Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
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During the month of July, we will run “best of” content from the authors. The following article first appeared on February 20, 2008.
It was my first day of work in a small town not far outside Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, and after three months of intense language training I quickly learned I had studied the wrong language. The people I encountered didn’t speak the language I so arduously studied. Plus, every time I opened my mouth they ridiculed me.
Fortunately, I discovered a wonderful tool for enhancing my language capacity without harming my battered ego. Children. The local kids spoke far better Portuguese than I did. Better still, most of them showed infinite patience when it came to pointing at objects and giving me the Portuguese word for it.
It was during just such a linguistic encounter that I discovered the topic of today’s article. I’d often heard the expression you shouldn’t judge someone until you had walked in his shoes, but the idea contained within this expression never hit home until I received a personal lesson on the topic.
Here’s what happened. An eight-year-old boy who was pointing at objects and giving me the Portuguese nouns for each asked me to teach him the English equivalents. That way we both learned a new word. The first object the boy pointed to was a cobblestone, so I carefully articulated: “Cobblestone.”
“Desculpe!” he proclaimed—suggesting I say the word again.
“Cobblestone,” I repeated, raising my voice a little. With my second pronouncement the boy fell to the ground howling and chortling in a cloud of dust. When he finally gained composure he dashed across the street, gathered a few friends, and then had me pronounce again, “cobblestone.” On cue, his friends broke into peals of laughter.
“Cahb-al-es-tone,” each muttered in a mocking tone, pointing at me and laughing—as if I myself had invented the deeply guttural and apparently hilarious word. Finally, after I’d had my fill of the boy’s mockery, I asked the lad to share the Portuguese word for cobblestone. “These things?” he asked while pointing at the pavers. “They’re called Par-a-lel-la-pee-pee-doos.”
“Par-a-lel-a-pee-pee-doo?” I thought to myself. “And you think the word “cobblestone” is funny?”
It was hard for either of us to know why the other found our word so hysterical. In fact, it’s hard to really understand how anyone else feels about anything—not at least without having lived their life.
For instance, I once read a story wherein a fellow told a dirt-poor friend who desperately wanted to take a girl on a date that he should take her to the grange dance because it would cost only two bits (this was in the early 1940s). For only a quarter, the couple would gain entrance to the co-op and access to snacks, and they’d be able to dance to a live band. Who could turn down such a bargain?
“But I don’t have a quarter,” his friend answered.
I’ve often wondered if my own children would understand that phrase: “But I don’t have a quarter.” They’d probably think the fellow didn’t have change, or he’d left his cash home. Or, that if he didn’t actually own a quarter, he could certainly get one.
Without living the life the impoverished farmer had lived, my children couldn’t possibly know the meaning of these simple words. I have a bit of an idea because I lived under similar circumstances. Like the poor children in a research study conducted over fifty years ago, if a researcher had asked me to draw a picture of a quarter, I would have drawn a big quarter—one that was much larger than the quarter the middle- and upper-class kids in the study had drawn. A quarter meant a lot to me, a boy of no means. To me, it was the size of a hubcap.
In high school my mom gave me a quarter to take the bus home each day. I was supposed to pack my own lunch and ride home on the city bus after school. But in our house the fridge contained things like a boiled cow’s tongue for sandwich makings. I hated cow’s tongue sandwiches. You couldn’t tell who was tasting whom.
Besides, even if mom had stocked the fridge with fixings other than tongue, heart, and entrails, only nerds carried their lunch to school. Cool kids drove their cars off campus to buy scrumptious burgers, shakes, and fries. Well, cool, rich kids did. My family had one old car that had been smacked a lot and then patched up and painted with dark grey primer. Since the car was originally white, everyone called the spotted beast “The Dalmatian.” My dad drove the Dalmatian to work, so I couldn’t cruise to the nearby burger place for lunch. Besides, I had no money for food.
However, not all was lost. I learned that if I walked six blocks from school to the center of town, the bus ride home only cost a dime. That maneuver gave me fifteen cents for lunch. This wasn’t very much money, even in the sixties, but I could buy one thing. Each day I ambled across the street and bought a hockey-puck sized burger. Actually, the item was so small and bereft of meat that it was against the law to call it a burger. Each day I ate a fifteen-cent “Beefy.”
By the end of the day I was famished. I’d walk to the bus stop in the center of town and wait for my ten-cent ride, stomach rumbling all the while. And then things got complicated. The bus stop stood right in front of a bakery which sported, among other tasty delights, a ten-cent chocolate éclair filled with rich vanilla pudding. From inside their glass-cased mini fridge, the éclairs called to me, whispering French enticements: “Eat-tay Moi.”
It was torture. If I gave into the Siren call of the éclair, I’d have to walk home for a mile uphill (mostly in the rain) carrying my books.
Of course, quarters weren’t just for lunches. Quarters could be combined to make larger purchases. For instance, on my mother’s birthday my bus fare came in handy. For two weeks I’d go without lunch and walk home every day so I could buy her the dangly earrings she had hinted she wanted.
After my mother passed away, my wife and I went through her belongings. Tucked neatly away next to the cache of earrings I had given her I found a scrap of paper I had made notes on in 1963. My mom kept the scrap as a memento from my Senior Prom.
On the note was written the following: Orchid-$10; Tickets-$5; Tuxedo-$7; Dinner-$13; Snack after the dance-$5.
I’m sure it wasn’t this financial account that caught my mom’s attention. What inspired her to save the note were the words I wrote at the bottom: Total-$40. Length of prom date-5 hours. Cost per hour-$8.
I had calculated how much the dance cost me per hour! I spent 160 quarters on a dance at a time where each quarter meant lunch and a ride home.
So when I read about the fellow who said he didn’t have a quarter, I think I understood what he meant. He meant he didn’t have a quarter, he wasn’t likely to get a quarter, and if he did get his hands on one, he certainly wouldn’t spend it on a dance.
Of course, I’ll never know for sure. We’re never perfect at guessing others’ meaning. Sometimes a whole life goes into the meaning behind a single word. I saw a quarter as a scarce resource that led to a meal and a ride. My kids see a quarter as something you toss into a change jar so it won’t jingle annoyingly in your pocket.
When you think about it, it’s a wonder we understand anything about each other. It’s a wonder that simple greetings such as, “What’s up?” don’t lead to fist fights—so different can be our take on things. But somehow we get by. Maybe just knowing that we don’t know much about each other helps us get along.
Fortunately, amid all of this confusion and misinterpretation, I do know one thing for certain: “cobblestone” isn’t funny. “Par-a-lel-a-pee-pee-doo”—now that’s funny.
13 thoughts on “Kerrying On: My Two-Bits' Worth”
What a great story. Our kids may also ask, “What’s a hub cap”? I probably think what the last generation might have thought, “kids today don’t want to work for it”. Boundaries, apparent or real, do not exist today. That’s a shame. Wanting to give out kids everything we didn’t have is just turning them into lazy kids, well not ALL kids, but it sure seems like all of them some days. Anyway, thanks for the memories and a reminder of where we place our values, what we value, and the cost over time.
I have to ask – what language DID you study?
Your writting is both entertaining and enlightening. I want to be among the first to purchase your upcoming book. I’m tired of reading doom and gloom prognostications. It’s time for an uplifting, take charge of your own life and make the most of it book. Please put me on your advanced sales list.
I thoroughly enjoyed your article “My Two-bits worth”. Having grown up on hand-me-downs, the Salvation Army, and yes, Food Stamps, I too understand the value of a quarter. I had three paper routes as a boy to pay for my first pair of new jeans, Wranglers! I lament some now that my sons haven’t yet learned this and teaching them in the age of affluence is rather difficult.
I am printing your article to share with my sons, hoping that they will at least have the seeds planted that all is not the same for everyone.
Thank you for this opportunity and the trip down memory lane.
Love your heart warming story. I will enjoy sharing your story with my family and friends. This story gives the new meaning to being humble at any age and always carry a quarter to give to someone that might need one. I admire your unselfishness and overwhelming kindness to your mother by giving up your meals to purchase earrings for her birthday. Please put me on the list when your new book is published, it would be an honor to read more. Thank you for being you.
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Fun, inspiring article! Having lived in Brazil for four years I can relate to your story. Thanks for the wonderful insight.
My Grandpa McNeilly told me how he had once asked his father for some money one December to take out this pretty girl and Great-grandpa gave him 50 cents. Grandpa was upset and insulted. He decided to go through all of the farm’s records for the entire year to see how much money there was and so he could see “What kind of man my father really was”.
After several hours of looking at receipts and records he finally determined how much income there was . . . 50 cents. Grandpa turned to me with a crack in his voice and said “I found out what kind of man my Dad really was and had my first date with your Grandmother because of it”.
your story about the quarter struck a cord. I received $1.00 per week to ride the bus to school (ten cents each way) and 50 cents a week for a soda at lunch. I hitchhiked and drank water and thus could save $1.50 per week. this i used for Christmas presents and the Saturday night dance (75 cents).This was in the sixties. So like you I understood early the value of a quarter and to this day i will pick up a penny on the street. there were no cerdit cards so you only spent what you could pay cash for. Maybe in some ways this recesssion will help restore those values.
Knowing you are a fellow Seattle-ite, I tried to recall if you got the “Beefy” at Dag’s or Herfy’s on Rainier Avenue! Do you recall getting the $5 Christmas trees at Chubby & Tubby’s?!! Not to mention the Ked’s tennis shoes they had, although they were out of most of our range…
To me , the story means people have different frame of references and the same thing can mean something different to different people..
We would be more comfortable if we accepted that and enjoyed the diversity rather than lable people who are different from us. Mr. Kerry, an 8 year old boy who works out the cost/benfit is sure to be mindful of opportunities to earn and wise in spending. the only thing he needs is to tap into the 6 sources of influence.
This story also opens another big doorway.. we love and enjoy different things… so the joy does not reside in any particular thing but in us.. what value we attach it to..the core of [LOVE WHAT YOU HATE]
… How much your mom must have loved you..to cherish that little note. Thank you for sharing the story Mr Kerry.
I think that the funny thing about “cobblestone” is that it sounds like “có bostão”. “Có” has no meaning it just sounds like that, but the “bblestone” part sounds like “bostão”, which means “big crap”, that could explain why the children found it so funny.