Both excitement and nervousness ran through my veins about the at-home school project that my third grade teacher, Mrs. L, had just assigned. I was lucky because I had been assigned the state of Illinois, the most coveted of the 50 states of all of my classmates because it was home to us. I couldn’t wait to tell my mom when she picked me up from school! She would be so excited, I just knew it.
At the end of the school day, I flung my backpack on one shoulder, the way that the cool kids did, and made my way to the parking lot where my mom was waiting. The assortment of key chains attached to my backpack jingled and made a pat-pat-pat sound with every step. I wanted to run to get there as fast as I could but I had to appear calm, collected, and cool.
“Hi mom! Guess what?,” I exclaimed immediately after I climbed in the car and closed the door.
“Why hello! I don’t know, tell me,” she replied with a laugh.
“Mrs. L assigned us a state project and it’s due in two weeks. I have to get started tonight so that I get it done in time. Can we work on it after supper?,” I inquired.
“We’ll just have to see. Why don’t you tell your dad about it when he gets home,” she sighed.
I waited anxiously for dad to come home, the table to be set and the meal prepared. The news was bouncing around in my chest, hardly to be contained, but I waited until after we prayed and dad had eaten a few bites of the meat loaf before I let it out.
“Dad, I have a very important project for school that I must get started on right away but I will need help,” I requested with urgency.
“Oh yeah?”, he said as he took another bite, “did you tell your mom about this?”, he said in between chews.
“Yeah. She said to tell you about it,” I responded.
“Oh did she now?,” he chuckled as his laughing warm brown eyes met my mom’s grinning baby blues.
I giggled because they were giggling.
“What’s so funny?,” I asked.
“Nothing. Nothing at all,” my dad said with a smile and another playful glance at my mom, “I’ll help you with it another night.”
Looking back, I’m sure my mom was exhausted with the unending tasks of trying to take care of four children, cook the meals, clean the house, take care of the dog, do the laundry, pay the bills, and care for an elderly friend, just to name a few. When dad arrived home at the end of a long work day, all he wanted to do was eat supper with his family and then sit in his recliner, read the newspaper and relax. But a child doesn’t have a clue about all of the work that a parent does and to me, this time-sensitive project required immediate attention.
Every night after supper I asked if we could work on my project. It seemed like it was an eternity until he finally said yes, but in reality it was only a few days. When the stars aligned, we got started on my important project.
Dad always had fun with these projects. He has always been a dreamer at heart and he had the perfect idea for Illinois mobile construction. We sat at the kitchen table carefully cutting rectangles out of a white poster board and I did my research on the state of Illinois, thrilled to have the time and attention of my dad all to myself.
Dad cut small wooden dowels into foot long pieces and used a knife to cut small kerfs into the wood. He began the tedious process of connecting the dowels with clear fishing line and hanging shorter pieces of fishing line from the dowels where the pieces of poster board would attach and the creation began to come alive. My mobile was going to the best one! I was so proud of how talented my dad was.
Each cut-out poster board rectangle contained facts about the state of Illinois on one side and a hand-drawn picture on the other. The state bird was the cardinal, the capital was Springfield, Illinois was the “Land of Lincoln, the state tree was the oak, and the state flower the viola which is part of the violet family. My dad helped me draw some of the pictures and then I colored them in, but the picture of the violet was up to me.
“I can’t do this—it’s too hard to draw,” I whined.
“Yes you can. You just have to try,” he wisely advised.
I tried again, getting more and more frustrated by the minute while flecks of pink eraser began to cover the table. My older brother of four years, Neal, had been sitting at the table watching.
“I’ll draw the violet for you,” he kindly offered.
“Okay,” I accepted.
I remember taunting him while he drew the picture and told him it didn’t look like a violet, even though I hardly knew what a violet looked like myself. I could be so cruel sometimes and I didn’t really understand how hurtful words could be.
“Believe me, this will look awesome,” he assured me, “just wait until I’m done.” He made his way to his room to finish the drawing in private and away from my critique.
He spent considerable time drawing the flower so that it was perfect. Proudly, he emerged from his room with his masterpiece and handed it over to me.
“This is ugly,” I laughed, “it doesn’t look anything like a violet. I don’t want to use this. It’s dumb.”
His heart having been crushed, he escaped back to his room and closed his door. I never saw his tears, but my dad did.
“Give me that picture,” my dad said angrily. He looked at the drawing like he had never seen something so beautiful before.
“This is perfect! I never could have drawn a picture so well,” he said loud enough for Neal to hear.
He opened the door to Neal’s room and said, “Neal, you color this in and I am going to keep it on the mirror over the dresser and I will treasure this beautiful violet forever.”
“But I want to use the picture in my project,” I complained, suddenly seeing the value of it now that dad had approved it.
“Nope, it’s too late. You didn’t appreciate it and now it’s mine. You made Neal cry, you know,” he said sternly, “you will have to draw your own flower and you also need to tell him you’re sorry—and mean it.”
I understood how much I had hurt him, but I was too proud to show I or even admit it—instead I was mad and angry. I offered him several unapologetic “sorry”s at my dad’s insistence that each “sorry” I offered was not truly from my heart, and retreated to my room in tears.
It broke my heart that I had disappointed my dad. I felt horrible for the way I had treated my older brother who had only been trying to help out of kindness. My heart ached, but I never truly said I was sorry—even though I was, but had not yet learned the humility to admit that I was wrong.
I drew a violet which, in my mind, never measured up to the one Neal had drawn. I was ashamed of it. I felt like it ruined my entire project.
I brought the completed project to school in sadness. My heart was heavy as I presented it to the class. My classmates “oohed” and “aahed” over its greatness. It was most definitely the best one there, but I only felt ashamed. No one in my class knew how hurtful I had been to my own big brother, and the perfect score I received wasn’t as gratifying as I had imagined.
As the years passed, I felt a pang of guilt every time I saw the violet proudly displayed on my dad’s mirror; a constant reminder of the effect of hurtful words.
My Illinois state project mobile has been long gone, but I can still see Neal’s violet so clearly. The soft pencil strokes that had been so carefully and artfully drawn; the purple petals and the green leaves colored perfectly within the lines—imprinted in my mind and on my heart.
I will always remember that the official flower of Illinois is the violet and that one should always accept gifts from the heart graciously and with kindness.
This post is in response to the prompt “something someone gave you” from the 52 Weeks of Gratitude Challenge.