Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Character Building Experiences: Bring Back the Paper Person

And here is still another blog inspired by my participation in my just completed 45th college reunion.

Remember when this great country had what were called “paperboys?” You know, kids who delivered either morning or evening papers, through all kinds of weather, perfecting the art of the “toss” from their bicycle and saving their hard earned money for college.

I want to bring back paperboys, only I want them in the form of “paper persons” so that this noble adult-in-training temporary occupation is open to all young people, not just males. Just why am I thinking about this at all?

Well, two reasons really. For one thing, I am always thinking about what makes a student successful in college—or to lesser degrees the opposite. And while I think I really know most of what is to be known about this subject, I am always gaining new insights. This past weekend I had an experience to hear about and then think about a kind of father/son—parent/child experience that I am positive produced a successful college student and now citizen.

We all know what kinds of things the best parents do for their children, the examples they set, the sacrifices they make. I had occasion this weekend to talk to a friend of many years who came back to Homecoming at my alma mater, because her son had gone there, graduated ten years ago, and that son returned also this weekend to Homecoming to receive along with his wife, another graduate of alma mater, an outstanding young alumni award.

I have known this family for 25 years. And thus I have known this now 32-33 year old man since he was in elementary, middle school. And I remembered that when I first met him that he and his father had a paper route. Actually, it was the son’s paper route. But the father got up each morning to get his son up to start that route at 4.30 in the morning, no matter what the weather in the suburb of Cleveland, Ohio where they lived. Just think of that: a parent getting up every morning of the year, at that ghastly hour, from the child’s fifth through ninth grades. Just think of the discipline they both had. Just think of how they bonded. Just think of those early morning conversations.

I had the opportunity to talk to father and son extensively about this experience. I asked them what they would talk about on those early morning deliveries. And the son told me that his father would read to him from the newspapers to inform him of the news of the day.

And I learned that the son did save the money he earned—actually he “invested” it, in the stock market. And his father also taught him on those early morning deliveries the principles of investing, especially in stocks.

And I learned what he ultimately did with that money he had saved and invested: he bought a beautiful diamond wedding ring for his wife. And I saw that ring and her beaming loving face as we all recounted this story about how this was made possible. I also reflected that, in contrast, I was so opposed to wasteful spending on jewelry that my good wife, Betsy Barefoot, had to buy her own diamond ring!

This recounting of father/son bonding in the context of a paper route, made me reflect on my parenting of my son. Did I help him with a paper route? Not on your life. Could I have? Yes, but I didn’t. Never even occurred to me. I didn’t hunt with him, or fish, or talk sports. What did I do? I read to him. Helped him with his homework. But mostly, I talked to and with him, constantly, openly, sensitively, liberally, lovingly. Should I have engaged him in a character building experience like the parable of the paper route? Yes. I now wish I had and regret I can’t go back and do that over again.

While I can’t document this empirically of course, I am absolutely certain this paper route experience this young man had with his father helped make him what he has become. This makes me wonder if our attrition rate from college, that I have strived for decades to reduce, would be less if more of our students had had parent/child character building experiences. What can we inspire our college students to think about doing with their eventual children that would have the kind of impact this paper route with his loving father had on this young man? How can we inspire our students to be that unselfish? That disciplined? That patient? That mentoring? That able to turn a parent/child experience into such a powerful learning experience? I don’t know, but I am sure going to keep thinking about this. I will resort to any strategy to reduce attrition, as long as it is legal, ethical, and educationally substantive.

-John N. Gardner