My Turn: Taking risks at every age


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

“I’m door holder,” our grandchild announces, first thing. “Tomorrow,” she adds. It’s a coveted responsibility. She’s been the line leader as well as the one to look after the puzzles, the markers (caps on tight) and the library. But tomorrow she’s got the door. Just before going to bed, she reminds her parents that she has to be on time for school, because she’s got her all-important job. It’s also the top thing on her mind the next morning as she scrambles to dress and wolfs down her breakfast.

“Hurry,” she orders her mom, as mom now rushes to get down sufficient coffee, run a comb through her hair and pack up the lunches. “Race you,” the child calls, galloping to the car, buckling herself into her booster seat (not “the baby car seat”) and squirming to go. “Step on it, Mom,” she cries. The twenty-minute drive is pure soliloquy, that tumble of morning enthusiasms from a child in love with words and stories and utterly in love with having a captive audience mom.

They are pulling into the school parking lot when suddenly the girl goes quiet. Suddenly, she is a force field of stubborn resistance. She does not want to go to school, does not want to get out of the car, and absolutely does not want to be the door holder. “It’s music today,” she finally blurts. “I don’t know the music door.”

That’s the story we grandparents are told. We laugh of course. It turned out okay. Our kiddo went to school and did her job. Which reminded me of a related incident from my children’s childhood. It involved a book my son loved to read — oh how he loved it — over and over. “I’m on Duty Today,” was the title, as I best recall, which told the story of a child selected to do the chores of the classroom. The highlight of her duties was snack time when she was the one to hand out the cookies, one for each. Except that inevitably, one cookie got broken and that was the one she reserved for herself. “I will take the broken one,” she exclaimed, “because I’m on duty.”

Sometimes when my son read this story, he clapped at the end, delighted by the noble actions of the heroine. Sometimes, however, he was teary and had to be consoled. The selflessness was too much for his 5-year-old self to bear. He did not think that a broken cookie was a just reward, and seemed worried that such a sacrifice might be beyond his own capacities. I reassured him. We even practiced eating broken cookies to experience the logic that parts can be just as good as the whole, although, I’m pretty sure he was never quite convinced.

In the end, the book vanished from his list of favorites, perhaps it had lost its magic or its appeal had been replaced by dinosaurs. However, some part of the message had already been absorbed, because he has sustained a keen desire to accomplish assigned duties, although he was never satisfied with a broken cookie. In my experience, children, in general, take to heart the expectations set for them by parents, teachers and even stories. And even faced with an unknown door, they bravely choose to go for it.

So please bear with me, as I stretch a point here, to suggest that our children offer up an example of our innate capacity cope with a moral challenge. Challenges that adults face as well, as we consider the duties and risks we encounter in a democracy. We often perform tasks that are outside our comfort zone. In part, I think, because we are wired to take on more challenging opportunities, and at other times, feel compelled to take a stand despite the risks. Or like my daughter’s dutiful heroine, we choose to forfeit certain privileges in order to do what is in the best interest of others. We act out of a sense of duty and responsibility, which is what democracy depends on.

So, like our children, there are times when we too show up and take our turn at the door. And don’t we also opt for a part rather than the delicious whole, because our democracy depends on each of us?

Ruth Charney lives in Greenfield.