When children leave home, their “stuff” often stays, sometimes in their childhood bedrooms, sometimes in the basement and, sometimes, both! Exploring our adult daughter’s bookshelves recently, I discovered her favorite authors, like Judy Blume, E.B. White, Beverly Cleary, Lois Lowry, Roald Dahl, and sadly realized that some classic authors have been under attack in recent years. My college librarian mother would have been horrified by the concerted efforts to restrict access to books today, and the attempts, by others, to edit and rewrite the authors’ original publications under the guise of not wishing to offend readers.
Perhaps the larger offense is not giving young readers the opportunity to interpret the plots, characters, and themes themselves, ask questions, and broaden their horizons, which is what reading is supposed to encourage.
One of the little books I discovered on the bedroom shelf was “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” a charming list of 511 bits of advice by H. Jackson Brown, Jr., to his son when he left home to attend college. Some of the 1991 advice is dated – email, computers, and cell phones were not ubiquitous as they are today — but much of Brown’s fatherly advice stands the test of time. He begins with simple things – develop a firm handshake, look others in the eye, say “please” and “thank you” a lot. Other advice was more profound: read the Bill of Rights, for example. These days, there are lots of references to the First and Second Amendments, and recently to the Fifth Amendment (former President Trump famously “took the Fifth” more than 400 times in a recent probe). The Bill of Rights, authored by Fairfax County’s own George Mason, is a fairly simple document, and often misinterpreted, so it deserves a re-reading beyond what you may remember from civics class.
Brown also advised his son to “be punctual and insist on it in others.” He probably was thinking of classes, meals, and dates where tardiness might affect a few. In today’s virtual world, lack of punctuality can affect dozens of individuals, so a five-minute delay could add up to an hour of wasted time, time that you never get back! Another bon mot was “Don’t discuss business in elevators. You never know who might overhear you.” Elevators aren’t the problem these days; cell phones are. On the street, in the grocery store, and just about everywhere else, private business is being discussed via speakerphone, seemingly without a care as to anyone in earshot. Too much information, to be sure!
“Praise in public; criticize in private” might work for family and close friends, but not for public figures. In her newsletter reports from the Virginia General Assembly, Delegate Kaye Kory states that “Fairfax County has refused to install ‘Stop for Pedestrian’ signs” on county roadways, and she has cosponsored legislation that authorizes localities to install such signs. This is a favorable safety measure to protect pedestrians, and I hope the legislation is enacted. Certainly, safety of pedestrians and cyclists is a concern I share with Delegate Kory, but county staff confirm that Fairfax County has not refused to install the signs; the Virginia Department of Transportation, the state agency that maintains most roadways in Fairfax County, currently prohibits the county from placing those signs on the streets. Let’s be clear: it’s not refusal by the county, it’s prohibition by the Commonwealth that’s the culprit.
Although parts of the original 1991 edition of Brown’s handy list are dated, there is no need to rewrite it. I imagine, though, that many parents could write their own little instruction book for their children, college-bound or not. Brown’s final instruction was “call your mother.” That might be a good place to begin!
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.