Stories from the Stage

S4 E11 | FULL EPISODE

She Persisted

Through the whispers of doubt, nevertheless, they persisted. In Afghanistan, Mahboba journeys to her classroom against all odds; Crystal climbs the ladder of higher education, aided by some secret admirers; and Joan learns that it’s never too late to radically change her life. Three stories, three interpretations of SHE PERSISTED.

AIRED: March 01, 2021 | 0:26:30
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TRANSCRIPT

JOAN ANDERMAN: My big fantasy was that Donald Fagen

from Steely Dan would discover me.

Even though I didn't actually play music,

he would somehow sense how musical I was.

(laughter)

CRYSTAL WILLIAMS: And I thought to myself,

"Well, you failed algebra in high school,

but she likes chutzpah-- go with the chutzpah."

(laughter)

MOHBOBA AKHTARZADAH: So I look at the stairs

and I had to decide

whether I want to climb the stairs or not.

I decided to climb the stairs.

AKHTARZADAH: My name is Mohboba Akhtarzadah.

I grew up in Afghanistan.

And I came to United States in 2013

with full scholarship.

And I study here and graduated

from Southern New Hampshire University, degree in I.T.

And now I'm working.

- That's wonderful. - Thank you.

And Mohboba is your first name?

Yes.

What does your name mean?

So it means love or if you love someone, and...

because my grandfather loved me so much,

he named me Mohboba.

- Oh, that's beautiful. - Thank you.

So what is it that you enjoy the most about storytelling?

You connect with people.

If it's a book,

then you just kind of read it from the book

and then you forget.

But when you put a face to a story,

people will always remember.

And also it will be...

it is happening and it's there

And is storytelling a part of Afghani culture?

It is,

and my grandfather used to say story for us

and we would sit outside in the dark sometimes,

and he will say religious stories,

traditional stories,

sometime he would just make it up

and he will just say all sort of stories

about different things.

Now, I imagine that most people,

perhaps especially Americans,

have a very limited knowledge about Afghan culture.

So what is it that you want people to understand

about the life of an Afghan woman?

That's true; we grew up in a war,

but we are very hardworking people.

Our family loves us,

and we want peace, we want love,

and we want education,

and we want the opportunity as other would have it.

- Yeah. - Yeah.

The school registration was tomorrow.

Girls were so excited,

because they could go to school after Taliban regime.

I was not sure if I can go to school.

My father was off-site

and I was waiting for my father to come home

to ask him if I can go to school,

because I have polio.

I'm waiting patiently.

So my father walks in

and he is typical Afghan guy with white clothes,

a vest, average height, and a beard.

And then I ask dad, "Father, can I go to school?"

He says, "Of course you can."

Tomorrow, next thing, we did.

We went to school.

Every... no one pays attention to me.

Everyone is busy on their registration.

And there's one of my father's friends comes

and asks my dad, "Is she going to school as well?

"People will make fun of her.

She shouldn't go to school."

I'm behind my dad, standing, and I heard everything.

As I was walking to school--

it was 30 minutes' walk, but it will take me two hours

because I was on my crutches.

My siblings were ahead of me,

and as I'm walking, it is hot, it is so humid

and I... it's hurting,

people are saying horrible things to me

when I'm on my way.

I arrive to school,

I'm happy, so I can see my friends.

I will learn about my favorite subject.

Years later, when I go to school,

I see one of my teacher talks about me,

gossiping to other teachers,

and say, "She shouldn't come to school.

"She can learn, she can stay home

"and she can read and write.

And this is such a shame, the way she walks."

I heard everything.

It just affected me so bad,

and I sat on the bench, and I cried.

I had nothing else to do.

I cried.

That was the hardest day of my life.

I went home and I told my dad,

"I'm not going to school anymore."

Because my dad saw me so disappointed and sad,

he said, "Okay, fine, you don't have to go."

Because I wanted to be busy, I start sewing clothes.

I was not happy, that's not what I wanted to do.

That's... that was not my future.

I didn't like going towards unknown future.

So one day my father decides and tells me that,

"I will take you to school every day."

So he has a bicycle.

He lost his leg during Russia war,

so he is disabled.

And he takes me in his bicycle with a wooden pad.

And I sit in the back of the bicycle

and I hold to him.

I'm happy because I am with him,

no street harassment anymore.

But as I arrived to school,

because my class were in a higher grade,

they took my class to the second floor

And as I was walking in the hallway on my crutches,

I asked my principal,

"Can you please bring my class from upstairs to downstairs?"

She says, "No."

I didn't think so, but I just wanted to ask.

So I look at the stairs, and I had to decide

whether I want to climb the stairs or not.

I decided to climb the stairs,

because I want to graduate from my university

and work and be independent.

That was only possible for me through education.

So I lean against the wall,

and I put one crutch in one stairs,

my two feet in another stairs

and another feet on another stair.

And I pulled myself up, and I did this 30 times.

I made it to the top of stairs.

I was happy.

And I did this for five more years.

I got full scholarship, and I came to States.

My graduation day came finally

and my father was watching it livestream.

He was so happy and proud, and I made it through.

(applause)

Because I am a woman, I am a Muslim,

and I have a physical disability,

and by having all those,

people will think I am not strong.

But if I tell my story, I connect with people.

I show emotional, I show connection

and that's why it's very important.

Because they are very unique stories.

And there are few stories that people know about it,

and mine is one of them.

WES HAZARD: I was hoping that you could start by telling us

a little bit about yourself and how you got into storytelling.

So it's interesting when you ask me about myself,

because what I think about is that I'm a poet, really,

and that's my primary identity,

and I don't think of myself as a storyteller at all,

so this will be my first night telling a story in public,

if you consider a story not a poem.

(laughs): Yeah.

HAZARD: They definitely share a certain element.

As a poet, I imagine you're very concerned with, you know,

rhythm and how, how the words sound, you know.

And so, as a storyteller, do you do anything

vocally or with your presentation

that you feel sort of carries that message, that sound,

that thread to the audience?

So my father was a jazz pianist.

He was a self-taught jazz pianist

in a quartet in Detroit, Michigan.

And so music was in our house all the time.

If you had walked into my house, my childhood home,

you would've walked in, and then directly to the left,

you would've seen my father's piano.

And so when I began to write my own poems,

they came to me as lines of music, as just riffs.

And when I first started writing,

I'd have to go to the computer and close my eyes

and chant the poem out.

And so I've brought that same inclination to this story

as I did to early poems of mine,

which is to think about what is the music, what are the repeats,

how I get myself back to whatever the point is?

How do I explain to the audience the feeling of a thing?

When you have six minutes,

so it's not all that easy to do, but I tried my best.

In 1992, I was a college dropout.

I'd moved to New York City to become an actress and a writer.

I was working at Fuddrucker's Restaurant

on the Upper East Side,

and life was exhilarating.

The world seemed to me to be full of poems

and revelations about the human condition.

I'd miraculously gotten myself involved

in a wonderful community of poets

and writers and artists on the Lower East Side.

And things were just incredible.

The bar was high, and I was reaching for it.

But life was also exhausting.

I was working 15-hour days,

double shifts at Fuddrucker's, at Fuddrucker's...

(laughter)

And it was hard.

I couldn't always afford rent.

I remember the sound of the eviction notices

being pushed under my door,

that soft (whoosh),

and the punch that that sound made.

And it wasn't sustainable.

I had possibility and impossibility,

exhilaration and exhaustion,

and I knew enough at 22, 23,

to know that I had to change something.

So I applied for a different job--

manager of the health sciences bookstore

at New York University.

And I did that because prior to moving to New York,

I'd been in bookselling.

And I got an interview.

On interview day, a woman came up to me named Mary.

She introduced herself as the human resources manager

for the book centers,

and she was all frenzy--

frenzied hair, frenzied hands, a ball of energy--

just incredible enthusiasm in every way.

After we exchanged pleasantries,

she leans, sort of, into the table

and looked at me thoughtfully and said,

"You realize you're not qualified for the job

"to which you've applied?

Yeah?"

And I said, "But I can do the job to which I applied."

And she said, "Yes, that may be the case,

but you're not qualified for it."

And I said, at 23,

"So then why did you invite me to this interview?

And she said, "Because you've said that in your resume

"that you're a spoken-word poet, and frankly,

"my stepson's a spoken-word poet,

"and you seemed like you had a lot of chutzpah,

"and I just wanted to meet you.

In fact, I want you to meet someone else."

And she hopped up and scurried into the maze of offices,

returning with a very tall blonde woman

whose ponytail whipped back and forth,

and who seemed to me to be all legs.

And that woman stuck her hand out and said,

"Hello, my name is Max,

"I am the director of the New York University Book Centers,

and I'd like you to follow me."

Which I did.

I don't know what we talked about,

I don't know how long we talked.

No idea.

I was perseverating on my exchange with Mary.

When I left N.Y.U. that day, I thought one thing,

which was that entire episode was a hot mess.

A New York hot mess.

And I dipped right back

into my exhilarating and exhausting life,

didn't think another thing of it.

Until three days later, I got a phone call from Mary, who said,

"Well, if there were a different job,

"say, manager of the accounting operations department,

might you be interested in that?"

And I thought to myself,

"Well, you failed algebra in high school,

but she likes chutzpah, go with the chutzpah."

(laughter)

So, yes, I said,

"Yes, I would, I would love that job."

Six months later,

Max is at my office door,

which was something that she did often.

We loved to chitter chat.

We liked each other.

We talked about her career path,

winding her way through a very male-dominated culture

in bookselling.

We talked about being from the Midwest.

In fact, the industrial Midwest, where both of us had come from.

We talked about poetry.

She's interested in what I was doing.

And at the six-month mark, she started asking me

about going to school.

"Have you thought about enrolling in school?

Have you thought about enrolling in school?"

Max at my door.

And every time she asked, I said no.

And every week, Max was at that door,

that long body holding open that door, saying,

"Have you thought about enrolling in school?"

And me saying, "No, nyet, nein, uh-uh."

Three years later, I graduated from N.Y.U.

with my undergraduate degree.

(applause)

And went on into my life.

Went to grad school, went on, did all kinds of things.

Stayed in touch with Mary and Max.

And one time, I was back in the city and had lunch with Mary,

who again, leaned over the table thoughtfully and said to me,

"You know the story of how and why it is

that you came to work at N.Y.U.?"

And I said, "Well, I have some inkling,

"but I'm interested to know your version of the story.

Please tell me."

And she said, "Well, in you, Max saw some potential,

"some spark that she wanted to oxygenate,

"and so she said that we were going to make a job for you.

"Not that it needed to be made,

"but that we were going to make it,

"and that it should be a management job.

"Because at N.Y.U. at that time, one had to be a manager

"in order to get tuition remission.

And she believed you should have your college degree."

Me, a girl from Detroit, who she had known for 20 minutes.

Here I am years later, in front of you-- poet, several books.

A professor of English, my own students, now,

with books of their own,

teaching students of their own.

And I'm also associate provost for diversity and inclusion

at Boston University,

where, in part, my job is to hold open the door,

to help college administrators and senior leadership

find potential, honor the potential, and ensure

that the circumstances within the university

are such that when we find that potential,

it can thrive among us.

I'm still in touch with Mary.

I'm still in touch with Max.

But they are with me every day, because their lessons drive me.

And the lessons, as I understand them, are,

honoring the potential in others matters.

Taking a risk for that potential matters.

Believing in someone,

when they may not yet believe in themselves, matters.

Matters a lot.

And I think, these days, maybe matters even more.

Thank you.

(cheers and applause)

ANDERMAN: My name is Joan Anderman.

I used to be on staff at theBoston Globe.

I've worked for many years as a music critic.

I really wrote about everything.

I wrote about popular music.

I could count on half a hand how many classical music

concerts I've covered.

A little bit of jazz, but mostly pop and rock.

You're a professional writer, so I'm just curious.

What do you find most challenging about preparing

a story like this, where it's not going to be shared

on the page, but rather on the stage?

The first draft I wrote was... it was like a written piece.

It was... it was basically like a memoir.

There wasn't... there wasn't a lot of action and scene

and dialogue in it.

You know, it was a challenge for me, and I hope I rose to it,

to, you know, create a story that I could tell,

that had movement and shape and scene and dynamic,

and wasn't just, you know, "And then this happened,

and then this happened, and then this happened."

So it's been a real lesson

in verbal storytelling

rather than storytelling on the page.

Two completely different crafts.

Absolutely.

They share a common core

but they're very, very different practices.

- Yeah, yeah. - And I'm just wondering

tonight what would you hope that they audience most remembers

after hearing your story tonight?

You know, we live in a pretty ageist society, culture, world,

and, you know, I think there's this unspoken idea

that you're supposed to kind of find your track and stay on it,

and then kind of wind down

as you get into your 50s and 60s and 70s,

and, you know, stay safe and secure.

But, um, I have found it to be an incredibly ripe, rich time

for adventure, so I hope that that's what people take away,

that you can chase an adventure at any point in your life.

It's a warm summer night

in 2009, and I'm ending it the same way

I've ended countless-- and I mean countless-- summer nights:

hunched over a folding table in a trailer

parked in the bowels of an amphitheater

outside of Boston, tapping on my laptop

and nervously eyeing the clock.

There's a closed circuit TV

on in the corner, and the sound of steel drums

is pouring out of it--

the opening bars of "Margaritaville."

I'm searching my online thesaurus

for synonyms for breezy.

Sunny, laid-back, feel-good, lighthearted.

I am, of course, writing a review

of a Jimmy Buffett concert.

It's his 50th at this venue.

I can't remember how many of them I've covered.

Four, five, six.

It feels like I've been to all 50, though.

Coincidentally, I am about to turn 50.

A numerologist would say that this was no coincidence,

that 50 represents change and growth and personal freedom.

And that all of these 50s were a harbinger

of the sea change that was about to upend my life.

All I know is

something is shifting inside of me.

I've loved being a rock critic for a long time.

It's an incredible job with ridiculous perks.

I've meditated with the Red Hot Chili Peppers,

and I've eaten tacos with Lucinda Williams,

and I've curled up on a sofa with Madonna.

But this night my eye keeps landing

on the antonyms for breezy--

anxious, troubled, vexed.

There's something wrong.

Something is changing, and I don't know what it is.

All I know is something is missing.

Not long after the Buffet concert,

I'm on the phone with my daughter Hannah,

who's a student at Barnard College in New York.

And she's telling me that she's thinking about

taking some time away from school.

She's burnt out, and she needs a change.

And during one of our conversations,

under the auspices of brainstorming, her year off

becomes our year off.

We are so totally pumped about this idea,

and we start making a list.

We can start a small arts festival.

We can become cheesemakers.

We can build a cabin.

We can write songs and make a record.

Hannah ultimately decides to stay in school,

but that last idea, write songs and make a record,

I can't get it out of my head.

When I was young, I dreamed about becoming a musician.

I grew up in L.A. in the 1970s,

and I went to an artsy high school.

I loved to sing.

I was crazy about pop music.

My big fantasy was that Donald Fagen from Steely Dan

would discover me-- even though I didn't actually play music,

he would somehow sense how musical I was.

(laughter)

And he would offer to produce my debut record.

Then Steely Dan would take me on the road,

and you know the story-- I become a star.

That didn't happen.

But I did land an internship at theSeattle Weekly

after college, and they gave me a shot writing about music.

I've never looked back.

I'm certainly not filled with regret over my choices.

I am, however, growing older.

And as I do, certain things were becoming clearer to me.

For instance, the fact that I'm going to die.

I don't just know this, I feel it.

I feel my mortality.

I felt it that night in the suburban amphitheater

searching for new language.

And the feeling was even stronger

a few months later when I was talking with my daughter

about a mother-daughter music project.

So when my 50th birthday rolls around, I'm still doing my job.

I'm going to shows, I'm filing my stories.

But I no longer feel like the luckiest writer in the world.

I feel like a kid with her nose pressed up against the glass,

frustrated and full of desire.

I suppose I could have signed up for guitar lessons,

but instead, I walk into my editor's office one morning

and I quit my job to become a songwriter.

Okay, it wasn't quite that impetuous.

I agonized for months.

I was... I was worried about losing the steady paycheck.

I was worried about losing my identity.

Who would I be if I wasn't Joan Anderman from theBoston Globe?

And what would people think about a middle-aged woman

chasing a rock and roll dream?

But I was done.

I was done being on the outside looking in.

For my going away present, the newspaper gave me a microphone.

And I packed it in a box with a mountain

of reporter's notebooks, and I went home.

I spend the next

two years hiding in my attic with a borrowed guitar

and an amplifier that one of my kids friends left at the house,

trying to play barre chords and hoping against hope

that all the listening and thinking and writing

that I've done about music counts towards my 10,000 hours.

(laughing)

I start posting pictures on Facebook of my fingers

in various shapes on the guitar neck,

waiting for my friends to weigh in and tell me what I'm playing.

Radical transparency felt like the only way

I could deal with the self doubt and the self consciousness.

So I start a blog, as one does, and I start posting audio clips

of my cringeworthy baby steps.

I'm not being self deprecating.

I am a trained professional.

This was really... you know, it was bad stuff.

But I... (laughter)

But I kept going, and I kept digging,

and I kept working very hard to silence the critic inside of me,

because I knew that that was the only way

I could find the songwriter inside of me.

One of my faithful readers--

his name is Dan, he was a former colleague of mine

from theBoston Globe-- he starts leaving

really encouraging comments on my blog.

And he sends me some of his own songs, too, and I love them.

Dan invites me to get together with him

to play music, and I graciously declined.

I had no intention of leaving that attic

for a long, long time.

It was too loaded.

It was too scary.

I wasn't at all ready.

But Dan was tenacious and I was getting very sick of myself.

(exhales) I know better than anyone

that... I know as well as anyone,

not better than anyone, but as well as anyone,

that songs don't exist in a vacuum.

Songs belong in the world.

So Dan was tenacious, and I finally came out of my attic,

and we got together.

And we started playing our songs.

And the next thing you know, we formed a band.

And we are on a tiny stage playing our first show

in a dark rock club.

Everybody I know is there, and as predicted,

it's very loaded and it's very scary.

And it's also the most thrilling

and joyful thing I've ever done in my life.

So maybe middle age seems like a strange time

to kick off a music career.

But, in my experience, it's actually the perfect time.

I don't have stars in my eyes.

I'm not trying to make it, not in any conventional sense.

Although I will say that reading a review

in theBoston Globe of my band Field Day

was fabulously surreal.

(laughter)

The best part of this whole endeavor, really,

the mission critical part of it, is that at my age,

I'm far less concerned with what the world expects of me

then what I plan to do-- in the words of the poet Mary Oliver--

with my one wild and precious life.

Thank you.

(cheers and applause)

I feel like becoming a songwriter

and a musician and kind of kicking off

this whole new creative phase of my life

has given me this enormous sense of possibility

and wide open spaces and room to grow.

You know, it's about being a beginner

and excited about growing and developing.

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