Debra Weiner is interviewing 100 newsmakers, thought leaders and other people who’ve made an outsize difference about the most valuable thing their parents taught them. Following are excerpts from a few of those stories, edited and condensed.
The Joy of Learning
DR. FRANCIS S. COLLINS
Director of the National Institutes of Health who led the international Human Genome Project.
I grew up on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley, the youngest of four boys with 18 years from the oldest to the youngest. My father taught drama. My mother was a playwright. All of us were home-schooled because my parents thought they could do a better job than the regular public schools. And they were right. But the curriculum was utterly unstructured. Sometimes we’d do mathematics full-time for three or four days and nothing else. Then we’d hit a bump and my mom would say, “O.K., you’ve made a step forward, now let’s step into something else.” It never got boring. Maybe that’s part of why it worked.
My dad was a classical violinist who’d also learned to be a fiddler. He loved nothing more than to get his sons engaged with him in a folk music jam or maybe a string quartet. I spent countless hours as a kid figuring out how harmony worked by playing on a pump organ we had. My dad built stilts onto the pedals so my feet could reach them.
When I was 7, my brother and I became publishers. My dad had gone to the local print shop and said, “Hey, that old printing press over there you don’t use anymore, how about you give it to me?” So this 1,200-pound, solid iron printing press, which required reinforcing the floor in one room of our ramshackle farmhouse, arrived. For the next eight years, my brother and I put out a newspaper every month. We had to set metal letters into a composition tray, then stick that into the printing press, loading pages one at a time, and running this massive flywheel with a foot pedal. My mother initially wrote most of the articles, but as we got older, my brother and I wrote more and more.
Summer was dominated by a theater my parents ran, which involved putting on five plays, usually including one Shakespeare and often a Noël Coward or George Bernard Shaw. My job was sound engineer. I was 6 or 7 years old, up there in the tree house sound booth, running this reel-to-reel tape recorder and trying to hit the sound effects at just the right moment.
So this was my life growing up, every day encountering something I didn’t know much about and figuring it out. I often think of the experience of learning new things as if you’re in a really interesting detective story. All you have to do is look and mysteries will be revealed. Maybe you get a clue that tells you something about it. Or maybe it’s a false clue and you go down the wrong alley. But eventually there is such a thing as scientific truth, and if you’re diligent enough you can probably discover what that truth is. The key is to unleash your curiosity and let the joy of learning be unbounded.
Chairman of the Special Olympics and the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
My parents grew up in deeply Roman Catholic families and both had a very deep commitment to their religious practice. It undergirded everything. My father read and studied extensively religious ideas and theology. My mother practiced a much more devotional and liturgically grounded religion. They both attended Mass daily — usually separately, but daily. Not every day, but many days, we had to be altar boys. Your schedule would come up and O.K., you have the 6:45 a.m. Mass Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday next week. So you’re out of bed at 6:15, and off with your dad, and he’s on his knees and you’re on the altar. It’s quiet. It’s devotional, and if you’re 10 years old, super profound.
For my dad, faith was all about justice. He probably would have said Christianity and Judaism were religions whose ultimate meaning-making was about bringing a reign of justice to earth. My mom’s interest was in people with intellectual disability. She took her faith experience, which was that everybody counted equally, every human life had dignity, and inspired others to see people with intellectual disabilities for their goodness and light.
They were geniuses at making their faith come alive in a secular context. Honestly, I don’t think any Americans have ever done it as well. They founded Head Start, Special Olympics, the Peace Corps, Upward Bound, Job Corps, Community Action, the Community of Caring and more. My mother ran a summer camp at our house for 100 kids with intellectual disabilities. June would roll around and the backyard would be filled with people with Down syndrome and autism and other disabilities. We’d go out and play kick ball and go swimming and horseback riding.
My parents gave me, when I was a young child, the capacity, the hunger, the chance to be in love with God. I love the Eucharist. I love Sacraments. I love ritual. I go every day if I can, sometimes twice. But I’m not focused on dogma. I’m much more interested in the inner life that my tradition opens me to. To me, faith is the search for understanding of self and my role in the universe and how to be present every day in a way that’s open, flowing, loving and ultimately peaceful.
Ultimately, God is in everything, right? So be in love with all things — with life, with death, with the fork in the road, with the moment, with the day. That’s the prize. Be in love with all things.
The first African-American president of a major broadcast TV network when she was president of entertainment at ABC; currently vice-president of original series at Netflix.
I grew up in Citrus Heights, a suburb of Sacramento. Our front door had an entryway with white tiles, and my sister and I decided that was the ice rink where we’d have our dolls go skating. We’d spend all afternoon working up these very complicated routines. The Carpenters was our soundtrack because my mom loved the Carpenters.
Finally we were ready to do the performance and my dad came home from work. It had been a long day, a long commute. He opened the front door and we looked at him and we were like, “Dad, the dollies are skating.” And he said, “I’m sorry.” Then he closed the door, went around the house and came in through the back yard.
He could have easily just stepped over our game, but he wasn’t going to disturb the universe we’d created for each other and our dolls. He respected the sanctity of what we had spent the afternoon building because it was valuable to us. And preserving that was more important to him than getting in and putting his briefcase down.
As a person who works long days and has a long commute, it’s a very small example of what it means when your parents respect you as a person and respect your dreams.
In high school, I wanted to be a cheerleader so badly. My junior year I made it to the finals but didn’t get it and was inconsolable. But I spent that year practicing — jumping in the air, doing the splits — and tried out again and made it. My parents were great. They didn’t care if I was a cheerleader, but they never made fun of what was kind of a ridiculous dream. Whatever was important to me at the time, they bent over backward to support. Basically it was saying, ‘I see you for who you are. What you do matters.’
That’s such an incredible gift. It imbues you with … I was going to say self-confidence, but it’s more self-worth. Self-confidence is the thing that lets you walk into the room; that lets you get up on the stage. It enables you to say hello. Self-worth is something deeper that exists at the core of you and lets you go out into the world and be brave.
Former chief executive of Mark Controls; currently focuses on philanthropic work, helping disadvantaged children and families transition from dependency to self-sufficiency.
I was maybe 14 when my true father died of polio just before the vaccine came in. He was one of the last people in an iron lung. He was a war hero in Patton’s Army in Russia in World War II. Not so long ago, I got his Purple Heart — he was wounded by machine gun fire — and Bronze Star. I never knew him, never laid eyes on him. He bailed out the first year. It didn’t bother me much. I guess I thought it was normal to have a grandmother and grandfather, a mother and a dog.
My mother remarried when I was 4. They weren’t very good parents. Nobody beat me, but verbal knives are probably worse than getting a spanking. And their indifference — my folks didn’t show up at baseball games, that sort of thing — gave me a fierce need to be independent, to not count on them for anything. It wasn’t, “I’ll show you.” It was a realistic assessment of what my resources were, and my resources were my own worth.
I was going to run away from home, then decided that I needed to finish high school. U.C.L.A. was down the street with a great engineering school. I got a Navy scholarship, and sold ads for the student newspaper, and cobbled together other jobs to put myself through.
I lived at home the first year, then my stepfather was transferred to Florida. I asked him and my mother, “Is there any kind of, maybe allowance for clothing or something?” because now I was going to be completely on my own.
The answer was no. They said, “If you get in trouble, give us a call.”
Well, I made sure nothing happened. I thought, “Whatever I’m going to do, I’ve got to do it myself, because I don’t have any support from my parents.”
Later, when I discovered there was a place called Harvard Business School, my parents told me I wouldn’t be able to get in. So I became determined to get in. Later, I got into M.I.T., the Ph.D. program in economics, but the stipend for teaching a course just wasn’t going to do it. I don’t know why, but I wrote my parents a note saying, “Could you help out?” And again they said no.
This is a perverse way to raise kids. You want that independence as a very high objective for your kids, but not at the expense of your relationship. But it had a really positive effect on me even though it was painful and even though when they died, I didn’t feel anything. But once you stop being scared and are no longer driven by, “Hey, I’m all I’ve got,” independence becomes a more healthy thing. It becomes fun.
Each time I could do these things, even though they told me I couldn’t, the self-confidence grew. Each step gave me the self-confidence for the next step, and pretty soon you’re sure you can do pretty much anything. It becomes, “Wow, the sky is the limit.”