I glanced at Fulghum’s book entitled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” I smiled as I relived a moment with my seventh-graders. School policy was silent passing in the halls. To the seventh-grade boys, “silent” meant lower volume. In addition, silent was somehow understood to be an invitation to tease the girl next to them or smack/push the fellow next to them. The Kindergartners were heading our way. My seventh-graders were supposed to stand silently against the wall. I stood protectively between my most rambunctious students and the passing space. Those kids were so tiny and quiet! Each had their left palm on their left hip. Each had the right index finger over their lips. As they passed, each turned his or her head to peek at the big kids behind me. I turned to find my students charmed by the little ones. I suggested we try the hand on hip and other hand on lips silent walk. One actually said, “No. Let’s be role models who show that young adults don’t need those reminders.” The book’s author had a point about the universality of Kindergarten’s lessons.
The story where Jesus reminds the disciples that leadership is about service (Mk 9:30-37) reveals a loving God with remarkable patience. Jesus was beginning to reveal God’s plan that the Son of Man would suffer and be killed. The disciples responded — “Whatever.” Then, they argued to “prove” who was the greatest! Parents and educators know such moments only too well. Sometimes you wish to scream enough already with being in your own world and not listening to or looking out for others! But, no detailed lecture or volume of screaming will ever convey the point. Such lessons are the fruit of discoveries within the heart. They must blossom before they can be drawn forth. The soil is fertile only when the human heart is open. Jesus saved His response until the disciples were open to listening.
Jesus places a child in their midst. Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mk 9:35). A child is modeled both as leader and as the image of the purpose of leadership. In general, leadership is about building community and service to that community. Those ideas on leadership are as revolutionary and important today as they were to the disciples. Jesus challenges each of us to re-imagine our world with the vision, wonder, and trusting heart of a child.
The example I have from my life about pursuing such a reset in perspective is from immediately after 9/11. We were amidst the no-fly days where all planes were grounded. I arrived at my friend’s house to find her four-year-old son racing around the house with his plastic jet. She said, “He doesn’t know. He’s only four.” Her son pulled me to the living room. He emptied the box for his new Lego airplane set at my feet. He happily announced, “Mommy promised that as soon as you got here we could build.” The pieces from the kit reminded me of wreckage.
I looked into the eyes of this smiling child. In an instant, I knew that the world I wished to pass on to him was one where airplanes were tools (not weapons). People used tools to build. They cared for other people. That is a world where the Greatest Commandment is lived. That is the world vision shared with Kindergartners. That is Robert Fulghum’s world of playing fair, sharing, cleaning up, not taking things that aren’t yours, not hitting others, and a world where those who hurt others say they are sorry. The instant I sat to build the airplane with him, I made a commitment to finding a way back to (then remaining within) that world because that was the world I wished to pass on to his generation.
The four-year-old I am remembering just began his Ph.D. program. He is exploring ways he wishes to make a difference in our world.
The true challenge of being a leader is to live each day as a blessing in the lives of others. What is in it for me in living that call is more than what first meets the eye. It is more than sacrifice or the cycle of life. Jesus said, “Whoever receives one child such as this in My name, receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but the One Who sent Me” (Mk 9:37). Choosing to build that airplane was a moment where we each were a conduit of God’s love for the other.
One final image from Fulghum’s work is the end of the hide-and-seek game with scattered children coming back together to the call of “olly-olly-oxen free.” Can you hear the call?
A world awaits us where all belong and each knows God’s love.
Anchor columnist Dr. Helen J. Flavin, Ph.D., is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer.