When I answered the phone one afternoon, one of my neighbors was on the line asking me if my son had forgotten to deliver her paper or if he had decided not to serve her.
"He's out serving now," I replied. "I suppose he will be along soon. "
"I told him yesterday," she said, "that he had a choice. He could either leave his dogs at home or stop serving my papers."
"Well, I answered, somewhat confused by now, "the dogs are here, and he is still out serving, so I'm sure you will get your paper."
I was not as sure as I sounded, however, and when he came in I asked him, "Did you serve Richardsons?"
"No," he admitted. "She told me I had a choice, and I chose not to serve her."
My sons had served the evening paper for fifteen years in our small neighborhood, and I had been proud of their record. My least son was least avid about doing a good job, but even he had done well.
"Give me her paper," I said, "and I will serve it now. We will discuss this later." I slipped over with the paper, wondering all the while what I should say to my youngest son about this problem. His dogs were more important than people to him. He slept with them, confided all his disappointments, guilt, and dreams to them, and took care of them with that precious young love that gives all of itself when it gives at all. What does a boy have a paper route for if it's not an opportunity to take his dogs along for exercise and adventure? Other customers had objected at times, however, and the boys had conceded. What was different in this case?
We discussed it when I returned, and I discovered that what was different was she had given him a choice. "Your choice," I explained, "is to leave your dogs at home or quit serving your paper route. You can't just not serve one customer who wants a paper."
"Well, then, I'll give up my route," he insisted.
"I don't understand," I admitted. "I just don't understand." He looked at me with a hint of despair in his eyes. "It's a matter of principle, Mom," he said.
"Well, I'm sure of one thing," I replied, "I want you to live by your principles."
He smiled in return, a smile that started in his eyes, spread to his face and mouth, and relaxed through his body. Whatever was happening was important to him, and I needed an open mind.
I was so upset I accidently put the whole palm of my hand on the bottom of a hot iron to test it and burned myself so I couldn't prepare the material for the night school class I was teaching that evening. The course was psychology, so I told the students about my experience instead, asking them if they understood. They did. At least the young ones did. The class was composed of various aged members, and the older ones were as confused as I. The younger ones, however, were glad of the stand he took.
"He's right," said a boy. "I had customers like that. They got all my torn, dirty papers and were most often missed if I was short, but I never had enough nerve to quit serving them."
"You should be proud of him," said a girl. "He really stands up for what he believes in."
I was just more confused rather than enlightened by their views. I still don't understand. In my world the customer is always right and, even more important, a property owner has a right to determine what happens on his property. My generation is still in control of his world, and he did have to give up his route.
His route manager was patient and understanding, but firm. I think I learned more from this experience than he, however, because I became so frighteningly aware of how little communication there is from one generation to another in our world, both his and mine.
In spite of my doubts and confusion, he was right to give up that route. He manages uncomplainingly without the income; his physical condition has improved because of a much needed rest he takes right after school; and he has developed friends in addition to his dogs.
Stubborn? Spoiled? Self-centered? Loyal? All of these he is, I guess, but most of all he is brave, brave enough to face the rapidly changing world in which he must find a way of life for himself that will bring man nearer to the mysterious goal we all seek.