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Whatever Comes My Way

In the face of loss, I teach my students, my nephews and myself that all hardship can be transformed into value.

Winning life—Harvette Nelson in Chicago, May 2024. Photo by Susan Forner.

by Harvette Nelson

There was something in the air in 2002—an anticipation of change. Coming home from work, I’d pause in the doorway and look around, half-expecting to find it waiting for me. But everything was as I’d left it. I would put down my bag, kick off my shoes and set to work grading my student’s assignments. The change—whatever it was—was yet to arrive. I braced myself with prayer to the Gohonzon: When it came, I would be ready. 

In fall, the phone rang. It was a friend of my sister’s calling to tell me that my sister had suffered a massive heart attack and was on life support. Apparently, my sister, unbeknownst to anyone in the family, had been suffering from a dire illness that led to the heart attack. She was young, in her early 50s, and the mother of twin 16-year-old boys.

In the two days following that phone call, my sister suffered two more heart attacks, the second of which ended her life. The death shocked our entire family, no one more so than her sons, who went about with their heads bowed, numb to the world. Overnight, I became their adopted mother. They moved in, and of course, that rearranged everything in our lives.

Photo courtesy of Harvette Nelson.

My life at the time was full to the brim as a full-time teacher and a district leader in the SGI. I began to tutor the boys at home, mostly in reading and math, my specialties, but also in life skills they’d never learned, like navigating public transportation, cooking, doing their own laundry, etc. 

My prayer for them was the same as it was for my students: to grasp the immense potential within their lives. Whatever they put their minds to, they could accomplish. 

Defeat is not an option. This had been the spirit of my mother, active in the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago, and the spirit pulsing in the SGI that drew me to practice Buddhism 20 years earlier, at a time when I was numb with shock. 

For three years, I taught abroad in Nigeria, which I remember foremost for its beauty and the warmth of its people. In 1981, however, sectarian and political conflict swept the city I lived in. In the face of such violent loss of life, I lost sleep, and hope. 

Just before leaving for Nigeria, I’d heard of the SGI, a movement whose aim was “world peace through individual happiness.” That had resonated with me at the time but struck me anew while in Nigeria as the most enlightened and important mission statement I’d ever heard. Soon after returning to Chicago, I sought out this people’s movement, founded by educators, received the Gohonzon and began my practice. 

I remember one student who came up to study my face a few months after I’d begun chanting. “Ms. Nelson,” he said, “you look happy.” Indeed, I was regaining a deep sense of purpose in my life.

To high school students, Sensei said:

There is no one who does not have a mission in this world. You would not have been born if you did not have a mission to fulfill. (Discussions on Youth, p. x)

This was the message I consistently conveyed to my students and to myself. Two years after my sister passed away, her sons, my nephews, were changed people. They’d become excellent, self-motivated students with many new friends. Winning in life had made them courageous. 

Just as soon as I’d gotten my bearings as a mother, however, I was met with the most daunting challenge of my professional career—the death of a student, a 10-year-old boy. It shocked our entire community and aired on the news. I was asked to step in as the teacher for his class.

Each day was so heavy. You could feel it, could see the weight of it bowing the heads of the students. Many times, in the middle of a lesson, one student would break down in tears, followed by a handful of others, and the room would erupt in sobs. 

Day by day, however, we worked through the pain and shock of senseless loss of life. I put their names on my altar and chanted that each would awaken to and make the most of their unlimited potential. Through our many dialogues over the course of that year, each student profoundly deepened their commitment to themselves, their friends, families and community. We learned a lesson that is not often taught in schools, which is that everything, even tragedy, can be transformed into a source of value if we are determined to do so.

I had the great joy of watching my nephews graduate from college with honors. They are living purposefully, aware that their causes have an impact on the wider world. 

In 2011, after over 40 years of teaching, I retired. But, as the saying goes, there’s no retirement age in faith. I’m active in my community and very much involved in the projects that are important to me—a food co-op sourced by local farms and a scholarship fund for high school graduates whose circumstances prevent them from immediately pursuing college education. I support the SGI-USA Chicago Culture Center as much as possible, engage fully in every SGI activity, and keep up a weekly rhythm of home visits. I’m currently on a personal “seed planting” campaign, in which I challenge myself to talk about Buddhism with others. I find it’s quite easy, now, having overcome so much.

When young people ask me what kind of challenges I’ve overcome by practicing Buddhism, I ask them, “What kind of challenge do you want?” They can take their pick. Every week, I visit two young women, both fairly new to Buddhism, who nonetheless have a terrific grasp of this philosophy and are applying it to achieve clear goals in their daily lives. I think it’s in part because I’ve had such a rich life that I find it easy to relate to them, despite our difference in years. 

Precisely because the world today is full of so much senseless loss, the young people have to win. They have no choice but to win. Fortunately, they were born to.

Q: What advice would you give the youth?

Harvette Nelson: What I can say for sure is that you have to be determined that you’re going to win. Obstacles will arise, but most important is to be consistent in your practice and never give up.

June 14, 2024, World Tribune, p. 5

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