Put The Gum Back

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Craig Johnson
  • 509th Civil Engineer Squadron
So much of what we need to learn about how to live a successful life we learn at a very early age. Over the years I've read many self-improvement books on leadership and life by people like Machiavelli, Ken Blanchard, Anthony Robbins, Gen (Ret) H. Norman Schwartzkopf, and former President Ronald Reagan. All had great insight on what influenced them and what the golden nuggets were for leading people, managing resources, and being satisfied with the life that we each live. 

For me these authors were influential and helped shape my leadership philosophy that is based on teamwork, commitment, and maintaining balance in our personal and professional lives. Honestly though, one of the most influential authors of my life was not a war hero, world leader, or business mogul. Quite the contrary. He was a cowboy, folksinger, salesman, artist, parish minister, and bartender. He was like you and me. His name is Robert Fulghum. 

Fulghum's genius was writing about simple observations in life. Common events we all live through and telling them in a way that puts the heart and mind at ease. He writes the kind of stories that really make us look at ourselves...to maybe not take daily events too serious...and to laugh a little along the way. Stuff that is good for the soul. 

I want to share a short piece from the first book of Fulghum's I read back in college. At the time, like we all do at some point in our lives, I was searching for the meaning in my own life. What was it all about? Was I supposed to be an engineer? Pilot? Fire Fighter? Teacher? Why was the world the way it was? 

The book I read was entitled "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten". It really summed up some basic lessons we all learn in life very early and if we all abided by them...the world would be a better place. It sure made sense. Fulghum wrote:

"I realized that I already know most of what's necessary to live a meaningful life--that it isn't all that complicated. All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. These are the things I learned.

Share everything.
Play fair.
Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life--learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup--they all die. So do we.
And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned--the biggest word of all--LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living. 

Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm."

See what I mean? Not rocket-science philosophies of life. But simple principles. Maybe what Fulghum's writing did for me is help me relax a little and not try to make things more complicated than they were. Maybe the most important things in life I'd already learned. 

I reflect back on my own childhood...as far back as I can remember...and realize my parents taught me those lessons that Fulghum wrote about. I laugh now about all the silly things I did when I was a kid. But they taught me very important lessons. All of them.
One such lesson in life I learned when I was four. My Mom and I went shopping at Target. I'm the youngest of four children so I had plenty of Mom time...I was taken everywhere. Anyway, my Mom was shopping on one side of the store aisle and not paying attention to me. As I looked around...ahhhh cool! Frisbees! So with Mom looking the other way I made a break for it. It was all of five feet, but I was "free". Ohhh, you gotta be kiddin' me. There was gum packed into the back of the Frisbee too. Double cool! Hmmm. Gum sounded good so I poked my little finger through the cellophane wrap and took me a piece. Mmmmmm. Scrumptious. And the triple cool thing? I did all this under the Mommy radar. I was undetected. So I slid back into my normal "kid-shopping-at-a-store-with-Mom" position and enjoyed the mouthwatering wholesome goodness in my mouth. Free. 

My Mom finished shopping and bought everything in the cart. Then she looked at me and said in a curious, but knowing voice (Mom's know everything), "Craig, where did you get that gum?" I'm not sure how the body does what it does when you get busted but that "warm, tingly, this is not good" rush came over me. I tried to explain in four year old rambling terminology that I "found" it in the store. But before I could finish she grabbed my hand and said, "Well, we didn't pay for it and that is stealing. First we are going to pay for it and then you are going to apologize to the store manager." Gulp. Pretty sure I swallowed the gum right then and there. And if kid myths are true it stayed in my stomach for seven years. 

Well, I ended up apologizing through a rain-shower of tears, blubbering, and a bubbling nose. I'm sure my Mom had to translate. Lesson learned. 

That was more than thirty years ago. Now it's my turn. My oldest son last week completed the 100th day of kindergarten at Whiteman Elementary. The lessons that my parents taught me and Fulghum so simply captured, are the golden nuggets I now pass on to my kindergartener, and his two younger brothers. What a critical time this is for setting him up for success in his life. What an awesome, powerful responsibility. All of my energy and love needs to go into teaching those same basic fundamentals. 

I encourage us all to pause in our lives from time to time and reflect on those lessons we learned years ago. Are we doing the right thing with our children and preparing them to succeed in life? Are we living our lives at home and work by those simple principles we learned in kindergarten? Sharing. Playing fair. Putting things back where we found them. And saying you are sorry when you hurt someone. We all learned these golden nuggets of how to be and what to do. Now it's our turn to pass them on. 

P.S. You can leave your gum out. I won't take it.