In 1987 the United States celebrated the bicentennial of the signing of its Constitution, and I was teaching sixth grade. I wanted to help my class value the significance of the moment and sense the importance of this world-changing document. We memorized the preamble. We reenacted the signing—complete with feathered pens and powdered wigs. I showed the children a picture of the chair used by George Washington during the Constitutional Convention, a chair with a carving of a half sun on it. I explained how Benjamin Franklin, the oldest signer, expressed his confidence in the nation’s future by pointing at the carving and declaring the sun to be rising, not setting.
Despite all my efforts, some of the children still complained, “What does this have to do with us?”
I explained, “This document set forth our fundamental laws. It established our form of government and defined our rights and liberties.” They still stared at me blankly. I guess those 11-year-olds were too young to care about anything except how many minutes remained until their next recess.
Now my former students are grown, with children of their own. I doubt they remember many of the facts we learned about the Constitution. However, their question— “What does this have to do with us?”— has remained with me. I would answer it differently today. I would say that in addition to all the information I taught them in 1987, the Constitution is also a monument to three personal qualities that we must all incorporate into our lives if we want our sun to be rising and not setting: collegiality, civility, and humility.
Collegiality is working effectively with others as colleagues despite differences. Historian Richard Beeman has explained that the representatives who attended the constitutional convention argued and debated passionately. Tempers flared during the day, but then these men put their strong opinions aside and dined together in the evenings as friends (see Plain, Honest Men). Are we willing to do the same with co-workers and neighbors who do not share all our views, values, and opinions? Can we set aside our personal and religious differences long enough to work together as colleagues in a good cause?
Collegiality is not just the stuff of constitutional conventions. It is a quality that is needed everywhere. I know three teens who have been successful in uniting people from different age groups representing many different religions and denominations in collegiality for service. Six-year-old Sam Barlow and his dad, Dave, liked to play a little game in which they expressed their love for each other. Sam would say, “I love you.” Dave responded, “I love you more.” Sam added, “I love you most.” Then Dave always thought he had the ultimate word when he would say, “I love you infinity.”
Once as they were going through their “who-loves-who-more war,” Sam decided he was not going to be topped. When his dad said, “I love you infinity,” Sam quickly replied, “I love you infinity and beyond!” Then his quick-thinking father said, “I love you infinity and beyond plus tax!” This declaration left both laughing and Sam searching for something greater than taxes.
The following day Sam rushed home from school and waited impatiently on the curb for his dad to come home from work. When Dave steered into the driveway and got out of the car, Sam rushed him and jumped into his arms. The boy hugged his father so fiercely that his body trembled as he whispered, “Python squeeze!” Then Sam leaned back, looked his father in the eyes and said triumphantly, “Dad, I love you 206!” Dave was stumped. He didn’t understand what his son was thinking. Sam saw his father’s inquisitive look and said victoriously, “Today in school I learned that’s how many bones there are in my body, so I love you 206! Dad, that’s every bone in my body!”
That delightful interchange was the beginning of a service squad Sam and his brothers Corbin and Cayden launched several years later. They called it Team 206. Those who joined with them commit to do 206 hours of service or donate $206 to a worthy cause. Sam and his brothers chose Shriners Hospitals for Children. They earned $206 and donated it to support the creation of the Forever Young Zone at the Shriners Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. The zone was to provide a place in the hospital where children who lose an arm or leg can recover, socialize, and practice life skills using their prosthetic limbs or wheelchairs. NFL legend Steve Young donated the bulk of the funds, but the Barlow boys wanted to help as well.
Others heard of Sam’s donation and wanted in—including Miss America 2013, Malory Hagan and her chaperone Marcy Bowen. Marcy told members of her Christian congregation in Arizona about Team 206 and several volunteered to participate. Marcy also told a friend in Hawaii who is from a different Christian denomination, and she joined with Sam, Corbin, and Cayden to help children in need. Team 206 grew to include people from many religions and organizations who were willing to put differences aside and unite in a spirit of true collegiality.
Another of the Barlow boys’ ideas was to encourage everyone to set an alarm to go off at 2:06 each afternoon as a reminder to acknowledge someone in his or her life. I was the lucky recipient of one of those acknowledgements. It came from the boys’ dad Dave, who left the following phone message: “Brad, my alarm went off at 2:06 reminding me to acknowledge someone who has made a difference in my life, and today that someone is you.” He went on to say some kind and thoughtful words that will not mean much to anyone else, but they sure meant a lot to me. His sincere expressions of gratitude, acceptance, admiration, and love warmed my bones—all 206 of them! I immediately set my alarm to go off the next day so I could do the same for someone else. It would be difficult to avoid a relationship of collegiality with someone who gave you that kind of message.
Perhaps one of these days at 2:06 I will call Sam, Corbin, and Cayden and tell them how proud I am of them for uniting so many in service and love. I would say, “I think it is remarkable that at your ages you are doing so much good and encouraging so many others from all different walks of life and backgrounds to join you as colleagues. Keep it up my friends!”
Richard Beeman pointed out that those who attended the Constitutional Convention worked in a small and intimate space that by today’s standards would have spelled certain disaster—too close for comfort. Yet these men were able to be effective because they shared a commitment to civility (see Plain, Honest Men).
Civility is the root of the word civilization, so what does it say about our civilization when we see bad attitudes and behavior in the public discourse of politics, ethnicity, and religion? People divide up into their separate groups instead of seeing all of us as a part of the brotherhood of man. As we take this broader view, we see that we have more commonalities that unite us than differences that divide us. Practicing civility can not only help us recognize our commonalities but maximize each other’s contributions.
I know of a young man who took a stand to promote civility. When McKay Hatch made the transition from elementary to middle school, he noticed that many of his peers had started using vulgar and offensive language—words they had not used when they were all together in elementary school. It bothered him enough that he decided to tell his friends to stop cussing. At age 14 McKay started a “no cussing club” at his high school. At first his dad didn’t like the idea because he was afraid it would make his son a target for bullying, but McKay was determined to confront the negative peer pressure and his parents supported him. As his dad had predicted, McKay took some heat during club sign ups, but when it was all over more than 100 teens sign up to take his pledge. With the help of his uncle, McKay created a website called nocussing.com, and people started joining up from across the country.
The response bolstered his confidence and McKay attended a city meeting where he was given time to explain to those present the extent of the problem. In response, the mayor of Los Angeles declared March 2-7, 2009 as “Cuss Free Week.” That declaration became news, and McKay was invited to be a guest on Good Morning America, The Tonight Show, Inside Edition, and a long list of other TV shows. He received thousands of supportive emails—all because he decided not to swear and encouraged others in his school to do the same.
I wish that were the happy end of the story. Unfortunately, it’s not. While many applauded McKay’s efforts to promote civility, others did not. McKay became the focus of bullying at school and online as well. He has been called “the most cyberbullied kid in the world.” His website has been hacked many times and infiltrated with insults, profanity, and pornography. He and his family have received death threats and bomb threats that were serious enough that police cars have been posted outside their home to provide protection. Seriously? A kid starts a no cussing club and receives death threats for it? Even McKay’s father didn’t foresee such intense reactions—especially from adults. Still McKay carried on. His club grew to thousands of members in all 50 states and 30 countries (See The No Cussing Club).
I can’t help but feel like McKay would have fit in well at the Constitutional Convention. If George Washington were to send an email to McKay I think he would approve of McKay’s choices. Washington might even include the following statement, which he copied into a personal notebook from a translated version of a French book of etiquette and civility: “Every action in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those present. . . . Use no reproachful language against anyone, neither curses nor reviling” (As quoted in William J. Bennett, The Spirit of America, 152-153).
Along with collegiality and civility, we owe the Constitution to the humility of men who were more concerned about advancing their country than themselves. Richard Beeman pointed out that while there were some representatives who left the convention in prideful huffs and others who refused to sign the final document, the majority of the representatives showed great humility. They were willing to bend and compromise when they could, and when they absolutely couldn’t, they were still willing to listen, respect the viewpoints of others, and agree to disagree (see Plain, Honest Men).
Beyond Washington, Franklin, Madison, and Hamilton, some Americans would be hard pressed to remember the names of others who signed the document. Many of the humble signers would probably say that is as it should be. History has shown that the document as a whole has been more important than any individual’s contribution. These men cared more about uniting the fiercely independent states than they worried about who would get the credit. Chris and Ted Stewart called the humility of these men miraculous: “specifically, the degree to which the delegates were willing to listen, to learn from one another, to compromise, and, when defeated, to accept the wisdom of their fellow delegates” (Seven Miracles that Saved America, 143). Similarly, Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote,
In the Constitutional Convention the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory. . . . Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood—South against North, East against West, merchant against planter. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride, and when the moment comes, admit their error. (Miracle at Philadelphia, xiv)
The humble representatives at the Constitutional Convention did not deny their talents, which were outstanding, or their experiences, which were varied and valuable. They offered these contributions to add to and enrich the contributions of the others for the benefit of all. Nineteenth century English author John Ruskin, wrote that “the first test of a truly great man is his humility.” Ruskin explained, “I do not mean, by humility, doubt of his own power. . . . [truly] great men . . . have a curious . . . feeling that . . . greatness is not in them, but through them. . . . And they see something Divine . . . in every other man . . . and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful” (The Works of John Ruskin, 5:331).ed. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols. (1903-12), 5:331,
As I watch modern political rivals clash, schools and businesses compete, and even churches attack each other with venom, I believe it is time for all of us to seek more humility. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world in which the pronoun we could replace I a little more often?
It was impressive to me to hear about a high school basketball player from Texas, Jonathan, who showed great humility during a basketball game. The coach at another high school had taken a boy, Mitchell, under his wing. Mitchell loved basketball, but due to a developmental disability, he didn’t play on the team. Instead, he acted as the team manager. In the last game of the regular season the coach surprised Mitchell by telling him to suit up. The young man was proud to wear his school’s jersey and cheer from the bench, but at the very end the coach sent Mitchell into the game. It was the moment he had dreamed of.
Mitchell’s teammates did everything they could to get him the ball, but in his excitement, he ended up booting it out of bounds. That’s when Jonathan, who was playing for the other team, was handed the ball to make an inbound pass. Jonathan’s team was behind and needed to catch up, but instead of throwing the ball to one of his waiting teammates, Jonathan yelled Mitchell’s name and passed the ball to him. Mitchell then turned and made a basket. The crowd went wild. Mitchell finally had his moment—a moment he will remember forever facilitated by a caring coach and a young man from the opposing team who was humble enough to understand that by showing that kind of sportsmanship everyone walked away a winner. When Jonathan was asked why he threw the ball to Mitchell, he said, “I was raised to treat others the way you want to be treated.”
What do I want to teach children (including my own grandchildren) about America? I want to teach them that the qualities of collegiality, civility, and humility are what has made America great. As long as we continue to foster these attributes our country will not be a setting sun, but a rising sun bringing hope and light to the entire world.
Note: This article was based on the chapter, “Standing Together” in Brad Wilcox’s book, The 7-day Christian (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2014), 119-133.
Beeman, Richard, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. New York,
NY: Random House, 2009.
Bennett, William J., The Spirit of America. New York: Touchstone, 1997.
Bowen, Catherine Drinker, Miracle at Philadelphia. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1966.
Hatch, McKay, The No Cussing Club. South Pasadena, CA: Dawson Publishing, 2009.
Ruskin, John. The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols., London, UK: George Allen, 1903-12.
Stewart, Chris & Stewart, Ted., Seven Miracles That Saved America: Why They Matter and
Why We Should Have Hope. Salt Lake City, UT: Shadow Mountain, 2009.