Forward to Books that Build Character

ROBERT COLES

I recall the first child I had to “transfuse,” a verb I kept hearing all the time — a nine-year-old girl with leukemia who had more than an inkling that she’d never celebrate another birthday…. The girl died a month or so later, but during those few weeks her parents and she read and read, and did a lot of talking about what life means, and the manner in which one ought to live it — an impressive kind of moral scrutiny on their part, under great duress. We are lucky indeed to have such stories as a great heritage, a moral reservoir of sorts, from which we may all constantly draw.


Days into my years as a medical intern (an exhausting, demanding, scary time when young men and women keep learning, night and day, how much they have to learn), I was on the hospital pediatric service, working with children who had leukemia. We had no drugs then that saved such seriously endangered lives, only blood and more blood to offer those boys and girls, so unlucky through the dread action of an inscrutable fate, as they all well understood. In that regard, I recall the first child I had to "transfuse" a verb I kept hearing all the time — a nine-year-old girl who had more than an inkling that she'd never celebrate another birthday. When I had gotten her latest pint of blood suitably going into her right leg (her arms had ceased being useful in that respect: over-used veins), she gave me a smile, even as I visibly relaxed (one more tough job done). I prepared to leave, mouthed some piety I've long forgotten. But she snapped me out of the complacency I'd learned to summon as protection (Lord, the terrible tragedies in that ward, bed after bed of them!) by asking me this, "How many more bottles will you be giving me?" Quickly, I said I didn't know — thinking she was trying to pin me down as to the details of a therapeutic regimen. But she had a much broader, larger perspective, as I quickly discovered. "I mean, before I die."

Of course, I hastened to reassure her — but she had scant patience with my evasive platitudes. When they'd been uttered, she countered with this, "I'll never get to ten. Ten is two digits, Daddy [an engineer] keeps saying. But I hope before this leukemia wins, I can win." Needless to say, I wondered what she had in mind — this resort to a kind of military imagery, so I thought. She clearly was inviting me, indirectly, to pursue the matter, and I did — I asked her which victories she had in mind. She told me right off, "I'd like to be good, so people would say: "she was a good girl.'" My response, of course, was all to predictable, well intentioned, and yes, sincere: she was "good," so I kept noticing. But she begged to disagree, "I'm all right here; I'm even good, here. But before this [illness], I was a 'hellion.'" Who in the world told her that, I wondered aloud, and was told: her mom and her dad, both. On what basis, I wanted to know. She was ready with a list that made me wonder whether she was exaggerating wildly, dramatically, a consequence of her state of mind as she struggled with a (then) fatal illness. After all, I'd heard other such afflicted children hype things up as they remembered what had been, and came to terms with what wouldn't ever be. But the next day her dad and mom confirmed her self-description, and her mom added this, a remark so pointed, and surprising I believe I recall it virtually word for word over three decades later, "She tells us she wants to prove herself a really good person before she dies, and she asks us for help [in becoming so]."

There followed, of course, a discussion among the three of us as to the "meaning" of this, and the best response — not that I knew what to say, to recommend. I was not then a husband or a father, and I had no training yet in child psychiatry and had exactly two weeks' experience in a pediatric rotation. Unfortunately, I had a certain narrowness of vision that came with my situation at the time, and so I kept trying to interpret the girl's self-appointed ambition or purpose as an idiosyncratic response to a quite dreadful disease that was, alas, nearing its culmination. But the mother, having heard me muse and ramble in the above over-all direction, suddenly took issue with me (with herself, actually, as I'd been hearing her: a hitherto quizzical, perplexed posture), and the result was this surprising comment, again not to be forgotten by me, "We live a lifetime trying to find out how to live — and this is her last chance to do that for herself." As I well recall, the girl died a month or so later (I was just moving to another service, another ward), but during those few weeks her parents and she read and read, and did a lot of talking about what life means, and the manner in which one ought to live it — an impressive kind of moral scrutiny on their part, under great duress.

Not that children whose lives are far luckier, who have, say, a half-century and more ahead of them, don't have their own wish to explore things ethically, to stop and think about the rights and wrongs, the oughts and naughts of this life, and their reasons. It is the essence of our humanity to do so — and stories give us a wonderfully vivid, engaging, suggestive way to embark on such an inquiry (a search, really) with our children. "Character is not cut in marble," George Eliot reminds us in Middlemarch, and she amplifies with another negative, "it is not something solid and unalterable." Rather, she insists, "It is something living and changing" — her way of asking us to forego the satisfactions of categorical complacency, not to mention moral smugness. Put differently, our characters are tested constantly by the people, the occasions that all the time come our way. Each day offers us any number of opportunities for affirmation or, alas, calamity. With our children (and with ourselves), we can, then, do no better than to accept the challenge storytelling presents: an openness to life's complexities, ironies, paradoxes, inconsistencies, with a willingness as well to examine the most important moral questions with energy and subtlety and seriousness.

Stories offer us a chance to affirm our nature, as the creatures of words, of consciousness — and do so with pleasure and purpose, both: the enjoyment of carefully crafted narration, the chance to reflect, to respond by thinking of one's own life, its nature, its assumptions, its aims. We are lucky indeed to have such stories as a great heritage, a moral reservoir of sorts, from which we may constantly draw, and we are lucky, certainly, that three scholars — who happen to be parents and teachers — have chosen to assemble this great gift for us to have and to share, for years and years to come, across the generations — a precious instrument of introspection for innumerable readers.

-Robert Coles, Cambridge, MA

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Robert Coles. "Forward." Forward from Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories (New York, Touchstone, 1994), 13-15.

Reprinted by permission of William Kilpatrick, Gregory Wolfe, and Suzanne M. Wolfe.

THE AUTHOR

Robert Coles is the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University. His special interest is fieldwork in social psychiatry, and he is involved in structured public-service programs that help students from all parts of Harvard connect their service activities with their intellectual lives. Coles is the author of over 1,300 articles, reviews, and monographs written for periodicals, newspapers, and anthologies. The most recent of his fifty books are The Moral Intelligence of Children and The Youngest Parents: Teenage Pregnancy As It Shapes Lives. Coles was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, awarded to him by President Clinton in 1998.

Copyright © 1994 William Kilpatrick, Gregory Wolfe, and Suzanne M. Wolfe


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