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A Leather Medal

A long time ago, I went to an Episcopal day school, where I learned many things: French, hatred of green plaid, a method of whistling that sounds like a bird, and how to go to church three times or more per week. (The “or more” depended on whether my mom felt I needed to go to our family church on Sunday—we were not an Episcopalian family.)

The order of service for morning prayer is actually a pleasant way to start a day, particularly in a church as beautiful as the one I sat in. There are worse things than well-wrought language in the midst of stained glass and light. Because we were children, we were doomed to readings from the Good News translation of the Bible and we heard only the uncontroversial parts. I’m sure that many of us concluded that the Bible was a dreadfully boring story put together by the writers of I-Can-Read books on days when they forgot their senses of humor.

We also had short homilies to edify us. When our collective manners in chapel slipped, we were tested on our recall of the contents of the homilies, but I listened anyway while I looked around the church: I was an insufferable goody-two-shoes.

Which is probably why I remember one homily even now. Our headmaster was a large man with a double chin and shiny patent-leather shoes. I don’t know where he acquired the chin, but the shine came from his days as a Navy chaplain. He did not speak; he boomed.

I don’t remember the text from which the homily in question was taken. I would guess it was one of Jesus’s complaints about the Pharisees. The headmaster said that expecting to be rewarded for doing the right things was wrong. He said that some adult had asked him sarcastically, when he was little (talk about hard concepts to absorb!), if he wanted “a leather medal” for doing what he was supposed to do anyway. I’ve never heard that expression ever again from anyone else, but it has stuck in my brain.

I was appalled. If there were no rewards for good behavior, what was the point? (Remember: insufferable goody-two-shoes.) My whole life was structured around the premise that goodness would be appreciated and badness punished. My very foundations were shaken. I absolutely rejected the idea of the leather medal.

But I remembered it.

I got used to it. I grew. I made developmental progress and learned that there are complications. I can no longer imagine just one premise for a life (still insufferable, but in new ways!).

The leather medal has proved to be a useful corrective for the times when I am inclined to think too highly of myself, to point out all the ways I am so amazingly Mary Poppins (“practically perfect in every way”). It is good to have it there in my head when people tell me I am a good mom to Syd. I just love him. No matter what. That’s what parents do, and they shouldn’t expect a leather medal for it.

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