Guest Post: Black & White by Barbara Gruener

Editor’s note: Today we bring you a guest post from school counselor and friend of CHARACTER COUNTS! Barbara Gruener. You can keep up with Barbara’s thoughts on character and education at her blog, The Corner on Character.

I grew up in a black-and-white world (literally), surrounded by Holstein cows, on our family farm.  The motto on the sign in front of our dairy – Home of the Working Cow – was fodder for the mean kids who routinely asked if the Working Cow was my sister or me.  We got up early to milk the cows and went to bed late after milking them again. Twice a day, every day.  We didn’t get many vacations and we didn’t enjoy luxuries like TV time or play time. Our playground was our milking parlor.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining.  Look at how happy I am in this picture.  I actually acquired a really good work ethic by doing chores and being so responsible. What I’m pondering today is my black-and-white world (figuratively).  I grew up in a time when not only the photographs were monochromatic. You see, I was brought up looking at things through a black-and-white lens.  There wasn’t much, if any, gray area.  Not much was left to interpretation and rarely was anything up for negotiation. Parents said what they meant and meant what they said.  “Yes” meant yes and “no” meant no and adults were always right.  So were teachers and school administrators. (Bad things would happen if the school had to call home!)  Your aunts and uncles were pretty much always right, too, as were your grandparents.  Even the neighbors? Absolutely. They were allowed, encouraged even, to step in and correct us if they saw us straying too far off of the right path.  The phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” certainly rang true in our black-and-white world.

I won the blue ribbon in Showmanship with Goofy that day in this picture at the Brown County Fair, but not everything about my black-and-white world was positive. Under authoritarian rule, we heard mantras like, “Children are to be seen and not heard.” And “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”  There’s absolutely NO wiggle room in either of those mission statements.  Only. Black. And. White!  I got my fair share of spankings, so no worries about us being spoiled, that’s for sure. But what would it have hurt to give us a small voice?  I’m sure we could have come up with something valuable to say. . .

Over the years, we’ve gotten more and more comfortable with shades of gray.  Kids today do have a voice and corporal punishment isn’t quite as commonplace as it was back on the farm. It seems the proverbial pendulum has swung the other way.  But I’m wondering about that black-and-white thing where values are concerned.  A handshake meant something, it was your word and honesty was more than a policy, it was a way of life. I like to think that in today’s world, right is still right and wrong is still wrong. And yet, in a nearby town when some 200 seniors were caught cheating on an AP English IV test at the end of last semester, they were allowed to retake the test. Does that seem like a little too much gray to anyone?

And that village concept is more important now than ever before, but how many aunts or uncles step in to help out in today’s day and age?  I hope a lot, but that’s not necessarily the trend I’m observing despite research that strongly suggests that kids who are connected to mentors (like an extended family member or neighbor!) are less likely to get into trouble and more likely to find success in life. Can’t get much more black-and-white than that. Still, I know that today’s families often struggle to keep track of their own kids, much less watch out for the neighbor’s herd.  How are we doing in our village?  Would we exceed expectations on the state assessment in that area?

This counselor is all for giving kids a voice and listening to our future leaders, encouraging them to reach for the stars and empowering them with the tools to do just that, second chances even; at the same time, this farmer’s daughter likes it when the pendulum comes back to some timeless non-negotiables:

Tell the truth. Keep your promises. Respect one another. Mind your manners. Be courteous. Take care of your stuff. Show up and be on time. Give your best effort. Forgive mistakes. Do the right thing. Obey the rules. Apologize. Work hard. Play Fair. Be kind. Look out for one another. Help those in need. Treat others like you want to be treated.

Those are the things that my elders drilled home in my black-and-white world way back when that still hold true for our technocolor world today.

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