One of the most important lessons my parents taught me started with the words, “Good morning, Mr. Suttle.”
I’ll rewind a bit: In a 7-year-old’s life, little rewards loom large. Our math teacher, Ms. Kelly, decided to offer an incentive for the kids in her class who needed a challenge: the first to check off all their multiplication and division tables would be rewarded with a king-sized pack of full-sugar gum. Coming from our sugar-conscious (at the time I believe my siblings and I used the word “deprived”) household, this was the stuff of which dreams were made.
I set to work, along with a handful of other children in the second grade class. As the weeks progressed, the competition grew more intense. Mom and Dad unwaveringly bore the brunt of the emotional ride. They sat sentinel through late-night flash card study sessions, early-morning pre-test jitters, and epic test failures. Fridays became the most anticipated day of the week. The epic two-minute battles with those still remaining in the competition concluded with a resounding, “Put your pencils down.”
The day the final Friday test was administered, two of us remained. We battled valiantly, and at the end of the period the teacher announced the winner. As she called my name, an unfamiliar sense of accomplishment filled my chest. Ms. Kelly handed me a stick of gum to chew, and a pack to cherish. I accepted the pack of gum as if it were solid gold. Clinging tightly to my prize, I headed to my next class.
My reverie was interrupted as I stepped into Mr. Suttle’s classroom. He stood waiting for us.“Ms. Reece. You know the rule about having gum in my classroom. Spit it out.” He handed me the wastebasket, then took the pack from my hand. “Thank you for the gum. Go write your name on the board.”
My heart reeled with shock. My prize…gone? A dreaded write-up? In our elementary school, students who went all year without a write-up got a party at the principal’s house. Had I lost the party as well? I stammered out an explanation, using the best vernacular my shocked conscience could muster, but to no avail. Mr. Suttle wouldn’t budge.
I went home and sobbed out my heartbroken story. Mom made a quiet phone call, then came back. “Mr. Suttle won’t reverse his decision.”
The victory gum was gone and the write-up would stand. I felt my anger burn. I would show Mr. Suttle. I wouldn’t speak to him the rest of the year. I would get all the other kids to hate him and act up. I would write so small he couldn’t read it and ruin his eyesight. Plans for revenge began growing from the seeds of righteous indignation.
My mother came to tuck me in bed. She sat quietly stroking my hair. When she finally stood, she kissed my head and counseled, “Julie, I know you are hurting, but you need to find the high road.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I was certain that whatever road I was on was Mr. Suttle’s choice, not mine. I thought about it through the night. Any hope of additional parental guidance evaporated with a goodbye kiss and “I’m sure you’ll do the right thing,” at the front door. As I approached the fateful time I was slated to go to Mr. Suttle’s class, I still didn’t have an answer. What did the high road look like?
I walked into the back of the class and thought of my parents’ confidence in me. I knew what I had to do. I walked over to the teacher’s desk, looked him in the eyes, and said, “Good morning, Mr. Suttle.”
Since that fateful childhood decision, there have been many times in life where it was necessary for me to find a higher road. Each time I’ve thought of my parents, who knew life held many different types of journeys, and I needed to learn early on how to choose which I would take. I have spent enough time on life’s other roads to realize what a blessing seeking the upper path has been.
Recently, looking around and seeing a world in chaos, I remember the higher route isn’t always visible. Finding it is no easy task. There are often steps out into darkness, falls and steep climbs. The trail can be wild, unpaved and overrun from lack of use. It can be imperfect and lonely, but wonderful. Many times it requires detours down side paths, dead ends, and frequent stopping to ask for directions. I have discovered high roads paved in forgiveness, lined with compassion and paths that lead through suffering to learning. I have seen friends embrace virtuous roads through loss, sickness, betrayal, grief, and pain. Each journey is different. But for them, like for me, the simple decision to seek after and find a more noble way has led to growth, happiness, and a sweeter life experience.
Our homes, communities and country are in desperate need of those who will leave the familiar path of vitriol, hatred, partisanship, and dissension and forge a new trail to forgiveness, compassion, unity and love. Those who will set aside betrayal, hurt and wrongs and look for the wonderful in the midst of the imperfect. Those who will refuse to embrace extremism, recognizing closing our circles limits our ability to listen, learn, problem-solve, grow and connect.
Our humanity is at stake. Our democracy is at stake. Now, more than ever, our country needs courageous citizens who will put personal interests and agendas aside, extend a hand and say, “Good Morning, Mr. Suttle.”
Julie Reece-DeMarco is an award-winning, multi-published author, speaker and attorney. She enjoys spending time outside in the beautiful Northwest with her husband and four daughters.