The Woman Who Was Always First
This is The Story… of what happened when a young girl decided to trust her parent’s traditional advice.
And now… onto The Story
The explosions ripped through the night.
Her head spun, and she felt her father’s arms wrap around her. The next thing she knew, her mother was throwing her into the car.
Her father stepped on the gas and the tires squealed. In the backseat, the little girl’s eyes were wide. Her mother ran her fingers through her hair and over her back. Then she checked her hands for signs of blood. They’d heard that shrapnel was in these bombs, and she couldn’t take any chances.
The girl’s father continued to drive, and now her mother was leaning into the backseat and running her hands over her daughter’s back.
It wasn’t until they were a mile away that the ringing in her ears finally stopped and she could hear her mother’s voice.
Her mother was asking… was she okay?
In the front seat, her father was muttering under his breath as her mother started to run her hands over him.
The little girl’s eyes were wide with fear.
She wasn’t in some type of warzone. It was just Birmingham, Alabama.
The adults called it “Bombingham.” Segregation and racism were raging, and the young girl’s father and mother did everything they could to shield her from it.
It would have been easy for her parents to hate those who persecuted them, but they were far above it. Instead of giving way to hatred, they told their daughter not all white people were like this, in fact there were many that are wonderful.
The girl’s grandfather had been adopted and raised by a white family. They treated him like their own son.
Her grandfather had set the tone for the entire family, and now, the girl’s father and mother laid out a simple plan for their daughter. There was only one path to safety…
Education. There were no other options, and they pushed the young girl to excel at it.
“Excel” might be an understatement. They taught her to read and speak early on and enrolled her in first grade when she was only three. It didn’t work, as the other children were brutal giants who towered over her. They waited another year and tried again. This time it worked, and the girl learned how to win at education.
She skipped first grade and went into second.
One Sunday afternoon when she was in sixth grade, her father got a phone call and broke down into tears. When he put down the receiver, she asked him what was wrong.
“Another bomb has gone off,” he said.
The nine-year-old girl heard the words her father spoke, but wasn’t sure why he was telling her. “It’s okay, Dad,” she reassured him.
There were bombs going off all over Birmingham. Everybody knew it. Her father continued to speak slowly to her. Of course she knew this was going on.
Most of the news like this didn’t affect them. During the evenings, she would play the piano. Outside, on the porch, her father would sit with his gun in his lap. Mobs were a threat, and he had to protect the family.
To her, that was just how life worked. She studied and worked as hard as she could because it was the only path to safety. People in their town wanted people like her dead. There wasn’t much she could do except listen to her parents. She got so good at playing the piano that she would entertain the community and play at church.
She couldn’t figure out why her father was taking such caution telling her about another bombing.
Her father explained to her that this time was different. Two of her friends had been near this bomb. It had gone off in the church just two miles from their home. Now her friends and two other girls were dead.
The nine-year-old girl broke down in tears.
She had heard about people being killed from the previous explosions, but so far, they had never been her friends.
Through her tears, her father looked at her sternly. He told her this wouldn’t be forever, and that order would come to their town. Her education, learning, and skills she was developing would be the armour that could save her. They could lift her up and out of the warzone of Birmingham.
The young girl nodded her head, and went back to practicing the piano. Her father went back to standing watch outside with his gun.
The murders crushed her, and the girl’s parents doubled down. They didn’t have the money to leave, and education was her only path to safety.
Her parents’ advice was starting to work. She skipped 7th grade, and when she was in 8th grade she was only 11!
Two years later, her family left Birmingham. They moved to Tuscaloosa, AL, where her father became a college administrator.
After that, they moved to Denver, Colorado. There, she attended her first integrated public school. By the time she was 15, she had completed her senior year of high school and her freshman year at the University of Denver. Her major interest? Political science and Russian history.
Like a rocket, she picked up a bachelor’s degree in political science. Then a master’s from the University of Notre Dame. And finally, she earned her PhD from the University of Denver.
After a childhood stained by fear, the world was opening up to her. So, what was she going to do?
Her first move was to accept a fellowship at Stanford University. The following year, she became a political science professor at Stanford.
It was a rough first day on the job. Though she was promised that her civil-military relations course would be widely advertised, only six students had signed up. What was worse: because her course was a late addition, every classroom was already taken.
The only option was to meet her six students in Stanford’s old chemistry building.
Because she was so young, her students didn’t take her seriously. They tried to exploit her inexperience, to prove that they were smarter.
It was a struggle having an entire class against her. Each night after class, she would read and study late into the night, ensuring that her students wouldn’t win in their petty attempts at mutiny.
Each morning when she arrived at the front of her makeshift classroom, she was exhausted.
As the quarter marched on, she got back on her feet. She had overestimated her students, and now it was painfully obvious who was the boss.
Her intelligence at this point was undeniable, and she combined it with a charm that won over her cocky students. They all gave her enthusiastic evaluations, and the following year, 50 students signed up for her course. By her third year at Stanford, her course was over-enrolled. She admitted 120 students into her class called “The Role of the Military in Politics.”
One day when she was teaching, a teacher’s assistant interrupted her class.
She was in the middle of a story, and waved the teacher’s assistant off.
But the young man was adamant.
The class fell silent when he wouldn’t leave.
“Yes? What is it?” she asked.
There was a phone call for her.
“Any chance you can take a message and I’ll return it later?” She asked smiling. The class laughed.
The teachers assistant’s face turned red, and he started to stammer.
She laughed. “You’ve already interrupted, so you might as well tell us all who it is!”
More laughter from the class.
“The President of the United States.”
A hushed silence fell across the class.
She walked with the TA to the phone, the entire way wondering if this was a joke.
When she picked up the phone, she realized it wasn’t a joke.
It was a job offer.
After a few conversations, she accepted President George H.W. Bush’s offer to become Director on his National Security Council staff in Washington D.C.. Her life would never be the same.
The amazing woman who rose from Birmingham to the heights of power in Washington D.C. is none other than Condoleezza Rice.
Or “Condi”, as her friends called her.
When Condi arrived in D.C., the reception was like her first class at Stanford. And just like that first class, she turned the critics into believers.
After her tenure in D.C. during the term of Bush I, Condi returned to Stanford and became the Provost and continued to teach.
When you build and maintain your track record and reputation, word gets around.
Condi would soon get another call, this one from George W. Bush, who was then the Governor of Texas. George W. Bush asked Condi to join his foreign policy advisors team in his campaign for the presidency. Condi quit her job at Stanford and began working full time on the Bush campaign. When Bush won the presidency in 2000, he named her as his national security adviser. She was the first woman to hold the position.
During her tenure as national security advisor, Condi devoted her department to “Transformational Diplomacy.” Her aim was to build and sustain democratic states around the world. So, she moved American diplomats to countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Angola. She required each of them to become fluent in two foreign languages.
Some have speculated that Condi could be a future vice-presidential candidate. Yet her passion continues to lie with her current students at Stanford.
In an interview with Oprah, she would say:
“In a class of twenty, there are always two or three for whom the lights go on.”
Those two or three students are the ones that Condi lives for.
It’s been said that she is the most influential woman in global politics. While her story is one of relentless, steady progress, it is also one of constant learning and teaching. When others tried to bring her back into politics, she declined, stating that:
“… my life is in Palo Alto. My future is with my students at Stanford and in public service on issues that I care about like education reform.”
We may never see Condi in a White House role again, but her legacy will carry on in the lives of her inspired students.
Condoleezza Rice’s story is a breath of fresh air in our culture that can sometimes reject all traditions. It’s easy to make a harsh critique of our education system. It’s far more difficult to accept that parts of it are broken, and parts of it work incredibly well. Condi trusted in her family, tradition, and education. Those pursuits helped her rise from a town where bombings were the norm to holding one of the highest political offices in the world. She now works tirelessly as a champion for education reform.
If we all fully utilize, participate in, and work to revitalize our education system… there is no telling what we can achieve. Condi’s story is proof that sometimes the traditional paths and the education system are our best bets.
That’s her story, what’s yours going to be?
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