made us return to the car so we could read even more while he waited for the trailers to unload their goods. In the summer he converted the back of each ice cream truck into a mobile bedroom. There was an old beat up mattress we would recline on between shifts, and a stack of books by the freezer. My father expected that we would each finish a book by the end of the day.
I learned how to be an American from my immigrant father. I still remember one of the proudest moments of his life – the day he became an American citizen. We spent the morning reviewing the pledge of allegiance together, and the preamble to the constitution. After the ceremony, he showed me his certificate with tears in his eyes and said “you must work hard to deserve this.”
I’ve been working hard ever since.
Tope Folarin is the 2010 Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman Fellow. He comes to IPS from Google, where he managed public affairs and public relations in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Tope holds a Master’s in African Studies and another Master’s in Comparative Social Policy from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He graduated from Morehouse College in 2004 with a BA in Political Science.