Ever since I knew my dad, he was old. That's what my aunts say, my uncles say; pretty much anyone who knew him would concur that Solomon Masenda was old. However, they would also say he had the most youthful spirit of anyone they ever met. Whether it was breaking into an impromptu song during a lecture, or dancing in any place that music was present, his energy was contagious.
On car rides from the time I was a little kid to around 17 years old, he would tell me to get in the car, that we were heading to Fort Worth or Tulsa or Shawnee or Marshall or wherever we needed or wanted to be. He would drive, and I would ride along. Most of the time, I'd stay up and make conversation. Other times, I would sleep. It's as if he made a mental note of all the times I slept and he made sure to return the favor once I got my driver's license.
The first trip we took after I got my license started as the previous ones did with him telling me the night before that we were leaving to go to Oklahoma the following Saturday morning at 5am, because he didn't want to deal with traffic. We woke up, headed downstairs and he grabbed the keys. We walked to the car together, but he smoothly walked to the passenger side, opened the door and climbed in. I stared at him for a few moments, wondering what he was doing. Laughing his big laugh, he rose his head out the door and bellowed, "Come on, son. We have to get to Kabba's house," and climbed back in. I had no intention of driving; I hadn't even driven out of Denton County. Not only did this man want me to drive, he wanted me to drive despite the sun not coming up anytime soon and for the next three hours.
"Man, I can't drive that far. It's early. What if something happens?" Half-awake, he turned his head, looked at me and said, "It's okay. If something happens, I am with my son," and promptly fell asleep. I pulled out of the driveway, hit 35 and made it to Oklahoma and back with no incident and him sleeping pretty much the entire way.
From that moment on, when we were in a car together, he never drove. The one time I begged him to drive because I was tired, he got in the car and drove on the shoulder, on purpose, for what seemed like an eternity until I got fed up and told him to pull over. He laughed that huge laugh again and pulled over to the side of the highway. We switched seats with me now furious behind the wheel, him still laughing as he climbed in the passenger seat and we continued our journey to wherever we were going.
My dad made education a priority in the house. He led by example, as well as aloud, as he repeatedly told my sisters and me that he was not raising brain-damaged kids. He made this abundantly clear when he sat me down at 8 years old and we watched Lean on Me together. It ended up becoming one of my favorite movies, planting the seeds for what eventually became a career in education and served as fuel for plenty of moments between myself and Anthony Allen, my best friend of 20+ years and the one person who quotes this movie with me scene-for-scene.
Speaking of brain-damaged kids, my dad had the damndest way of showing students how much he loved them and wanted them to succeed. When we would talk about school, he would refer to his students as dumbbells and yahoos. He would walk me around Wiley College as early as eight years old and introduce me to his students. He would bellow, "This is my son, Kenneth Masenda," and I would shake hands with his students for years and years. I would sit in his office while students would show up with their issues and listen to my dad, an English teacher, talk with them about every aspect of their college experience. Rarely were the talks about his class. Once again, he was intentionally planting the seeds for what my career would become.
He would challenge his students when they tried to play him, call them yahoos for not turning in their work on time and dumbbells when they complained about failing an exam despite admitting they didn't study at all or, if so, at the last minute. His students would look at me and laugh, say "Your dad is crazy," and leave his office with a reality check and ready to correct what needed to be fixed. It was evident each May during graduation season at Wiley College when random students would come to me, unprompted, and say how much they loved my father for staying on them, for demanding excellence of them and encouraging them to graduate. Years later, he would laugh as I came in the house exhausted from a long day, claiming that "These kids get on my damn nerves. Why can't they just act right?" He kept laughing and told me, "Some of them will get it; you'll see." The same scenes replayed at graduation ceremonies at Tyler Junior College and Blinn College, where I work now. The man knew what he was talking about.
When he was excited about something, you knew it. If LeBron James was playing that night, he would say, "Son! Let's watch LEBRONNNNN JAMES," and plop in front of the TV before tip-off. When I told him that Cornel West was giving a lecture at Southern University, he didn't even attempt to hide his excitement. One thing about my dad is he loved people who he deemed as intelligent and Cornel West fit in that category. I took off work early and drove from TJC to Wiley to pick him up. As I got on campus, he was ready to roll, telling anyone who would listen, "MY SON IS TAKING ME TO SEE CORNEL WEST!" It was one of the few times he didn't sleep in the car.
My dad had a way of making the most complex decisions seem so easy. After I got laid off in 2009, I felt a mixture of relief and sadness. When I told him about getting laid off, he said, "That’s okay. You can move back home and go to graduate school." Grand opening, grand closing. To him, it was that simple. I moved back home and completed 30 hours of graduate school, going nonstop for 12 months and received my master’s degree. As happy as he was, we both knew it wasn't the end. He wanted me to go get my Ph.D., but I wasn't convinced. He chuckled, said “Okay,” and left it alone. Once I started my first job in higher education at TJC and found out that a healthy percentage of the people in my department not only had their master’s already but also a significant amount of experience, I called him in Marshall and said, "I'm going to get my Ph.D." He replied, "Good. Now call me later. I am watching the news," and hung up. No matter what was going on, he made sure to be in front of the TV every night at 5:30 to watch the world news. Nothing was going to interrupt that, not even me declaring that I was going to get my Ph.D.
He was all about helping people find their passion. It's obvious in the number of Facebook posts and tweets I've seen from his former students. He challenged and encouraged anyone who said they wanted to do something, especially if it had to do with education. When it was decided that I would go get my doctorate, he was my unofficial chair, telling me to listen to everything my actual chair told me to do, no matter what. "If the chair knows what she is doing, you will be finished in no time." He never asked me when I would be done; he didn't have to. We spoke about the process every week, and since he went through it years ago, he was the perfect person to go through the journey with. When it was time for me to defend my dissertation, he walked into A&M-Commerce like he owned the place. We looked at each other, laughed, and about an hour or so later, we took a picture together as Dr. Masenda. Seeing him so happy was the best day of my life.
My dad was predictable and unpredictable. He would decide on when to head back to Marshall on what time the Dallas Cowboys played. If they played at noon, he would leave for Marshall as soon as the game was over. If they kicked off at 3 or later, he would leave early to get back to Marshall before kickoff. He would call the entire team useless as he wore a Dallas Cowboys jersey.
He would do the electric slide to any and every song. He refused to learn a new dance, saying "New dances are for Yahoos," when I would bring it up. When got his US citizenship in 2008, one of the first things he did was vote for Obama. Once again, he valued intelligence and anytime my dad would see him on TV, he would say, "I am voting for Obama. OBAMA IS INTELLIGENT." He would ask me to go with him to the gas station to fill his tank, only to tell me he left his wallet at home when we pulled up. For all he was to so many people, filling his tank or hearing him ask, "Can you put $20 in my tank, so I can get to Marshall?" was the least I could do. Lord willing, there will be more opportunities to fill his tank next lifetime.