Rent We Pay for Living

ELLEN GOODMAN

May 15, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- From time to time, I have wondered how Marian Wright Edelman does it. Why doesn't she get depressed, despairing, overwhelmed? Why doesn't she get out of the work of public advocacy and get a good job with a big paycheck?

During the 1980s, the head of the Children's Defense Fund worked full tilt just trying to minimize children's losses. At the height of the Reagan Follies when programs were being cut, right and left, the best she could do was to apply one tourniquet after another.

But when everybody started talking about what was feasible ''under the circumstances,'' the African American daughter, granddaughter, aunt and sister of Baptist ministers kept talking about what was right. When cynicism became the fashionable style, the former civil-rights lawyer wore what suited her instead: commitment.

On occasion, when trickle-down hopelessness would wash over me, I would arrive at her office on Capitol Hill with a tape recorder and she would talk. Marion Wright Edelman, a nominee for the fastest talker in the Western Hemisphere -- on a par with your local auctioneer and NPR's Ian Shoals -- would talk about Head Start or child care or the growing poverty of children in America, and what needed to be done.

At some point, inevitably, I would ask whether she felt discouraged. But she would no more admit discouragement than commit treason. And I would leave wondering: How does she do it?

Now in the wake of the Los Angeles riots when hope and hopelessness compete for the upper berth in national consciousness, there are some hints in her new volume, ''The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours.''

This ''letter'' began when her eldest son was a senior in college. Ironically, I suppose, the most respected voice for children in America for the past 18 years was not certain ''that my children knew as clearly as I knew as a child from my parents what gets me through the day and picks me up when I am down.''

So she put down on paper some of the common and rare wisdom that marked the path from her parents' generation in segregated South Carolina to her three sons' generation in legally integrated but not always just America.

She paid tribute to the small town that nurtured and demanded much of her. Tribute to the father who died when she was 14, and to the mother who kept cooking for the elderly in their church, even when they were younger than she. ''I did not promise the Lord that I was going part of the way,'' said this mother, ''I promised him I was going all the way until he tells me otherwise.''

This simple and yet heartening book is Ms. Edelman's family legacy. But it's also a sermon for those who did not learn all they really needed to know in kindergarten.

Many regard the Children's Defense Fund and Ms. Edelman as the central committee of liberalism. But the 25 Lessons for Life she retells here are another example of how absurd it is to divide Americans by labels. Indeed she comes out of a do-for-self, do-for-others tradition. Responsibility crosses the family threshold.

There is nothing liberal or conservative about Lesson 1: There is no free lunch. Don't feel entitled to anything you don't sweat and struggle for. Or Lesson 4: Never work just for money or for power. Or Lesson 5: Don't be afraid of taking risks or being criticized. Or Lesson 9: Be honest. Or Lesson 12: Never Give up. Or Lesson 22: You are in charge of your own attitude. Or Lesson 25: Always remember that you are never alone.

At long last, the constituency for the defense of children is re-emerging. There is some renewed shame at the condition of our youngest. Some shared sense that we have failed as adults, failed to exercise the personal responsibility that came with neighborhood life and the public responsibility that came through government. As Ms. Edelman writes, only a ''spiritually impoverished nation . . . permits infants and children to be the poorest Americans.''

But if children have again come to the forefront of our consciousness, they have arrived at a time when we also lack confidence in our ability to change things for the better. So perhaps the most important message is that people have no right to give up.

''In sum,'' Marian Wright Edelman writes of her childhood, ''we learned that service is the rent we pay for living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.''

''Giving up and 'burnout' were not part of the language of my elders -- you got up every morning and you did what you had to do and you got up every time you fell down and tried as many times as you had to to get it done right. They had grit.''

Grit. It's how Marian Wright Edelman does it. It's how the job gets done.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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