Small Town | Big Hopes

The smell of burning cedar and pine wood. Fresh, crisp morning dew lightly hovering over the

damp grass. Warm familiar scents drift softly from my memory and imprint forever upon my

heart the reality that was home.

My identical twin brother and I were born in a city of 33,000 but raised in its outskirts on a farm

in a town of 875. The journey of our lives [so far] has taken a scenic route. Much of childhood

was spend at grandma and pawpaw’s house, on their farm. We got eggs from the hen house.

We slaughtered our own meat (never name the animals). Very early in life, we learned that you

worked for not only what you wanted; you worked for what you needed.

The undergirded tones of my life responsible for much of what I have become is attributed to an

emphasis on family, faith and education.

Family - I am one of [now] 24 grandchildren with lots of other cousins, aunts and uncles, and

great-aunts and great-uncles. Every Sunday we had family dinner. My grandma’s moderately-

sized kitchen ever at full capacity. There was love. There was support. We are the descendants

of slaves. Slavery not only inhibited family formation but made stable, secure family life difficult

if not impossible. That reality not so far removed from present day, my family has always

maintained – with doggedness – an almost sacrosanct necessity of being a strong unit.

My mother remains the single most influential and important person in my life. She raised my

brother and me as a single parent. My father without question loved us dearly but dealt with

addiction issues most of our lives and was therefore absent. Looking back, it was best he not be

a part of our lives during those times. We did enjoy time with him and retrospectively, because

it was so scarce and with his recent passing away, those memories have become more precious.

The inherent struggles that accompany single parenthood are daunting. And I saw this up close

every single day. But I was also privileged to bear witness to grit and determination and

survival.

My mother has always been rigid in her standards, but flexible in her approach. Life does not

happen in a nice, neat straight line. It curves. It stops. It is the ability to adjust and keep moving

that makes the difference. She worked hard to ensure our needs were met. She equally

emphasized self-reliance, encouraging us to learn and do for ourselves. It was both a help to

her, and an assurance for us that we would live a life free from dependence on anyone or

anything else. She has always been encouraging. When we were in high school, her job

experienced a massive lay-off. We had no savings; no safety net to fall back on. My brother and

I both worked part time jobs to assist with bills. Our jobs, by the way, never infringed on our

studies nor our extracurriculars. We were both a combination of state medalists in wrestling

and track.

Thankfully, we were able to secure government housing (a nice way of saying the inner-city

projects). I say thankfully because not everyone is so fortunate in their misfortune. It was

tough. Drug deals on the corner. Having to – some nights – sleep on the floor because there

were shootings. It was disheartening. But she would remind us that this was just a chapter in

the book of our lives. That this was not final. But that God had a lesson we needed to learn, and

this was how we would learn it. “God gives the test first, and the lesson after.” She was right. I

learned that the way out of poverty is education. She was blessed to see both her sons

graduate from 4-year colleges and universities, and to see me become the first person in our

family to achieve a graduate degree. She is also grateful that we helped to build her dream

home. She is and remains my hero.

Faith – I am a Christian. Church was a big part of my growing up – I lived in the “Bible Belt” after

all – and it went beyond sermons and nattily attired congregants. It was significant as a part of

my family’s history. My enslaved ancestors established and relied heavily on their churches.

Religion and the assembly of other believers offered a means of catharsis. Like them, we

retained our faith in God and found refuge in church. Wednesdays were for bible study. Sunday

mornings were for Sunday school and church services. Aside from lessons on ethics and God’s

will, church provided me an environment to public speak. Testimony time, usually after praise

and worship and right before the sermon, offered an opportunity to stand before the

parishioners and give an account of any good thing that happened to you the week prior. Here,

I was coached on how to stand when addressing an audience, how to project my voice, and the

significance of devices to emphasize a point, like gestures and repetition. I remain grateful for

these formative experiences.

But as is the case with anything, there were incongruencies with the evangelical vein of

Christianity in which I grew up. This was perplexing and frustrating. There were deep-rooted

norms of underpinning hypocrisy accompanied by unspoken exceptions. For instance:

● “Homosexuality is wrong (Lev. 18:22) but we will eat all the pork and shrimp we want”,

seeming to discard those dietary prohibitions (Lev. 11:2–3, 10).

● “Drinking alcohol is a sin”, but the first miracle Jesus performed was turning water into

wine.

Rather than be turned off by this, I decided I would take the approach of studying scripture for

myself and coming to an understanding of it outside of the confines of dogma. It has given me

space to doubt, which is healthy. It has given me a license to question, which anyone who

desires to grow should. And it paved the way for me to have a healthy disassociation with

wrong-hearted cultural norms that sound good as a talking point or on a bumper sticker but

aren’t fit for practice. It was this tact that more than assisted me in my education and career

endeavors.

Education – Education was of utmost importance in my family. It was the golden check that

could be cashed at any time; a license that could never be revoked. My grandmother was the

driver of this sentiment. I was always encouraged to seek wisdom and understanding. One hour

of studies was required after school every day. If we didn’t have homework, we would copy

from the dictionary or thesaurus. I rather enjoyed expanding my vocabulary.

I went on to double major in Music Education and Political Science at East Carolina University; a

university with 28,000 students. I excelled. Homecoming King, the Head Drum Major of the ECU

Marching Band for an unprecedented 3 years, elected Student Body Treasurer and elected

Student Body President and voting member of the University Board of Trustees – at the time,

only the second black student in the school’s 102-year history to do so. My hyper-activity in

undergrad lent itself to a work ethic and drive that propelled me to my first job out of college;

the United States Senate.

Career – I never forgot “where I came from.” It was a blessing and an affirmation of the true

power of grit that I worked for U.S. Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC). I served as a Staff Assistant, an

important administrative role that honestly keeps the office running. After a year doing that,

my heart felt a calling to return home to teach.

I began my tenure as Director of Bands for Rocky Mount High School. Continuing not to

abandon the lessons of my upbringing, I helped to transform an anemic program into a thriving

performance organization, achieving High School Teacher of the Year, District High School

Teacher of the Year, and NC Encore Award recipient; all this in my first year. I facilitated life

through music for my students, many of whom experienced identical upbringings as me. What

a blessing to take the hard-knock lessons of my life, to be proof-positive to my students of what

they could become if they were determined to become more than their circumstances. After 3

years of much success, I decided to become the first person in my family to pursue a Masters

degree.

I was accepted to The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political

Management. While in school, I was also the principal horn for the GWU Wind Ensemble and

Orchestra and was elected to the Student Body Senate, providing a forceful voice for graduate

students. I worked concurrently full time for U.S. Congressman G. K. Butterfield (D-NC). I

currently am the Director of Scheduling for Congressman Conor Lamb (D-PA).

Now what – The individuals and experiences of my life have steered me to a trajectory of

service.

In this service, I have relied on my own story; proof-positive that if you want more, get up and

do more. If you want better, go out and be better. You are not your current circumstances. And

along the way of life’s journey, you will face obstacles. But with education and experience(s),

you are equipped to take the stumbling blocks that were meant to trip you up and make them

the stepping stones that lift you up.

I appreciate my humble roots; my meager beginnings. I’ve had a scenic route of life and

experiences. And I am motivated by a desire to serve. As far as what’s next for me, I believe

elected political office is one of the sincerest forms of public service. I envision getting involved

politically. Stay tuned. You may see me on a ballot sooner rather than later. After all, I am from

a small town with big hopes.

Written by: Tremayne Smith