Many years ago, Frank Lepreau, who was a Quaker elder and friend of mine, handed me a piece of paper with a Latin phrase on it. We had been talking about a difficult situation I had been dealing with at the time and Frank thought that it was time for me to benefit by some of his own life experience.
Frank chose not to translate the phrase for me just yet but went on to tell me how it came to him some sixty years ago. Early in Frank’s career, with advanced medical degrees at Harvard and Yale behind him, his innovative work as a young surgeon was being recognized by many within his field as creative, new and bold, with a determined emphasis on listening and caring deeply about his patients.
Frank told me that detractors though were afoot, stirring up trouble, and he sometimes found himself maligned by forces that he couldn’t see and didn’t understand. Aspects of ego, politics, unwritten medical protocols and down right meanness by some were cropping up all over the place even as his good work continued within his medical practice.
One of Frank’s mentors, a renowned chief surgeon at the hospital where Frank worked became aware of the situation and summoned Frank to his office. Frank entered the spacious office and greeted the head of surgery at his desk. A discussion ensued that Frank found helpful to his present situation, after which his superior handed him a piece of paper with a Latin phrase on it. Frank looked up, and then gazed behind the surgeon, and noticed the same phrase prominently framed in calligraphy on the wall overhead.
Frank, having studied Latin in college and of course having used it routinely in medical school, immediately was able to translate the phrase. Frank told me he took that piece of paper and kept it between the pages of his medical books from that day forward.
And what did the phrase say? It said, “Illegitimi non carborundum,” which loosely translated means, “don’t let the bastards get you down.”
“Don’t let the bastards get you down,” has remained on the handwritten piece of paper that Frank gave me back in 1996, which I keep in one of my favorite books entitled, “On Being Present To Children,” ever since. And though my cherished friend Frank died four months ago at the age of ninety-nine, I’ve recently called on his life’s wisdom, and that phrase, to stay me through the course just recently while dealing with spiteful politics, meanness and unknown forces as I continue to do my work caring for young people within my community.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of many community members and leaders, the most recent spat of attempted sabotage has been quieted for the present moment. But I continue to keep a photocopy of Frank’s handwritten phase, passed to him long ago and then onward to me, tucked in the corner of a photo frame in my office that few people notice, that reads when translated, “Don’t let the Bastards Get You Down!” For me, it helps to keep the phrase close to where the work unfolds day in and day out.
Thank you, my dear and departed friend Frank Lepreau, and thank you, members of my community here in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, for your confidence and trust in me and most importantly, in this needed and worthy work.
Kevin Lee, June, 2012