This I Believe

Laura - Santa Fe, New Mexico
Entered on March 29, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50

Picnics and Responsibility

As a kid growing up in the seventies, I learned early on to avoid picnics with my family! For us, a suburban family of four kids, a dog named Mildred, and a mom and dad; picnics meant a mushy, bottom of the bag sandwich and a lot of hard work. This was our routine.

The idea of a family picnic always sounded like fun–at least to me. I was the youngest, and by far the most naïve. I did not immediately understand the looks of anguish and disgust as my father pulled off the highway and we piled out of our blue station wagon to an awaiting roadside rest stop. But it didn’t take long for me to figure out that after the mustard and bologna sandwich and bruised apple, work awaited me. My father would direct us with his finger to pick up the trash around us and put it in our own sack. When we protested that it was not ours, that we had already dutifully put our own trash in the appropriate receptacles, he merely replied in his calm voice, “Leave things better than you found them.” Protesting was pointless. We wouldn’t be allowed back into the car until the place was cleared—of our trash and trash that we could only envy—old Twinkies wrappers, coke cans, things that we weren’t allowed. With four of us helping, the cleanup never took long, though it sometimes seemed like an eternity.

It seems like such a simple thing—to leave things better than you found them. And it’s not something I ever gave much thought to until I started teaching. For me, a teacher at a ‘low performing school’ outside of Santa Fe, ‘leaving things better than I found them’ is sometimes all that I can hope for.

When you get an incoming ninth grader who is reading at a fifth grade level, and you coax that kid, ever so gently up to a sixth or maybe seventh grade level in one year? That is leaving things better than you found them. And maybe you’re lucky enough to have this same kid, now reading only three grade levels behind, returning to you for tenth grade. And again you gently coax that kid up to the eighth or ninth grade level? You have left things better than you found them. And when you have a kid who hardly ever comes to class and perhaps can’t read or write at all, but somehow you get through to him that he’s still welcome in your class, that you still want him…..then you’ve definitely left things better than you found them.

I still pick up after myself and others, and I now teach my son to do the same. It may sound simple, but if we all tried to leave things better than we found them, things would be a lot better than we find them today. And if nothing else, at least it’s a start.