I know, it’s a little late to be writing about resolutions for the new year. Some people have already made their resolutions and given up on them but I’ve been thinking about them nonetheless. I go back and forth about having resolutions since, like so many other people, they get lost in the shuffle, But I think I have some attainables this year. (Attainables? Where did that word come from? It sounds like “Lunchables,” those horrid ersatz food packs for kids. Ugh.)
One of my favorite recent movies is As Good as It Gets in which Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, a brilliant misanthropic writer who, as Becky would say, never has an unuttered thought. He delivers some breathtakingly awful observations and comments (this is not a film to watch with your family–sorry, kids, adults only) and seems set in his racist, misogynist, homophobic (and whatever other pejorative adjectives you got) ways until he meets Carol Connelley (played to the vulnerable hilt by Helen Hunt), a single mother who is a waitress. In an incredibly awkward scene, he has taken her to dinner and she is sitting there terrified of what he will say next. He tells her he has a compliment for her, something about taking his pills, and she does not understand how that is a compliment. He thinks some more and finally tells her, “You make me want to be a better man.”
I think this is one of the great lines from the movies, and I was thinking of it in regard to an episode that happened to me long ago and far away. I was in fourth grade, and we were privileged to have as our teacher, Mrs. M., a kindly lady who played piano beautifully and sang like an angel. We learned so much music from her. Mrs. M. had contracted polio as a child and walked with a crutch. We were soliticious of her, remarkably so for fourth graders, who my daughter Amy assures me after over a decade in the classroom with them, are not always sensitive and caring. We carried books for her and guarded her as she went up and down the steps in those pre-ADA days. I think I’ve written that when she had to have an operation related to her condition in October of that year, the whole class cried all day. When she came back, the class spontaneously invented the group hug. We were so happy to see her.
When we came back from Christmas vacation, which I remember as lasting about two weeks, although a child’s sense of time is not always accurate, Mrs. M. asked each of us to write down one resolution for the year. She would keep them and let us have them at the end of the year so we could see what progress we had made.
I thought long and hard as I thought about my resolution, chewing the barrel of my well-chewed pencil as I pondered what would make a good attainable resolution and yet still impress the class and Mrs. M. Be kinder to my brother? Nah, there were some things not worth giving up. Obey my parents cheerfully? The “cheerful” part was the rub. “Be a kinder gentler person?” Sounded political somehow.
I finally decided to drop back a level in abstraction and wrote, “My resolution for 1957 is to be a better person.” I thought that I was such a good person to begin with and so this was an exceptionally attainable goal with little to no work required on my part. Mrs. M. would be impressed with it and it would also be guaranteed to win the approval of my classmates. It was a classic win-win-win situation.
Mrs. M. collected our resolutions and then read them one by one to the class. We were used to her reading our writings to the class or having us read them. She was always gentle and encouraging about our writing.
Most of my classmates’ resolutions were what I considered lame: “I want to do better in math,” “I want to remember my lunch money more often,” and “I want to have fewer nose bleeds.” At each of these Mrs. M. looked at the author, smiled and said something like, “I just know you will reach your goal.” Then she got to me. I remember what she said, word for word to this day:
“Danny (this is my given name and one I went by until I went to college. It’s a long story how I was called that for another time), I see that your resolution is to be a better person. I’m sure that if you work very hard at that you can improve yourself in a few areas.”
I sat there, stunned. She did not say, “Danny, you’re such a wonderful person that you’ve already achieved this goal. I give it an “A,” and you may have the rest of the day off.” In my imaginings my classmates cheered and stomped their feet and then took me on their shoulders and carried me around the room.
Instead they laughed. For some reason they found the idea that I could improve myself humorous. My cheeks burned with embarassment as I understood how follish I had been to imagine that I couldn’t be improved on. Mercifully, it was then time for recess and we all went outside. My buddies and I played some basketball but occasionally one of them would look at me and grin. What could I say? I deserved it.
I don’t blame Mrs. M. or my classmates for this episode. It was all my own doing. And maybe that’s why for a long time I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions.
I’ll do another post next week about my resolutions for next year. Recalling this has been exhausting, and I’m going to go lie down for a while.