Holly grew up in Rockford, Illinois, in a time when much experimentation was going on in education. One such experiment in her fourth-grade class taught her how to do long division, but more important, it taught her about honoring her word.
When starting a math section on division, the teacher told the students what would be required to earn various grades on that portion of the class. To get a C they had to turn in so many pages of correct long division problems. A grade of B required more pages, and an A even more. More important, students had to choose up front what grade they wanted to earn and sign a contract with the teacher committing to complete that many pages.
Holly Getter wanted an A. So that’s what she signed up for, literally. At the age of ten, it was the first time she’d ever signed her name on a contract for anything. It was a little scary, but a bit exciting at the same time.
Unfortunately for Holly, not long into the lessons it was clear she wasn’t getting it. But she wasn’t just a little unclear. She didn’t even have a clue where to start. But she was too embarrassed to admit it and too afraid to ask for help. So as the due date approached, Holly hadn’t completed a single page of long division problems.
The night before it was all due, Holly went to her mother in tears. Through sobbing eyes she admitted her problem and begged her mother for help, surely hoping for some kind of amnesty.
“Well,” her mother began, “let me tell you what a contract is. When you sign your name on something, you’re telling someone you’re going to do something. That’s your word. Your word needs to be something you stand by.” Young Holly wondered what exactly that meant. But she didn’t have to wait long to find out. Mom continued, “Tonight we’re going to learn two lessons: standing by your word, and long division.”
And that’s exactly what they did. Holly’s mom sat her down at the kitchen table and explained to her how to do long division. “Divide, multiply, subtract, and bring down. Then repeat.” Over and over again they worked through that process: “Divide, multiply, subtract, and bring down.” One hour, two hours, three hours . . . Holly and her mom sat working through problem after problem.
Some time after midnight, Holly complained,
Mom, I’m sooooo tired!
“Yes, I know you’re tired. I’m tired, too. But you signed a contract. This is your responsibility.” Holly’s mom stayed up with her little girl till 3 a.m., until the last problem was done. Morning came early for both. Holly hoped for a day home from school given her late night. But she wouldn’t get it. Her mother knew that to learn the lesson properly, Holly needed to feel all the repercussions herself.
Today, as an elementary school teacher herself, Holly Getter shares that story with her students. She hopes to impress upon them these messages: First, math was hard for her too. But she learned it, and so can they. Second, never be afraid to ask questions. That’s the only way you’ll learn. If she’d been brave enough to admit she didn’t understand long division, she would have learned it much earlier. Lastly, your word is binding. When you sign a contract, that’s a commitment. You have to keep it, even if it means staying up till 3 a.m. doing long division.
In the end, Holly earned her A in long division. But she earned something far more important: the self-respect that comes from knowing what it means to stand by your word.
- Do you think it was fair for Holly’s mother to make her stay up till 3 a.m. to finish her math?
- Have you ever signed a contract? What was it for? And did you complete your part of the arrangement?
- Has someone ever made you a promise they didn’t keep? How did that make you feel?
- What’s a situation that might make it okay to break your word?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is a one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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