Last week at graduation ceremonies for our daughter, who received her physician assistant degree, one of the speakers gave a piece of advice that made it hard for me to listen to what anyone else said.
“Keep your courage in an accessible place,” she told these future healers. Immediately I had visions: a capacious side pocket made for sliding in a hand and pulling out a fistful of pluck; a small pouch concealing a shining dauntless stone; a backpack bulging with fortitude. I could use one of those things, I thought.
So often we talk about finding courage, as if it’s something that wanders off at the first opportunity. I was struck by the idea of keeping it with us, carrying it around, knowing just where to find it at all times.
The young people graduating that day are already far braver than a ninny like me will ever be. Their life’s work will be taking on the sickness and pain of others, of doing everything they can to ease and relieve suffering. They’d already shown their mettle, learning about the endless complexities of the human body, and if you asked any one of them, she’d say she’d only begun. A lifetime of learning lies ahead. The room brimmed with excitement and yes, a tinge of fear over what they’d taken on. The speaker’s advice was going to come in handy.
I found myself thinking how the youngest children have no concept of courage. They know go and see and touch, and the drive to do all those things propels them forward on those first juddering steps into the unknown. Toddlers never know where they’re going till they get there–and there often lasts only a few moments before it’s on to the next discovery. Yet it takes bravery to leave the safety of a parent’s arms–just watch how often a little guy looks around to make sure Mom or Dad is still nearby.
As kids get older, the need for courage becomes conscious. Some risks are physical, like learning to ride a two-wheeler, step onto a diving board, or pet that very large dog. Some are social–nerving up to make a new friend, audition for a part in the play, or go to a very first sleep-over.
The situations that call for moral courage are the ones that the writer (and reader) in me finds most moving and powerful. From early on, even before they can talk, children have a strong sense of right and wrong, of justice and fairness. When my kids played make-believe, the stories they made up were always about good vs. evil, about the kind-hearted and true winning out over the greedy and dishonest. Real life, they discovered, was a good deal more complicated. And the older they got, the truer that became.
In the middle grade novel I’m working on now, my main character hates making choices. She’s slipped through life, getting away with things, not taking responsibility if she can help it–she’s so much like me at age twelve. In my story, she will, at last, face a decision she can’t escape. She’ll have to find her courage, something she’s not used to keeping in a pocket or other accessible place. She’ll have to hunt and dig and probably ask for some help.
One reason I’m loving writing this book–why I always love writing for middle graders –is how central and powerful questions of right and wrong are to these readers. To be worthy of my audience, I have to think hard and deep, not just about how things should be, but how they are, and what we each, with our one wild, precious life, can do. Writing for middle graders forces a ninny like me to be brave, and for that I am very grateful.
Tricia is the author of What Happened on Fox Street and Mo Wren Lost and Found. Her new middle grade novel, Moonpenny Island, will publish in February.