Burnt Toast with a Side of Silver Linings: What My Children’s Citizenship Lessons Could Teach Us All

A young girl works on her school work at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” 

Fred Rogers

The sun came up about 30 minutes ago. I could have watched it but decided to toss and turn instead. To add insult to injury, I’m skipping coffee this morning. My base level of anxiety doesn’t need the extra fuel. No surprise, given it’s day four of virtual learning for two six-year-olds in our household. After surviving twin infants, this can’t be any worse. Right? The jury is still out. 

Listening to the morning radio reminds me how this year has been abundantly extra. Climate catastrophes, racial injustice, political angst and a pandemic have everyone on edge. 

Through all of this uncertainty, I am feeling lucky. Safe, fed, sheltered and loved. My morning blues feel downright asinine when compared to the incredible hardships so many face. But what can I do? How can we come together as a nation? And then, I hear screaming children upstairs. 

A serious fight ensues over rainbow socks. War plans are drawn, battle cries commence and it sounds like a bag of emotions are spilling all over the floor. I head upstairs to negotiate deals that only leprechauns can make and to start school. This piece of burnt toast should suffice. It’ll be fine. Totally fine.

Every day, my wife and I take turns guiding our daughters through online lessons. Today, I’m the teacher, and we kick off with first grade social studies. Immediately, I’m struck by the lessons about good citizenship. I’d like to invite every adult in the United States along for the ride this morning. Given the conversations I’m seeing on social media and in the news, we all could use a refresher on civility. Maybe we would rediscover our humanity, especially with these flashy, spandex-wearing, primary-colored Super Citizen characters from the lesson. 

My daughter, Lucy points to a Super Citizen and repeats, “We’re all part of a community, and it’s good when we work together.” Lucy believes this with all of her heart. It’s bittersweet to know this truth will be tested over and over as she matures. My daughter Sophia recounts that a good community member has responsibilities. With an energetic floss dance, she says, “No one is too cool to follow the rules.” Her eyes glisten. She’s sincere and passionate. 

My pride in this moment is tangled with imagined adult voices shouting, “Socialism! I’m not responsible for your hardships! You can’t take away our freedoms. We live in America after all — the best place in the world.” In my mind, outrage ensues as the adults insist the Super Citizen squad be removed from every school. Murmurs of sedition creep into social media feeds. I shake my head awake. It’s confirmed. No coffee was a bad choice, and this toast isn’t cutting it.

We continue the lesson with sleepy ninja focus, which means I’m the tired one and the girls are the ninjas. They pair rights and responsibilities while we discuss ways to show respect and kindness to everyone, including to animals and the environment. Sophia sweetly rambles about her cat, confessing her love for our tabby feline named Newt. Angstily, she wishes for Newt’s safety and happiness. “Newtie is a cutie,” she whoops. Little does she know that later, en route to a vet appointment, the cat would poop in the car, smell its own feces, and proceed to vomit. I can’t think of a truer reflection of rights and responsibilities: Rights being the flowery kitten we all adore, while responsibilities are, well, you can put two and two together. 

Lucy, our more overtly emotional daughter, nearly cries as we continue the lesson’s discussion about a student getting skipped in the lunch line. She whimpers, “That’s not fair.” Sophia reminds us that those line-skipping kids aren’t acting like Super Citizens. My thoughts digress. 

Is this lesson giving our kids unrealistic expectations? Can we truly reach superhero levels of citizenship? Can’t we just be decent humans that look at being good citizens as normal and as natural as breathing? 

I’m a hypocrite though. Even our dog’s water bowl quips, “Be the person your dog thinks you are.” Maybe we humans need constant and fierce encouragement to do the minimum good. Filling the dog’s bowl with some water seems mighty minimal —  thank goodness the water bowl’s decorative handwriting reminds me of how noble, anointed and pathetic I am.

“Each of us has the right to be treated fairly, but we also have the responsibility to treat others fairly.” 

Lucy and Sophia repeat variations of this sentiment throughout the Super Citizen lesson. Of course, we adults know the lesson is really about the social contracts we abide by while living in a civilized society. If we deserve our rights as citizens, we must act and be responsible. And so it goes, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!” As my imagination drifts to the crowd roaring with affirmation, jets flying overhead leaving a billowing trail of red, white, and blue smoke… “Daddy!” the girls squeal. Laughter rings through the room. “What are you doing?” I get down from their wooden stool, the one they use for their daily tooth brushing routine. I’m not sure how I got on that soap box. My reflection in the mirror winks.

Each time we return to the lesson, the girls remind me that kindness and innocence are innate to children. They easily share empathy and compassion for the characters and stories we discuss. In our defense, we adults see this beauty and actively protect it in our children. But I think it’s easy to lose our enamor for kindness as we soar into adulthood. Maybe it’s time to listen to what the kids already know — that one person, engaged in pursuits for a better, stronger community, can mend division and renew hope. Isn’t that the definition of a hero?

The kids ace their end-of-lesson quiz. We take a break. I sit with my thoughts and with several piles of laundry that beg to be folded. Not today, friends. I look outside to my community. Like many small Appalachian towns, Helvetia, West Virginia, is filled with competent, formidable people that work hard for each other. I’m reminded that getting involved with local causes, events and charities can transform us. Community engagement compels us to join neighbors that differ in political, religious, cultural, financial and racial makeup for a greater cause. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Looking back at over 30 years of involvement in the different communities I’ve called home, from Connecticut, Illinois, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania to West Virginia, I know that community service, no matter how big or small it is, binds us together. When we get involved, we remind our neighbors that we value them and that we won’t shirk our responsibilities to each other. Regardless of the memes we post on Facebook, we’re in it for each other. Decency is not overrated; it is under promoted and perhaps sorely underrepresented. 

But please prove me wrong. In the last few months of 2020, hopefully the heroes we champion will possess grace, kindness and fairness. And until next time, I hope you enjoy these silver linings and find a few of your own to share over burnt toast. 

Because now, more than ever, we need Super Citizens like you.

Jonathan Lacocque is a member of the Appalachian Advisors Network, a group of Appalachians working with members of the national and regional media to help tell a more complete story about their communities. He is the owner of Coat of Arms production who lives in Helvetia, West Virginia. Members of the media who want to connect with Jonathan can do so here

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