Star Chart

March 21, 2024


For crying out loud, I was only nine years old and didn't need the world's weight on my shoulders. 

I was halfway up the Sweet Gum tree in my summertime happy place. From there, I had a shaded spot for snuggling on a wide branch with a perfectly shaped crook for reclining. It was a natural fit for relaxing with Nancy Drew. 

No sooner had Hannah Gruen warned Nancy about the dangers of following strangers in her dark sedan than my mother called. "Yoo-hoo, come inside for a minute. I have something to show you." Before children were given access to government-level computers, our expectations were low, so I only hoped I would find a Jell-O mold. 

Instead, I found Mother in my bedroom with a posterboard hanging on my closet door. "This is your Star Chart," she announced with forced perkiness. She explained that every day, I would look at the chart and mark off the chores that were listed in a column on the left. "clean bedroom," "Set the table for supper," and "Sweep the porch" were the highlights of about 4 million different jobs. Every time I completed a chore, I now had the added clerical task of keeping track of my actions by placing a flimsy gold star next to it in little boxes on the right. The row of boxes and expectations seemed to stretch far into my teen years. 

Her overly long explanation and faux enthusiasm were troubling. The weight of the entire household was pressing down on my tiny shoulders. She started to sound like Charlie Brown's teacher, and I had visions of crawling around on my hands and knees with a scrub brush like Cinderella, with no new dress, handsome prince, or talking mice in sight. My summer was ruined. 

When I could stand it no more, I burst into tears, and cried, "But I don't want a Star Chart!"

What I was honestly thinking, in my third-grade vernacular, was, "She thinks this manipulative psychological trick will somehow encourage me, yet I'm already doing everything on this list and more! What is the point of doing the same work and now having the added administrative duties with the worthless paper stars I've already earned at school by the truckload?" She obviously wanted to destroy my life. 

It was true. I was officially the neatest person in the house. I tidied up after everyone else. Stacking books, arranging flowers, organizing my brother's toys, and even polishing the furniture without being told because I liked the lemony, clean smell. I wasn't a normal kid. My pink canopy bed was the only one in the house consistently made every morning, and I laid my clothes out the night before so each outfit was well planned, cleaned, and ready to go, including my knee socks, accessorized with rubber bands from the newspaper, to keep them from sliding down skinny legs.  

This woman was rocking my world. A simpleminded child would have thought this scheme was a grand game, and a quick-thinking future tycoon would have negotiated better rewards like ice cream, toys, or my favorite—a hamster. But gold stars? Who was she kidding? That was no kind of reward. 

My tears of frustration baffled my mother, and she looked deflated, and her morning of premeditated crafty torture had resulted in a dead end. 

Years passed, and the "star chart" episode became a favorite family story. "She burst into tears at the sight of the chart, poor thing! Ha-ha-ha" They thought I crumbled because I was lazy, but the truth was, I had felt uninvolved in the planning and didn't understand the goal. Good communication and shared excitement go a long way. Motivation and enthusiasm can't be dictated by one person's vision. It was an advanced leadership course for young'uns. 

And now, all these years later, my mother has moved into a senior living community, and since she's a bit forgetful, I made her a pretty fabric-covered bulletin board for keeping notes, calendars, and phone numbers. I laughed and said, "Look, I made you a star chart." She immediately stomped her foot, pretended to pout and said, "but I don't want a star chart!" She hasn't forgotten much at all.  

This story first appeared in Lagniappe News, Mobile Alabama

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