I grew up on a peanut farm in DeLeon, in central West Texas. It was a good life. I hoed peanuts and thrashed pecans. I picked cotton and followed the hay balers. There was just one part I couldn’t abide. Out in the fields I got the worst sunburns you can imagine. With my red hair and fair complexion, I’d blister and peel, blister and peel. Sunscreen hadn’t been invented yet, and when someone came up with the idea of those big umbrellas you could prop above your tractor seat, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Maybe I was lucky I got so sunburned. If I hadn’t, I might never have gotten into politics. But I wanted to get away from the sun, the grit, and the peanut straw that always found its way down my collar, and so I decided to get an education. My mother encouraged me every day in this pursuit, but it was a lesson from my high school English teacher, Lucille Duke, that really stuck with me.
Mrs. Duke had assigned my class to do a book report on The Egyptian, a popular novel by Mika Waltari. I finished the book early and went up to Miss Duke and said,“I’m ready to do my report.” She said, “Well, Benny, if you read that book so quickly, you have time to read another one. Find yourself a copy of Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.” I didn’t think the extra work was quite fair, but once I opened Les Miserables I didn’t mind. It had a greater impact on me than anything else I’ve ever read. Les Miserables tells the story of the rogue Jean Valjean during the French Revolution, and touches on the grandest themes of the human condition: suffering, poverty, heroism, redemption. It lit a spark in my 16-year-old soul. I thought to myself, “This is your day. Do not waste an hour.” As corny as it may sound, I’ve tried to live that way ever since.
A year later I moved away to attend the University of Texas. But the day I opened Les Miserables was the day I left the peanut farm.