In many families, there is a special person who lights up a room. In my family, that person was my Uncle Leo.

Growing up, Uncle Leo learned sign painting, my grandfather’s trade. But he also showed promise as an artist. In high school, he painted a landscape in oils that he hoped to enter in a contest along with other members of his art class. But the school administrator overseeing the school’s entries mocked Uncle Leo’s haircut and insisted he get a fresh one.

Uncle Leo complied – twice. But as the school group was preparing to leave for the contest in downtown San Antonio, the administrator accused Uncle Leo of not painting the landscape himself. Uncle Leo wasn’t allowed to attend the contest, which offered scholarship money. And my uncle never did pursue art, instead enlisting in the U.S. Navy. He later drove a bus and eventually, ran a sign painting business.

My mother, who still cries more than 40 years later when she recalls this story, remembers well the humiliation her oldest brother endured by someone who should have been looking out for him. It was clear to her as a young girl that her brother, whom she so loved and admired, was being treated unfairly and she concluded that discrimination had undercut his talents. That kind of rebuke, unleashed on a child, carries a sting that is especially sharp.

Things have changed in the many years since. But inequities remain, most obviously in how we invest in our children’s education. Our schools must treat children fairly. The government should be a sanctuary where all children are treated equally. I believe in this deeply and am committed to fighting to uphold my conviction.

My Uncle Leo passed away just before Christmas 21 years ago. He was 40 years old. I recently received something he knew I’d admired as a kid and I keep it on my mantel at home. It’s a bus driver’s change-maker. It reminds me of Uncle Leo. But I can’t help wondering what else might have graced that space above our fireplace had he, unbowed by petty obstacles, followed a different path in life.