Jennifer Holm’s wonderful novel for ages 8-12, Our Only May Amelia, depicts life on the Nasel River in Washington State in the late 1880s. At one point in the novel, the 12-year-old main character is given a job running down the river, yelling to everyone within earshot that the logs are about to be released from behind the dam at the logging camp. In very little time, anyone swimming, bathing, or doing laundry in the river could be mangled or killed by the rushing logs. May holds life and death in her hands by how well she does her job. At other points in the novel, May and her many brothers have the job of getting the hay in. It also has to be done just right; if the hay is too wet when they put it in the barn, it could (and sometimes did), burn down the family barn. No barn meant the family’s cows and other animals were at the mercy of the bears and cougars that roamed the woods in that part of the state at the time. The novel is fiction, but based on the author’s research and own family history. Kids’ jobs were often a matter of life and death–their own, their family’s, or their neighbors’.
Reading this book while watching the Olympics and during a particularly frustrating week at school, two things struck me: one, that the skiers and athletes competing at that level were so motivated to do what they do that it felt almost like a matter of life and death, and two, that most kids don’t have any truly important jobs these days. Some kids learn to do a few chores, mainly as an object lesson–work is important, they can’t be lazy, etc. Some do homework. I can’t think of any jobs I ever gave my kids that were a matter of life and death. Can you?
Sometimes, when kids break the rules at school for the umpteenth time, or waste incredible amounts of what feels to me like precious time, the kids seem to scream, “I can do or say anything I want to anyone, and it doesn’t really matter.” Even given interesting projects and ample time to do them, and offers of extra help along the way, some kids just can’t be bothered. The way kids respond to adults when they are questioned about what they are doing (or not doing) is often about as shocking as a dip into May Amelia’s Nasel River in January, too. Cold and rude. Very.
Yesterday, with rude words and shockingly bold actions toward adults in my mind from the week at school, my heart felt as hurt as my finger that got pinched in a metal clip while I hung up the tetherball at first recess. What will happen to our school, our community, our society, if so many kids behave the way they do? If they feel like nothing matters? It’s truly depressing at times.
And yet. If I am very honest about my day, these voices also struggle to be heard: voices that say, “Thank you, Mrs. Anderson,” and “Please, Mrs. Anderson?” or “How was your day?” or even, “I love you!” and “WhenisyourbookgettingpublishedIcan’twaittoreadit!” Even on the worst days, the hugs and small kindnesses far outnumber the other.
Thank goodness, God Himself, through Jesus, lifts his eyes past the rude and shocking and purposeless things we all do, even if only in our own heads, and sees fit to hear his own voice telling him to come down to us, to show us the way back to life and purpose and Himself. Through the prophet, Jeremiah, God told rebellious Israel that “‘I know the plans I have to for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'” (Jeremiah 29:11). There’s more to that wonderful passage, assuring us that when we seek him, we will find him. Thank goodness! I need to remember this for myself, and for my school, community, and society. It’s a matter of life and death!