She came to Romania to change destinies. In 2000, Leslie Hawke (actor Ethan Hawke’s mother) would dedicate herself to children with limited opportunities and give them the right to education. Initially, as a Peace Corp volunteer, she later realized that her help was needed, after she was impressed by the image of children experiencing extreme poverty. Se realized that education was the only solution for them to overcome their condition. A few years later, through the OvidiuRo Foundation and together with her team, she managed to make a national program Fiecare copil în grădiniță [Every Child in Kindergarten]. About all this difficult bureaucratic journey, about living in Romania, but also about the trials of life, Leslie Hawke opened her soul for you.
What does Romania mean to you, after twenty years spent here?
I can’t tell you how many hours I spent in the first few years I lived there, riding the train between Bacau and Bucharest, asking myself, „Why do I like it so much here?“ I never completely figured that out, but I believe it has a lot to do with how authentic Romania feels. There is something exceedingly „real“ about Romania. It’s the same sense one gets in the dusty little towns of West Texas. And the opposite of the feeling one gets in American cities.
How did you choose to put a brick at the foundation of the Romanian educational system?
It didn’t ever feel like a „choicel“. Back in the spring of 2000, exactly 20 years ago, it occurred to me as I watched a waiter shoo away a little boy in a Bacau sidewalk cafe, that I wanted to dedicate my time as a Peace Corps volunteer to figuring out: (1) Why kids like that were begging on the street instead of learning in school, and (2) What could be done about it?! I had no idea of the metamorphosis I and my obsession with the issue would go through over the next decade and a half, ultimately leading to early education initiatives in communities in all the counties of Romania, codified in a national law and partially funded by the government.
In the beginning, through a small grant, my colleague Maria Gheorghiu and I figured out how to get these lost kids into the school system. And then, over the next few years, we discovered that just getting them in school wasn’t enough. It was so obvious – the poorest kids never attended preschool and often didn’t start primary school until 7 or 8. And by that time it was way too late to catch up. Over time, the program we started, Fiecare Copil în Școala morphed into Fiecare Copil în Grădiniță. Today, OvidiuRo, the NGO that Maria and I founded, works with county school inspectorates and kindergarten teachers throughout Romania – each year training hundreds of teachers and future trainers, providing resources and developing a national network of serious early education specialists. These are not babysitters doing child care – they are skilled, motivated professionals who are improving the quality of education at the grassroots level little by little, day by day, grădiniță by grădiniță. OvidiuRo now distributes, through this teacher network, 100.000 children’s books a year, books designed for kids to write their names in, take home, and show their parents and siblings. (Needless to say, this effort is even more critical at this time when schools are closed and the learning gap between the rural poor and the educated elite is increasing exponentially.)
What emotions do you feel when you are asked about the OvidiuRo and the project „Every child in kindergarten“, which has, meanwhile, become a national program?
I feel proud of what we have accomplished – but uneasy in that the real test of any policy is in its implementation on the ground. I am greatly heartened that Parliament voted to strengthen the legislation in several important ways this past spring. Fiecare Copil în Grădiniță is one small step toward leveling the educational playing field in Romania, but giant steps are still needed – especially with regard to the quality of resources and opportunities available in rural, as compared to urban schools.
You became a very young mother. What piece of advice would you give to mothers at the beginning of the journey?
I don’t think there is much point in giving new mothers advice (especially if they are your daughters-in-law) but if I could advise myself as a young mother, I would say, „Take a deep breath! Enjoy this time. It will pass so quickly – and never return!“
What’s it like to be Ethan Hawke’s mother?
First of all, I was crazy to have a kid (and I did it intentionally!) at the age of 18, but I got incredibly lucky in that our personalities and interests were so compatible. In a certain sense, we grew up together – and there were both advantages and disadvantages to that. I’m proud of what a genuinely good – and sane – person he is. I’m glad that he’s had success in the arts because I know he would be miserable if he hadn’t been able to spend his life doing what he loves. And I’m thrilled he had four children that I get to be grandmother to.
How much did the knowledge acquired in the Faculty of Psychology help you?
I am a big believer in the value of „a liberal arts education“ – spending four years at the very end of your childhood learning a bit of history and science and literature – and most importantly, learning the habit of critical thinking. My university had a very good psychology department, but still, my knowledge of the field was pretty superficial and entirely academic. What it taught me about the research process, scientific method, and human development has been extremely helpful over the years – both in my personal life and professionally.
The big surprise for me was in finding out how much I would continue to learn after university, in the school of life. We think we have it all figured out at 20 – and the next two decades largely involve learning that we hadn’t a clue at 20! And what’s really interesting, are the years after age 40. A quote that I often reflected on in my early 40’s was:
„Are there not colleges for forty-years-old which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world? No, thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live in the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will by evening have become a lie.“ ― Carl Jung
How much do you think your childhood influenced your choices and relational decisions as an adult?
My mother suffered from episodes of severe depression and my parents divorced when I was still a baby. I spent my childhood in my father’s household, which objectively speaking was more stable, i.e., I lived in the same house from age 6 until I went away to college. That in itself created a kind of circle of security, although the household was internally chaotic.
I definitely inherited my mother’s susceptibility to depression, and her impulsivity. But I think I was better able to deal with it than she had been (or perhaps it was a lot less severe). What I do know for sure is that Prozac greatly enriched the second half of my life. I’m convinced that if my mother had had access to SSRIs in her adult years, she would have coped much more successfully – and been a much better mother to all her children. (She had five, and did not entirely rear any of us.)
I think it is a shame that so many Romanians are opposed to the use of anti-depressants. It’s not a cure-all, and I’ve known a number of people for whom anti-depressants simply don’t make any difference. But they made a huge difference for me. It’s a shame for a person to have to endure life-long episodes of debilitating depression and anxiety when there are medications available that can mitigate them so effectively. I found that Prozac enabled me to look more objectively at my own self-sabotaging patterns. Of course, good talk therapy can do that too – but by itself, talk therapy requires a highly gifted therapist – and the process takes a lot longer.
If you were to write a book about your life, what do you think would be the most difficult chapter?
Well, let’s say if my life so far were a play, it could be divided into 3 discrete, equilateral acts: I. Enduring a tumultuous childhood, II. Rearing a very special kid, and III. Accomplishing something I’m proud of.
The most difficult would have to be my childhood, because I was at the mercy of the adults around me, who did not always have my best interests at heart. I couldn’t wait to grow up and be able to make decisions for myself. But the most troubling theme would be my relationships with men – which I relied on far too much. It wasn’t until I arrived in Romania at age 48 that I discovered I really didn’t need a man in my life to feel fulfilled. The right work and other significant relationships could also provide fulfillment, and a great deal more flexibility.
What did your adolescence taste like?
Like something flavorful was missing, but I didn’t know what it was.
What is the hardest part of your life – and the most enjoyable?
Accepting that I’m no longer responsible for making the world better, that I really can just relax and enjoy daily life without feeling like I have to be productive all the time is very nice. The hardest part is observing my body and my mind lose their agility and stamina. I had this absurd presumption that I’d go along healthy and energetic until one day I just died. But that’s not how it works for most people who live into their 70’s, 80s and 90s. You slowly lose your grip. For some, the mind goes first, for others it is various body parts – but for all of us who stay alive long enough, we just simply wear out. Of course, taking care of yourself physically and emotionally throughout your whole life can make a big difference in the quality of later life. But to a large extent it’s a crapshoot. My father got very lucky in that he had an aneurism while watching the World Series (baseball) playoff on TV, and three days later he died, age 84. He still had his mobility and wits about him, and never had to watch himself decline.
You have adopted two children from Ethiopia, and you also have two stepchildren. How was this experience?
I actually didn’t adopt the kids from Ethiopia. I gave them a home for their high school years. It came about rather randomly, and it was not easy. But ultimately it was very rewarding, because they both have gone on to be well-adjusted, contributing members of American society. One is a medical doctor and the other a computer programmer.
Do you have any regrets?
I deeply regret having hurt certain important people in my life. I feel great empathy for mistreated children and dogs, but I can be pretty insensitive to people close to me, especially when I’m stressed. I suppose it’s a self-protection mechanism. I mean, if you are „keeping your eye on the prize“ as Martin Luther King advised, you are not going to pay a lot of attention to other people’s immediate needs.
On an entirely different note, I regret not becoming fluent in Romanian. It was definitely a hindrance in my own understanding and ability to communicate effectively. But I figured out early on that I could either get something done or I could learn Romanian, but there was no way I was going to be able to do both. My brain wasn’t big and nimble enough to handle both those mental challenges at the same time.
What do you want most, right now?
For Donald Trump not to be president of the country where I live and am a citizen.
How was the resettlement in America?
Moving back to the US was surprisingly difficult. Not on a conscious level, but I think it affected my health and overall sense of stability. I felt out of balance for a long time. I mostly attributed that to the fact that I was getting older. But I seem to have kind of bounced back. The importance of time is something we don’t give nearly enough respect to in the 21st century. Everything happens so much faster than our internal processes can handle. The one blessing of the pandemic for many people is that it has slowed us down. My grandchildren hate that, but for me, it’s a very welcome change.
From the point of view of theories on human vulnerability, you are a very brave person. What does vulnerability mean to you?
I’m not well-versed in human vulnerability theory. But I think what you are asking relates to this next question:
What is your super strength?
Not caring all that much about what other people think of me. It affords me a sense of freedom that I believe many people, especially female people, don’t have. I tend to be a risk-taker, in part because I have no problem changing my mind or my course of action. I guess you could say that I don’t feel vulnerable in very many situations, which perhaps makes me appear „brave“.
How would you like people to describe you?
Fearless, generous-spirited, and fun to be with. (Quotes)
What are your guilty pleasures?
Birthday cake. It’s a real addiction. Fortunately, it’s my only serious one.
What message would you have sent to Leslie Hawke 20 years ago?
You are gonna love Romania!