“Is that candy?” The sharp, accusatorial inquiry sliced jarringly through, and ruined, an otherwise uneventful afternoon of arithmetic.
My heart stopped. The jig was up. I was caught dead-to-rights eating M&Ms in Mrs. Reeves ‘ 7th grade class. My short, pleasant life was ending. I was instantly convinced life would forever more be about shame and atonement.
“Give me that candy and you march right out into that hall and stand by the door.”
I gave to Mrs. Reeves the contraband and trudged for the door. This was bad, but not terrible. I would not have to do extra homework or take a ruler to the knuckles. Things could have been much worse, I decided.
And then it came. Wholly uncalled for and without a hint of Christian charity, the septuagenarian Mrs. Reeves, who was scarily and inexplicably a dead ringer for George Washington, hurled The Curse. “And I hope your daddy catches you!”
My father was superintendent of the small school. His office was in the same building as the classroom and there was a possibility of being seen by him while I suffered my punishment. He was usually engaged in meetings and other things of which a seventh-grader had no understanding, so I felt reasonably safe. Still, Mrs. Reeves, whom we all knew to be a good Baptist and thus very close with God, had issued the curse.
I stood in the hall praying for the bell. After a while, my thoughts by then oscillating among fear, prayer, and cowboy fantasies, I sensed a disturbance in the force. Far down the darkened hall came the silhouette of a massive figure powering my way. Dad! No one else on that campus had his size or his forceful gait. No one else pushed a visible wake from his momentum. My eschatological nightmares were to be realized.
I quickly resolved to handle this like a man. I would calmly but with obvious repentance, admit my error. I had no idea what awful punishment would be handed me, but as the son of this strong man, I would take my lumps without whining, without excuse, in the best traditions of our proud family. This was the only honorable alternative.
Dad came close with an expression of surprise and disappointment. He asked simply why I was standing in the hall. I took as deep a breath as I could, squared my shoulders — and began hiccoughing tears uncontrollably. I couldn’t get a word out. Gasping and sobbing, gasping and sobbing, I tried to explain about the candy. Whether it was compassion or concern that someone would see his son completely falling apart, he put his arm around me and swiftly escorted me into his office.
After finally calming me, he asked again what happened. This time, I explained the simple facts of my sin. I don’t know what he expected, but he seemed stunned at first. Then, his face wrinkled into a brief grimace. He was exasperated – seriously exasperated. Although he vehemently denied it in later years, he said, “My god, Russ! If you’re going to get into trouble, make it for something worthwhile!”
“Make it for something worthwhile,” he had said. Fortunately, I did not take this as a challenge to do time in the state pen. It was, however, a learning experience and a clear indication of my dad’s attitude about life. Take risks, even break the rules, but don’t bother with the petty, the insignificant ones. Take the risks that matter. Take the risks which at least have the capacity to salve the pain of failure because you’ve attempted something significant, and that at most deliver the great rewards.
Dad had risked to secure equal facilities and equal education for Blacks & Whites in our Delta school of the 1950’s and 1960’s. He helped lead the state fight for higher teacher and administrator state requirements, to have a modern teacher retirement system, for higher teacher pay, a new school funding system, and for many other concerns. Some were successes; some were not. So his frustration with me was not that I had found trouble. It was rather that the effort and the trouble were from such an insignificant risk. Life, I think he was saying, is too short for mediocre actions and petty risks.
Life need not be grand to be valuable. We cannot control all risks: some are forced upon us. But the greater risk should yield the greater reward, the greater growth, and the life more fulfilled. I occasionally still fight the inane fight, failing to heed the lesson given. Now however, when I consider a risk, I forever remember his admonition. I am thus less likely to take a risk for an immaterial result. Better still, I am more likely to accept a burdensome risk – if the product is truly, “something worthwhile.” Thanks, Dad.