A Lasting Lesson

A Lasting Lesson

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Create Your Best Future

A Lasting Lesson

As long as the world shall last there will be wrongs, and if no man objected and no man rebelled, those wrongs would last forever.

~Clarence Darrow

It was vacation time — two years before lung cancer would take Dad and twelve years before Mom would succumb to a different form of the same disease. But that was all yet to be. For now, we were all together — and all excited.

Mom, Dad, my two sisters and I were going on a trip. Vacations were rare in our family. We had love, caring, togetherness, and all the other intangibles that make a family name worth bearing. What we didn’t have was money. We didn’t have a car; meals in restaurants were an extremely rare treat. But at the age of six, I spent little time pondering such matters. My sisters, aged nine and eleven at the time, and I had food, good clothes to wear, and a safe and comfortable place to live. We also had the very best of parents.

It was a time of happy anticipation. My mother’s parents had moved down to Florida and we were invited to visit. And while I was most excited about the train ride, I would leave that trip having learned a profound lesson from my mother that would stay with me forever.

It often took years before we grasped the meaning of Mom’s lessons. Many times we didn’t realize that a lesson had been taught — not until we experienced more of life, not until we had our own families, our own crises, our own sorrows. The irony of this whole manner of teaching and learning is that I don’t think she ever realized what valuable training she was passing on to us.

She taught mostly by example, by living her life in a way that was unwavering in its commitment to the values she held to be true and important. We learned about honesty, respect for others, the importance of education; we learned how to face disaster with resolve and hope, when to be afraid, and when to be fearless. All this we learned by watching this simple, yet special, woman live her life.

The trip down to Florida was just as exciting as any six-year-old could hope for — gleaming railway cars, cities, farms, and open fields flashing past the window; sleeping in plush, reclining seats, our heads resting on fluffy, oversized pillows; listening to the sound of the conductor bellowing out the names of the various stops. These are all wonderful remembrances, but it was one incident that will always stand out. This “incident” is not something that made headlines, or caused any uproar of any kind. Indeed, it is unlikely that anyone beside my sisters and I recall what transpired. It is, however, something that eventually shaped many of my opinions regarding bias, hate, foolishness — and Mom.

It was a hot day in Florida, and we were reluctantly off on some mission with Mom. I don’t remember where it was that we were going, but I do remember Dad had cleverly managed to avoid being dragged along. Not having a car, we headed for the nearest bus stop and waited for our ride to appear. When the bus pulled up, the driver yanked on a lever and the doors fluttered open. We pushed ahead of Mom, jumped up the couple of steps that led to where the driver sat, and immediately checked to see if our favorite seats were free. They were. While our mother dropped coins in the fare box, we made a dash for the back of the bus.

We reached the rear seat, which in those days was a bench-like design that spanned the width of the bus. This perch was desirable for two reasons: the rear window and the bounce. By facing backward and kneeling on the seat you could make faces at the people in the cars that followed. The bounce was the result of the primitive shock absorber system in use at the time. If the bus hit a good size bump in the road or a big enough pothole, the resulting jolt would cause the whole bus to bounce. This sensation was felt most strongly in the back. A really good hit could launch you a few inches above the seat, sometimes as much as a foot on those rare occasions when a poorly maintained bus met a sizeable imperfection in the road.

The back seat was empty that day and we ran to stake out our spots. Mom took a seat in the row in front of us. The driver pulled the door closed, but instead of speeding away from the stop, he got up and made his way down the aisle, much to the annoyance of my sisters and myself; we were anxious for the fun to begin. He stopped in front of our little group and, incredibly, informed us that we would have to move to the front of the bus. My mother responded that we would sit wherever her children wanted to sit; we were perfectly fine where we were, and not about to move.

Judging from Mom’s northern accent, the driver apparently deduced that we were “foreigners.” He explained that the back of the bus was where “colored folks” sat. White people sat in the front. My mother refused to move. The driver said he wouldn’t move the bus until she did. She still refused. It wasn’t until the driver threatened to bring in the police that she finally gave in.

To this day, I am convinced that if not for the presence of her children on that bus, she would have held her ground. Indeed, several years later, I would see her stand up to some New York City cops she felt were acting improperly, refusing to back down even after they threatened to arrest her.

Certainly, at the age of six, I had absolutely no idea of the roots of the coming civil rights struggles that would begin to right so many wrongs. For my part, I was just angry at these people in Florida who had somehow managed to usurp the best seats on the bus for their own use.

My reaction may seem ironic now, but it contains within it a very valuable lesson. I learned that by limiting the rights and freedoms of others, we are all impacted. Although such segregation can no longer be legislated, we still suffer the effects of the mindset that created it. Thanks, Mom, for this gift of understanding.

~Jim Dow

More stories from our partners