Tommy and Me and the Mending Wall
In 1948 Tommy and I were nine years old and we got into a fight by the bike rack behind our school. He liked Truman and I liked Dewey. I don’t know why I liked Dewey or why Tommy liked Truman, the way they looked I suppose. Why does any nine year old decide who they would like to see elected President of the United States? Common Ground was the farthest thing from our minds. All I remember is that it mattered enough at the moment for Tommy and me to duke it out.
The election was a few weeks away and we were both aware of the adult conversations that took place around us. I was a Dewey fan much like I was a fan of the Cleveland Indians who had just won the World Series for the first time in twenty-eight years. Anything positive that was said by adults about Dewey or the Indians I took for gospel and repeated it with my own embellishments. By the same token, I would reject out of hand anything positive about Truman or negative about Dewey or the Indians.
Tommy felt the same way, only opposite, so we argued. We insulted each other and we called each other names and actually came to blows that one time. But, we were only nine years old. Neither one of us knew much about either candidate or the issues of the day but it didn’t matter we had each picked our side and we believed anything that supported it and we built a wall between us.
The Mending Wall
Our wall was something like Robert Frost’s Mending Wall in his great poem of the same name. Frost describes how he and his neighbor would meet every spring to repair the winter damaged wall that divided their property. “On a day we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us as we go. To each the boulders that have fallen to each.”…”We wear our fingers rough with handling them. Oh, just another kind of outdoor game, one on a side. It comes to little more: There it is we do not need a wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard.” “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense.”
Tommy and I did not ask to whom we were likely to give offense; offense was the centerpiece of our relationship. We were not trying to convert each other, we were trying in every way possible to demean and diminish each other with our words and gestures. We didn’t listen, we didn’t question, we didn’t care, we just wanted to strike out. Our reward, if there was one, was the belief that we had launched the most damaging insult before the bell rang ending recess. But, we were only nine years old and that’s the way nine year olds behave.
I have friends on social media sites who remind me a great deal of the nine year old Tommy and me. The insults and name calling hurled across the political wall have no apparent purpose other than to give offense and no apparent result other than to harden people against each other. They often link their page to ultra partisan websites that appear to exist only to provide their site visitors with reinforcing material for their prejudices or additional insults to hurl over the wall.
There is a good reason we are not allowed to vote when we are nine years old. At that age we still have a lot to learn about civility, cooperation, collaboration, reconciliation, consensus building, compromise, listening to each other, caring about each other’s needs and make our contribution to a society that provides possibilities for all of us to live happy, healthy and productive lives.
When we are nine years old we have not yet learned to ask ourselves before we build a wall, what am I walling in or walling out and to whom I was likely to give offense? We know as mature adults that good fences do not necessarily make good neighbors. Sometimes we have to tear down the wall to see that we really have a lot in common with each other, that without the wall we can do things together that no one group of us could possibly do alone.