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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

Bill of Duties

January 2020

The functioning of any town, especially one of a few hundred depends on volunteers to help keep things going. Someone said if everyone new in this town volunteered as we do, we'd have a lot of people doing a lot of things. The first many years we lived here, Robert volunteered at the dump, and I at the library. Then and now, that brings me back to what Ernest R. Blakely of Stoughton, Massachusetts said in a letter to Time magazine. "Solzhenitsyn says, 'We must avail ourselves of rights and duties in equal measure.' I wonder if we Americans would be willing to support a Bill of Duties with as much fervor as we do our Bill of Rights." I like that: A Bill of Duties. It is vital to volunteer, to pay back what the community, society, the world at large has offered each of us. 

 I could have been born into a different family with fewer opportunities. I am fortunate to have lived in a privileged world where my parents provided us not only with a large and beautiful home that was well-furnished with family antiques, Persian carpets, and objets d'art from all over the world, but also a home where my parents gave us the best of education, travel, and interesting people to meet and hear. 

 Professor Schroff, imprisoned with Nehru at the beginning of modern India, introduced me to the exotic Indian (Seth and Abi think curry is 'good home cooking'); Bill Plummer, a chemist, told stories about New York history, bars, parrots, and a crematorium. John Kuhn, a gentleman and Texaco chemist used to tell me about his business. Winifred Smith, who offered me the world of England, was a lifelong friend of my mother’s and mine. Harriet and Paul Meyer, whom I always called Aunt Harriet and Uncle Paul, filled me with stories of China, Ireland, Ecuador, and Brazil, and sent me a silk and cotton doll from China during World War II. She was already named Mei Ling and is the only doll I ever had. Maids Ceil and Ethel changed my life. Ceil made me a better mother, something I knew as I cuddled my six-month-old child and spoke to him in a voice that only Ceil would have used with me. Ethel wrote my mother a letter begging to move with the family so she wouldn’t be separated from her “precious little girl.” Paul Xander stunned me at fourteen when he said my life was not a second long in geologic time. To have heard Helen Keller and Pearl Buck, been in the same room as Queen Elizabeth, heard Harry Truman speak a block from where I lived, these are the privileges I grew up with. 

 Now I pay the world back for what it has offered me. That is why I was a public school principal. If I do nothing else other than keep a handful of my students from ever going to prison, my entire life has been worthwhile. To say nothing of Tim. My recollection of him: I walked out of my office one day because I had a very angry student sitting between the door and me. How easily he could have slammed the door, tipped over the bookcase and assaulted me…and no one could have gotten in. I stood up, said, "I'll be back in a few minutes," and walked out. My pulse has doubled just writing about it. When I returned, I saw a calm young man; perhaps he was 16 at the time. We talked; I have no recollection about what and he left my office. Sixteen years later, I ran into his sister who said he was a computer programmer for a major international corporation. "He says you saved his life. It is because of you he's where he is." I didn't know him well. I only know something went wrong in the family for I saw a photograph of him and his sisters as children: three beautiful, talented, happy children. Something happened for the three teenagers I met were angry and sad. And I think of Dickens A Tale of Two Cities for in the world of children I know, there are many sad and tragic stories that would be different if…if perhaps they had grown up in a stronger family. I did not live without troubles; no one does. I had such a solid foundation, however, that in spite of having lived my youth in a psychological and emotional steeplechase, I could overcome obstacles because my parents gave me a foundation of bedrock. That's why somewhere inside me I have a Bill of Duties that says, "Give back your good fortune." 

 So, Ernest R. Blakely, you have influenced my life for the Bill of Rights balanced by your concept of a Bill of Duties has become a creed by which I live my life. The first ten Amendments to the U.S. Constitution constitute our Bill of Rights. I have twelve mandates in my Bill of Duties. 

  • Volunteer. 
  • Be kind to your neighbor. 
  • Treat someone as you want her to treat you. 
  • Give to charity—and volunteer at one. 
  • Be responsible for your actions and accept the consequences of what you do. 
  • Share, including helping others. 
  • Be polite—even if you feel angry or sad. 
  • Monitor what you do educationally, personally, and professionally. 
  • Pick up litter—especially your own as well as someone else's. 
  • Teach young people in your family and community. It is your responsibility to guide and lead the next generation. 
  • Pay your taxes, not what someone figures you can get away with, but pay what you owe. Don't be a millionaire and pay fewer taxes than I do, unless you give 90% of your money and some of your quality time to charity each year. 
  • Spend quality time with your family. Show your love through generosity, kindness, and conversation. Is it worth working so hard for a large house and a vacation to Alaska if you don't know the people you live with, if you don’t spend quality time with your children? Accept that some families have more money. It's not the size of your house or the number of cars, but the love, learning, and kindness you exude to your partner, children, friends, and colleagues. 
  • Offer more than what you receive. 

 These are the creeds by which I wish to conduct my life. I dedicate myself to education and behavior analysis to help people improve their learning and lives. It is my desire, civic duty, and my responsibility as a member of this planet. I wish I could have offered more, but I smile when I know Vincent has a roomful of tennis rackets and will be a fine lawyer. Or that Richard has two lovely children, the first one born on my birthday. Or that Steve has a picture he knows his art teacher and I each wanted to buy from him, but instead it hangs over the sofa in his living room. Or that Amber gave me a picture of herself on ice skates. Or that Anna's handwritten, one and a half inches thick autobiography written at age seven helped her change her life. Or that Tim is happy and successful. Those are some of my joys that made every minute worth my while.

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