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Numbers Don't Lie
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Numbers Don't Lie

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

On Mondays, we bring you statements of personal conviction as part of our series This I Believe. Today our essay comes from Martha Stark, who grew up in public housing in Brooklyn and is the first African American woman to serve as finance commissioner for New York City.

Here's our series curator, independent producer Jay Allison.

JAY ALLISON reporting:

Some people believe in their jobs. Others hold their jobs because of their beliefs. Martha Stark does both. Her belief permeates her life. If you were to look at her essay on paper, you'd see that clearly. She references the object of her belief 28 times in her 497 words.

Here's Martha Stark with her essay for This I Believe.

MARTHA STARK reporting:

I believe in the power of numbers.

I don't know when my belief in numbers began, perhaps when I was a child. My high school dropout bookkeeper dad came home each week to tell us that he had played the numbers, my neighborhood's equivalent of Lotto, but lots more complex.

Dad would convert every thought and dream to a number with help from his trusty dream book. You had a dream about mice, consult the book. That's a 12, 17 or 21. What was the mouse doing? Climbing out of a garbage can? Well, climbing is a 21, 34 or 42 and garbage is a 17, 39 or 32. So let's play 12 and 21, the reverse of each other, 17, it appeared twice, and 34, the year your mom was born.

Perhaps it was my mom's retort to my dad's obsession with playing the numbers that helped me understand the power of numbers. She cited my dad's record. You have hit the number once in the last 150 weeks. We could have used that money to replace the 15-year-old couch. Or perhaps it was my mother's focus on our grades. You got a 97? What's your strategy for those extra three points.

Maybe it was my dad's legitimate number playing, his love of doing his friend's tax returns to earn a little extra money, a skill he taught his 15-year-old daughter that led to my current job as the New York City Finance Commissioner, AKA the tax collector.

But numbers also scare me. What does it mean that my mom died when she was only 46 and I was only 21? What does it mean that my brilliant doctor brother, who told me he would live forever, followed suit and he too died at the age of 46 on his 17th wedding anniversary?

Maybe it is just that numbers don't lie. Management gurus often say you are what you measure, which might explain why I haven't been on a scale in the last year. Whatever the reason, my belief in numbers grows stronger every day.

As I try to improve what we do at the New York City Department of Finance, an agency responsible for collecting more than $18 billion in city revenues.

As I try to persuade my 17-year-old niece that she has to go to college. Most people wouldn't expect her to amount to much as a child of a single mother, but it helps to show her then numbers. Without a college education, she won't be able to pay for her manicures, pedicures, makeup consultation and the fancy car she so wants.

As I try to live each day as if it could be my last. I turned 46 on June 30. I know numbers will guide me through the future. Numbers may scare me, but they also tell me it's likely I'll make it well past 46 and keep serving my beloved hometown.

Knowing that, I'm going to keep believing in numbers.

ALLISON: Martha Stark with her essay for This I Believe. We invite everyone to submit statements of personal beliefs to our series. To do that and to see what all the other essayists have written, visit NPR.org. You can also call for information. 202-408-0300.

For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

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