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Mika Brzezinski: How my father's passion for education inspired dinner-table debates – and lessons for a lifetime

Mika Brzezinski remembers her late father, Zbigniew Brzezinski and the lessons he taught her for Father's Day.

My father was known around the world as one of the greatest strategic minds. He was a geopolitical genius, counseling Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter and brokering peace deals from the Middle East to the Panama Canal.

He also taught classes at Columbia and Harvard for many years, and people who studied with the great Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski always told me he was almost intimidating in his intelligence. He would speak in complete paragraphs, so dense that they were difficult to parse.

That’s how he was at home too. He was darkly hilarious and loved to have fun, but intellectually, he constantly challenged me and my brothers Mark and Ian. The dinner table was a place for debate and we were expected to use our voices. I was 5, my brothers were 7 and 8, and we’d be having a full-throated discussions about the politics of the day. (I was always the family diplomat – good practice for Morning Joe!)

Education was a massive focus in my family. I think that came largely from my father’s struggle to escape Poland and Hitler, finally making it to McGill and Harvard. He knew that education was the ticket to making the world better.

But I was frustrating for my father because I wasn’t easy to educate. My brothers went to Langley High School and my dad would sit down after a long day at the White House to help them formulate their ideas for a thesis paper. But I was different. And finally, when I was 13, I came home from my public school with makeup and a Farrah Fawcett flip. They had already started to recognize I wasn’t hanging out with the right crowd and my grades weren’t where they should have been.

Well! My father took one look, pulled out his typewriter, and applied in my name to The Madeira School, a fancy all-girls institution. Smaller classes, no boys – he felt sure this was what I needed. Now, I had no idea he’d done this. One day I walked downstairs and he stuck out his hand and said, “Congratulations. You’ve been accepted to Madeira, one of the best schools in the country.” I had no idea what Madeira was, but it wasn’t a question, it was an order. I never thought I had a choice – my father always planned with us all the way through to college and advanced degrees.

So I met with the headmistress, Jean Harris, and prepared for my new school. Soon after something shocking happened: Jean Harris drove five hours from Madeira and killed her boyfriend, who had apparently been cheating on her. She led Madeira, her boyfriend was “Scarsdale Diet Doctor” Herman Tarnower – the story blew up. So in the months after my admittance we had one of our greatest family dinner-table debates: Should “crime of passion” be considered an acceptable defense?

This is why my father shaped all of us kids so much. Mark was there basically litigating the Harris case, so no one was shocked he grew up to be a lawyer. Madeira got me on the right path and launched my television career through a production program at the school. He gave us all the tools to be as impactful as we could be.

But really, a debate with my dad was unwinnable. He knew everything about me, which always made it challenging. Still, it made me grow up to be a resilient badass. Even when he was away for work, we’d feel his influence all around us.

He and my mom parented tough, but tender too. Whenever I’d walk into the room, even if he was giving a speech to hundreds of people, he would melt. He was as tapped into the challenges I experienced as an adolescent and later, as any woman would have been. He used his intuition with people often, whether in an everyday conversation or when mitigating peace in the Middle East.

He had a passion for the human condition and different points of view and I saw that when he took me around the world on his trips. When we went to Tunisia, for example, I was his note taker for a meeting with Yasser Arafat – and he expected me to have an in-depth conversation with him afterward about it.

It was a given that I would have a seat at the table just like my brothers and just like any other man. His high expectations helped me always know my value and his work inspired me to help other women to do the same. I get so much fulfillment from it and I’m sure that’s a reflection of my dad. He taught me it’s never enough just to fix the world for yourself.