Knowing when to step up

A poem fell out of the back of my desk calendar along with some sweet memories. “Somebody’s Mother” is a tender poem from long ago about a young boy helping an old woman cross the street. As a girl, my mother used to give a dramatic reading of the poem to her youngest sister, knowing full well that it would make her cry. My mother was satisfied with her job as orator once she saw the tears.

Some years ago (because quirky runs in the family), our youngest daughter and a friend, then in middle school, were hanging out for the day and I came across that poem by Mary Dow Brine. I told them I could read them a poem that would make them cry. They were game. I gave my best reading and by the closing line there were indeed tears. But the tears belonged to me, not the girls. Quite naturally, the girls were amused that I had made myself cry.

The poem is about the milk of human kindness, having the vision to see beyond ourselves and practice the not-always-so-simple “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Flash forward and that same daughter, a lovely young woman who was then in high school, had gone downtown one evening with six classmates to an Indiana Pacers game. The game ran long, and afterward they wanted to get something to eat. One of the boys suggested they go to Hooters, and “not just for the wings.” Our daughter and the other girl in the group said they were not going to Hooters. The girls determined they would go elsewhere and meet up with the guys later.

As they were about to go their separate ways, one of the boys stepped out of the pack and said it wasn’t safe for the girls to be walking alone downtown late at night, so he’d go with them.

That young man will never know what his actions meant to us as parents until one day he has a deeply loved, teenage daughter of his own. I should have written a poem titled “Somebody’s Daughter.”

Instead, I wrote the young man a note explaining the etymology of the word virtue. (Word people can be so dry.)  His actions had modeled virtue. I thanked him for exercising concern for the welfare of another at the expense of his own standing among his peers, not to mention forgoing the scenery at Hooters. I explained that virtue comes from the Latin “virtus,” the root of which is “vir,” which means man. By exercising virtue, he had proven himself a man.

How amazing that there was a time when even in language, virtue and goodness were inextricably linked to what it meant to be a man, to what it means for any of us—man, woman or child—to be fully human.