What Nelson Mandela Means to Me

It’s 2004. The spring of my first year of teaching.  I work at a rural school in Vermont’s North East Kingdom.  The school serves the children of the hardscrabble loggers and hippy back-to-the-landers who both try and have a go at this beautiful, but relentless landscape.

The savage winter is giving over to warm spring days.  A colleague of mine hands me a young adult novel about Apartheid in South Africa.  “It’s the tenth anniversary of the end of Apartheid,” she says.  “What do you know about it?”

“Not much,” I confess.  And it’s true.  Nelson Mandela is a peripheral figure in my life.  A vague name on the edges of humanitarians on my radar.

I’m young, and she’s generous, so instead of chiding my ignorance, she says, “Do a little research.  I think you’ll find South Africa’s history intriguing.”

She’s right.

Nelson Mandela on Day After ReleaseIn the Johnson State College library, I move Nelson Mandela from the fringes of my world knowledge to the forefront.  I’m slack-jawed as I read about this man.  Twenty-seven years in prison.  Twenty-seven years of labor.  Twenty-seven years of his life lost for an idea.  And when he gets out, he forgives his captors with the ease of brushing dust from his shoulder.  I’m twenty-four at the time.  I can barely imagine twenty-seven years.

How did I not know about Nelson Mandela?  His great acts took place during my lifetime.  He wasn’t a Lincoln or a Thoreau or a Gandhi; his patient fight for the rights of his people were on my planet in my lifetime.  My fingers tingle as they work over library books.

I become a believer in Nelson Mandela.

His ceaseless hope fuels my belief in the goodness of the world.  No small feat in a post-9/11, two-war world, where my vote for Nadar had been a vote for Bush.  A world where ‘mistakes are made’ and no one pays the consequences.

To say I become a believer in Nelson Mandela, is more aptly put: I become a believer in humanity.  I believe that the good guys can win, because in this case, they did win.

Nelson Mandela enters my life just when I need him the most.

In the past nine years since my great awakening to the gift of Nelson Mandela, each time I hear his name uttered, a great life force passes through my veins.  It’s visceral.  Guttural.  I’m physically moved by the power his name evokes in my mind’s eye.

Upon his passing, I don’t feel sadness.  He wasn’t gunned down like Lincoln or Gandhi.  He was ninety-five.  I feel a calmness about his death.  The Fates let him live a life all the way to the end.  Maybe they figured he endured twenty-seven years of prison, so that must count for something.

Nelson Mandela is one of the great ones.  I’m honored and humbled to have existed on the same planet during the same historical moment.

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