Two Stories for Life

Two Stories for Life

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

Two Stories for Life

This is a letter from a college student to her mother and father:

Dear Mom and Dad,

I’m sorry I haven’t written in a long time, but something I smoked seemed to have affected my eyesight for a while. The problem is better now. When I was in the emergency room I met a really fine man. He gave me some crystals to meditate on, and, well, to make a long story short, you’ll soon have your wish of becoming grandparents. Don’t worry. He’s mature; he’s twenty years older than I am and he has a steady job at the hospital. Who knows, we might even get married. I knew that you would want to be the first to know.

P.S. I really didn’t do any drugs, and I wasn’t in the hospital, and I’m not pregnant. I don’t even have a boyfriend. But I did flunk chemistry. I just wanted you to view this problem in proper perspective.

That is an old story that is brought up to date. It is a metaphor for this occasion—a rite of passage, a ritual that you have not experienced before but which human beings have been doing for a long, long time.

I suspect that you know just about everything that you can hold for the moment in the way of information and advice, and you have some time to process that now. So I will not, unlike some speakers, give you advice and tell you about the future. What I would like to give you as a gift is two stories. Stories that you might take with you as a peg to hang on the wall of your life, so that long days after this, when you assimilate the experiences that you had at this institution, you might have this peg to hang it on.

The first story comes from a friend of mine who is a kindergarten teacher—one of the best. She was asked at a teacher’s convention if she would have her class act out some myth, fairy tale or other good story. So being the good teacher that she was, instead of deciding herself, she went to the students, her kindergarten class, and said, “The teachers would like us to act something out. What would you like to do?” And after a lot of discussion, not to anybody’s real surprise, they picked something very old. A story that the whole human race knows. They picked that classic old chestnut of “Cinderella.”

It is interesting to note in passing that no matter when the survey is taken, that remains the most popular fairy tale for all ages. In the United States of America at least.

It was a good choice on the part of the children because there are lots of roles in “Cinderella.” And lots of flexibility. So there was this sorting out that had to be done: who wanted to be Cinderella—all the girls wanted to be the princess—and who wanted to be the coachman, and on and on. As the children received a role and sorted this out among themselves, they were labeled as useful in what their role was and sent over to the side of the room. Until there was only one child left: a small kid, tubby, not particularly involved with the other kids in the class—in fact, sometimes teased—sort of a different kid. The teacher could not say why, but he was not quite like the rest. So she said to him—his name was Norman—“Norman, what are you going to be?” “Well,” said Norman, “I think I will be the pig.” The teacher said, “Norman, there is no pig in the story of ‘Cinderella.’” And Norman said, “Well, there is now.”

So they left it to Norman as to what was the pig’s part. I mean, no one quite knew how to fit a pig into the story of “Cinderella.” It turns out that Norman knew exactly what his partwas. It was one of the great walk-on parts of all time.

His notion was to go with Cinderella wherever she went and do whatever she did. So Norman was always there—sort of a porcine Greek chorus to the events. Norman had nothing to say, but Norman’s face reflected the action of the drama. When things were serious, he was serious. When things looked worrisome, he looked worried. When things were in doubt, he looked anxious. He began to fill the stage with his presence of response by simply sitting there. And at the end of the performance when the princess was carried off to live happily ever after, Norman stood on his hind legs and barked.

In rehearsal this had been troublesome because the teacher said, “Look, Norman, even if there is a pig in the story, pigs do not bark.” And Norman said, “Well, this one does.”

You can imagine what happened the night of the performance. There was a standing ovation at the end for the pig. Norman, the barking pig, who was, as it turns out, the Cinderella in the story after all.

Word gets around, and people called up the teacher and said, “We hear you have this dynamite Cinderella thing. What is so special about it?” She said, “Well, there is a pig in it—actually a barking pig.” And the person on the other end of the telephone would say, “But there is no barking pig in ‘Cinderella.’” And the teacher would say with great conviction, “Well, there is now.”

I went out to visit Sophia Smith’s grave this morning, to see her house, and I realized that she was a barking pig. She said that there should be a college for women, and people said there is no such thing as a college for women. Her response was, “Well, there is now.”

I have always thought that the “Cinderella” story was poison—especially the one that is loose in our culture— because it describes a young woman whose position in life is to wait—to wait for the prince, to wait for the fairy godmother. The sweatshirt that Cinderella wore says, “Maybe something will happen.” Norman, the barking pig, is the kind of “Cinderella” story I like, because Norman got up and demanded that there be room for him and his image of himself in this world. And the real fairy godmother was the teacher who recognized the truth that Norman was reaching for and had affirmed his place in the scheme of things. That is a fairy story you can count on.

Hold that thought for a minute—of Norman the barking pig—and let me tell you another story to lay alongside it to take with you.

This past spring I was in a town not much bigger than this one, maybe an hour’s train ride south and west of Paris. It is a town I am sure some of you have visited, and I hope in the future more of you will go. This is where the great Gothic cathedral of Chartres is built. It is probably the most magnificent statement in stone and stained glass that exists on the face of this earth.

The story about Chartres again is an old story that needs to be brought up to date. The story goes that some time during its building, in the early days, a visitor from Rome stopped by to see this amazing thing that was happening in this small town. He got there at the end of the day, and he went into the unfinished structure, and he began to bump into workmen as they were leaving. One of them was brushing some stuff off his front, and the visitor asked him, “What do you do?” And the man said, “Oh, I make glass windows.” The visitor went a little further and he bumped into someone else who was brushing sawdust off himself. He asked, “What do you do?” The man said, “I am a woodworker. I am making some beams over here.” A little further back, someone else was brushing dust off of himself as he headed home for the evening. Again, the question was, “What do you do?” The answer was, “I am cutting some stone.”

Finally the visitor got as far back in this great structure as he could go, and there was an older woman with some young people. They were cleaning up and sweeping and putting tools away. The visitor asked this woman who was doing this work, “What do you do?” She looked at these young people, and she looked at the structure rising above her, and then she said, “Me? I am building a cathedral for the glory of God.”

She had a perspective on her place in the scheme of things. And though it was not grand by title—not architect, not mason, not stained-glass–window maker—she had a perception of her place in the scheme of things. “Me? I am building a cathedral for the glory of God.” She, too, was a barking pig, like Norman—one of his distant cousins.

I give you these two stories to cast a perspective on what you do when you go from this place. This institution at its very finest is in the business of helping barking pigs find their place. This institution in its every part—staff, faculty, parents, students and visitors—is not just a school but part of that human endeavor of building, if not a cathedral for the glory of God, at least an invisible cathedral for the best in the human spirit.

The thing that strikes me about a cathedral at Chartres is, that town was no bigger than this one—thirty-five thousand people, give or take. And they built this incredible thing. The other amazing thing about the building of Chartres is that they started something that they knew they would never see finished. But if they did not start it, it would not ever be finished, and so they began.

I said I would not give you advice, and I would simply pass on that reflection to you. I leave the rest of the thinking that comes from those two stories up to you.

I would like to make a personal request. For my own strange reasons, I did not go on to have an academic degree laid on me. But I am a practical man, and so I would like to request from this class and the administration of this college that you give me the gift of this chair, this very chair, so that long days from now I can sit in it, and it will bring to mind this lovely day, this amazing institution, this sweet life and the remarkable and unforgettable company of all of you.

Robert Fulghum

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