ValueSpeak - A Weekly Column by Joseph Walker
PEACE – SYMBOLICALLY OR OTHERWISE
I don’t know what possessed me to draw a big, bold peace symbol on my blue three-ring binder that holiday season. I was in the sixth grade. Who knows why sixth graders do stuff?
Certainly Mr. Nielsen, my sixth grade teacher, didn’t know.
“Mr. Walker,” he said. I was immediately on the defensive because he only called me “Mr. Walker” when I was in trouble. He tapped the peace symbol on my binder with a sturdy forefinger. “Do you know what this is?” he asked.
“Sure!” I said, excited to be able to actually answer a question. “It’s a peace sign!”
“And do you know what it stands for?”
Uh-oh. This had to be a trick question. I stared at the symbol for a moment.
“Ummm . . . well . . . it stands for . . . well . . . you know . . . peace.”
“Exactly!” Mr. Nielsen said, nodding knowingly. “Now, is that really the sort of thing you want to have on your binder – especially at Christmas?”
I was confused. Wasn’t the season all about “peace on earth, good will toward men”? But then, it was a confusing time. The late 1960s were filled with so many mixed messages that long-cherished values like “love” and “peace” had become counter-culture buzzwords, making them seem almost subversive – even at Christmas time. So when Mr. Nielsen called my mother to tell her about the peace symbol, Mom looked at me as if I had been caught standing on the corner of Haight and Ashbury wearing flowers in my crewcut.
“Where on earth did you get such an idea?” she asked.
“What idea?” I was stalling, hoping to come up with something better than the truth.
“You know perfectly well what I’m talking about,” she said. “This . . . peace thing.”
“Well, it’s Christmas,” I said. “You know – ‘peace on earth’ and stuff?”
“I’m not talking about that,” Mom said. “I mean the peace symbol on your binder.”
The intensity in her voice scared the devil out of me, so I had no choice but honesty.
“Oh, that,” I said. “Well, I . . . uh . . . saw it on . . . ummm . . . `Laugh-In.’”
I didn’t mention that I had seen it painted around Goldie Hawn’s belly button as she danced in a bikini during “Sock It To Me” time. I didn’t want to give Mom a stroke.
Besides, what I told her was bad enough, and I braced myself. Watching “Laugh-In” was forbidden at our house. The fact that I had secretly watched it anyway was a capital offense. Add the peace sign to it, and I was sure to be grounded through the rest of the Nixon Administration, and probably well into the Agnew Administration that would inevitably follow.
To my great surprise, Mom didn’t even react to the television program. Instead, she focused on something deeper, and infinitely more profound.
“Do you even know what peace is?” she asked.
Uh-oh. Another trick question. “It’s like . . . no war,” I said. “Isn’t it?”
“Well, yes,” Mom said. “But it’s more than that. Peace is a feeling you get inside when you’re doing good things and living your life the way you should. If you do those things you can feel peaceful even if you’re living in the middle of a war.”
I didn’t understand. “So is it wrong to draw a peace sign on my binder?” I asked.
“Well, I’m not thrilled about it, but I guess it’s OK,” she said. “Peace is a good thing. It’s what this season is all about. I just want to make sure you know that it’s more than just a symbol. Peace on earth begins in your heart, and it has more to do with what’s going on inside you than with what’s going on around you.”
It took me a few years to fully appreciate what Mom said that day. I can’t remember a time in my life when there wasn’t a war going on somewhere in the world. For as long as I’ve lived the world has never truly known peace (there’s no cause-effect relationship there, I don’t think). But there have been wonderful periods of time when I have known peace, at Christmas time and other times – not because of what was going on around me, but because of what was going on inside me.
Whether or not I had a peace sign on my binder.
— © Joseph Walker
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