[Published in Character, the quarterly newsletter of Boston University’s Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character Education, Spring 2004]

 

Growing Character from the Grassroots

 

My Dad never sat me down for a father-son talk about character and values, and I don’t plan to ever have an explicit discussion about character with my sons either. I learned values from my father at the grassroots level, from the ground up. And that’s the way I’m passing my values on to my children.

My Dad loves grasses and legumes—from the lush expanse of Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) in our front lawn, to the yellow-flowered birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) planted as ground cover along the sides of Interstate 80, to the nutritious alfalfa (Medicago sativa) growing in my grandfather’s pastures in the heart of America’s Dairyland. My Dad is an agronomist, one of those scientists who studies crops and soils, and his particular area of expertise is forages and grasslands.

Looking back at my childhood now from the vantage point of several decades, I can see that many of the important life lessons I learned from my father grew out of his passion for grasses. These life lessons weren’t transplanted as full-grown character traits, but rather they started as tiny seeds. Over a period of years—as my Dad spent time with me, as he shared his special interest and knowledge, and as he let me watch him live a genuine life—those tiny character seeds sprouted, took root, and grew.

Here’s an example of one of those tiny character seeds:

I was 11 when my father introduced me to a family secret—the “diagonal cut.” It was the summer of 1967, the year before American society cracked open with riots, assassinations, and marches on Washington. My life revolved around school, baseball, and Spiderman comic books. I guess my Dad felt it was time for me to grow up and learn about some of the deeper mysteries of life. It was time for my initiation into manhood.

We ventured forth together, just father and son. We didn't travel to a clearing in the deep forest, the top of a mountain, or a secret cave in the side of a cliff. We went first to the garage and then to the front yard.

"Son, let me show you the diagonal cut." After uttering that single sentence, he reached down, jerked the cord, and started up the lawnmower.

With a bluish puff of oily smoke, the lawnmower coughed a few times—first slowly, then more quickly. As the pace of small engine explosions quickened, my Dad bent over, pushed in the choke, and adjusted the gas flow.

"Don't run the engine too slow or it won't cut well. But don't run it faster than you need to, you'll just waste gas and wear out the engine," he instructed. As he pushed the lawnmower, I matched him stride for stride. He shouted above the drone of the motor, "We're going to start in the corner and then make a diagonal cut right across the middle of the yard down to the other corner. It looks better that way. Here we go. Watch me."

As promised, he set off diagonally across the middle of the yard, cutting one big swath that split the uncut lawn into two green triangles. He turned the mower around and pointed it back towards the far corner. "Now you try it," he shouted. "Be sure to keep it nice and straight." He stepped aside and motioned me to take the mower—the position of power and responsibility.

Fifty minutes later, I was done mowing the yard. Drops of sweat ran down my face and neck, leaving a salty trail that attracted dust, blades of grass, and gnats. My t-shirt, wet with sweat, clung to my skinny body.

Time to clean up, I thought. I stepped into the garage and removed my shoes and shirt. The toes of my white tennis shoes were now green, stained with the sweet juice of the cut grass. I discarded my shirt in a wet clump on the garage floor. After brushing as many grass clippings off my feet and legs as possible, I crept carefully through the clean house to the bathroom. As I stepped into the cool shower, the first layer of grit came off quickly. The large clippings were whisked away and swirled around the drain on the shower floor. The layer of dust and dirt that clung to my arms, however, required more encouragement.

Ten minutes later, my purification ritual now complete, I stepped out of the shower. I took a quick glance in the mirror at my scrawny body. It was thin, unevenly tanned, and sparsely covered with a few patches of emerging hair. The secret knowledge of the diagonal cut, now passed from father to son, had done nothing to speed puberty.

After drying off and donning clean clothes, I grabbed a glass of ice water and stepped out on the front step. As I surveyed the front lawn, I realized, to my surprise, that it really did look better with a diagonal cut.

If left to my own devices, I would have mowed the lawn in an ever-decreasing spiral starting with the outside edges. That's the way I'd seen others mow their lawns. It would have been more efficient, perhaps. But it would not have been pleasing to the eye, and it would not have showed the world that I took care and pride in my job.

Maybe I really had completed a rite of passage. I had just learned, through a simple yet somehow significant experience, one of the lessons of life that my father believed important. Although he never spoke these words directly, I got his message, loud and clear:

Every day we make choices and take action. Some choices seem big; others seem small. But in one sense, they're all big. We can act with care, pride, and planning, or we can just do it the way nearly everybody else does.

Thirty-five years later, when I stand at the beginning of a project or face a decision on which path to follow, I remember the lesson of the diagonal cut. And as I look back to see the choices I've made, I see those two green triangles. I'm cutting my way across the lawn of life—diagonally.

The “diagonal cut” was just one of many grassroots lessons. Looking back now, I can see how other lessons—responsibility, persistence, and respect for “the common man,” for example—grew out of childhood experiences and father-son discussions about topics such as:

Now that I’m a parent, I’ve adopted the grassroots approach for character development. However, my children and I aren’t doing it through agronomy—what a silly idea! Instead, we’re having fun with messy chemistry experiments we do in our kitchen and in their classrooms. I’m building character through chromatography, distilling morals from molecules, and crystallizing values.

With the grassroots approach, it’s not the specific activity that’s important. You just need to plant the tiny seeds, provide regular nourishment (give them your time, attention, and love), provide sunshine (share your passion, interests, and knowledge), and be patient.

Some parents do it while playing and coaching sports. Some do it while painting and remodeling houses. Others do it while fishing, cooking, or changing the oil in their car. Still others do it while involving their children in a family-run business or through active involvement in a church, synagogue, or mosque.

My Dad used agronomy. I’m using chemistry. I can’t wait to see what my sons will use when they become parents.

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© Randall Wedin, 2004