Cardinal Rules and Lasting Regrets

Cardinal

As the winter persists, we are keeping warm in the classroom with a number of hot topics.  Currently, we are reading The Kite Runner in World Literature.  It has been work getting a few students to move beyond their reticence to read a novel.  I began the year with a number of short stories which are often easier to digest, especially in settings far removed from the United States.

With The Kite Runner, I sought to whet the appetite with general discussions about class, ethnicity, and the real and imagined impact of friction and warfare on personal development.  At one point, just before starting the work, I asked students to identify five cardinal rules guiding their lives and choices.  “I don’t want your parents’ rules, I want yours,” I told them.  “I want to know what you stand for.”

Students supplied a number of familiar ideals surrounding loyalty to friends, honor to family, and honesty in love.  I then asked them to choose an instance where they broke one of their rules.  “Tell what happened and what you learned.”  I reminded students about the importance of details and crisp verbs.  As I sometimes do with a writing assignment, I provided students a sample from my own life.  A sample was especially important in this exercise because I wanted students to “dig deep.”

My cardinal rules:

  1. Honor my ancestors through my actions;
  2. Don’t betray a trust;
  3. Don’t cheat—especially myself;
  4. Treat others the way I want to be treated;
  5. When someone needs to talk, even a stranger, make the time to listen.

After listing my rules, I wrote about a time that still bothers me:

Lasting Regret

          “In 1997, I became president of my eldest daughter’s high school P.T.A.. During a bi-weekly meeting with other parent leaders and the principal, I remained after for wine and cheese. Because parking in the neighborhood was difficult, I had taken the Metro to the meeting. As I was preparing to leave, a man I did not know (except by sight) offered me a ride home. I accepted, and during the trip uptown he began to tell me about problems he was experiencing at home with his daughter, who was a senior.

He told me Alice (not her real name) had taken to spending all her time alone in the family basement. She insisted on eating all her meals there, and she was constantly on the computer chatting with Internet friends. I suggested he limit her computer time and make her eat dinner with the family. Two weeks later, at our next parent meeting, this gentleman again offered me a ride home. I could tell he wanted to talk, but I made an excuse and turned it down. It had been a long day at work, and I did not want to become more involved with his difficulty. Two days later, his daughter climbed over the railing of the Calvert Street Bridge and jumped onto Rock Creek Parkway below, dying instantly.

To this day, whenever I drive on that overpass, I think about Alice and say a silent prayer. I wish I had taken the time that night to listen again to her father. Of course, I could have done nothing to stop that horrible end, but maybe simply listening would have helped him reach his daughter. I spoke to the man’s wife shortly after the funeral service by telephone. We had a long talk about grief and loss. The man stopped coming to the parent meetings, and I never spoke with him again. I wonder if he knows how much Alice’s death affected me, how much it made me extra vigilant about communicating with my own children, and how much I regret not accepting that ride home.”

The submissions I received from my students covered the typical range from the pedestrian to the profound.  I will not share their reflections here, but acts of betrayal, small and large, became a central theme.  For some, deception led to growth.  For others, omission delivered both consequence and character.  By glancing into the mirror at themselves, students also learned to later empathize with The Kite Runner‘s Amir and his quest to “be good again.”

I try to always remind my students that mistakes are opportunities, sometimes the best kind.  Books allow us to reach beyond our immediate circumstance and learn from the mishaps of others.  These powerful parables can be lasting–and are often much less painful than the bruises we acquire firsthand.  But regret is useless and self-serving, unless we put its memory to work.  Footsteps can be good steps, provided we study the lessons they teach.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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About Mark E.P. Roberts

teachermandc is Mark E.P. Roberts, a middle-aged, high school English teacher entering his ninth year of instructing young minds. This blog is an attempt to capture the challenge of teaching and the essence of learning. At a time when DC has become the epicenter of educational theory, this blog will keep its preferred focus on students in an somewhat typical DC high school. I have taught in both public and private schools. To date, 95% of my students are of color. All names have been changed, and complaints about in-house politics will be avoided. Hope you enjoy.
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