Careful, A Compound Word



Miguel worked on his masterpiece egg: a painting of a scuba diver—complete with tanks, fins, and gear—diving after a hidden treasure on the bottom of the ocean. A boat waited on top of the water. On the other side of the egg something else was waiting: a mean-looking shark lurking behind a mass of pink coral. To survive a possible attack, the diver would have to surface in a hurry and drag the netted treasure behind him. Just as Miguel reached for another color to use, the egg began to roll off his desk. In an effort to keep it from falling on the floor, he leaned forward and accidentally crushed the egg with his body. A hush came over the classroom. By the time I got to him, tears flooded his eyes, and he was pulverizing the egg in his right hand. I tried to console him. It didn’t work. I asked if he wanted to be left alone for a while. He nodded. I squeezed his shoulder and reassured him I’d be back. When I returned, I gently took the pieces of crushed eggshell from his hand and replaced them with a new egg. He curled his fingers around the small shape and stared at his desk. I waited a moment before speaking. “Miguel, you know your scuba diver’s world. You’ve been there. All you have to do is put a tiny mark on your egg.” I placed a faint dot in the middle of his egg. “The rest will follow.”

In less than an hour, Miguel painted his ocean story on the second egg. It was more detailed and colorful than the first. Everyone applauded when Miguel shared his finished masterpiece with his class.

It happens to most of us at one time or another. We work hard on something. Things don’t turn out the way we expect. We have a choice: give up or try again. We might honestly think we can’t do it. Maybe to save face, we tell ourselves that we don’t really care. If we’re fortunate, someone or something inspires us to take that difficult first step, and things fall into place.

For Miguel, one small success started a chain of successes. He became more responsive and more hopeful. He began to communicate more willingly with his teacher. He struggled to finish his homework, even if it meant staying late after school to get help. He even overcame some of his shyness and made new friends at school.

It all began on the first day of the Egg Painting Workshop, before Miguel had the slightest idea of what he might paint on his masterpiece egg, before he had to deal with the question of fragility. We sat in a circle (more like an egg shape) on the floor. After introductions, I briefly explained what we’d be doing each day, what supplies we’d need, and what to expect from the experience. Then we talked about eggs.

Rarely does a fourth grader talk about eggs in terms of symbolism, mythology, or folklore. Instead, they love to share stories about throwing eggs or breaking an uncooked egg into their little brother’s hair and watching the viscous mess coagulate. (Please don’t do this!) Students tell me stories about eggs they’ve found, eggs they’ve eaten, eggs they’ve broken. They squint their eyes and open their mouths wide as they stuff imaginary eggs inside. They make crunching sounds and pretend to grind eggshells in their hands. They can talk about egg mishaps forever.

“What else is fragile besides an egg?” I asked the class that day.

One boy raised his hand. “Glass.”

“Ceramics,” said a girl.


“Your earrings.”

More hands went up.

“My sister’s porcelain doll.”

“My glasses!”


“My dad’s remote.”


“What about the earth?” I asked. “Anything fragile there?”

A long pause. Then a quiet girl raised her hand. “The water.”

“What’s fragile about water?”

“It can be polluted.”

“Trees are fragile,” said a boy.


“They can be cut down, or a forest fire can get them.”

Another boy added, “Mountains.”


“Volcanoes, earthquakes. You know, that kind of stuff.”

Then a flurry of ideas:

“The air.”

“Rain forests.”

“The desert.”

“Meadows, rivers.”

“The ozone.”

“Stars can die,” said the quiet girl. A few kids recoiled, making exaggerated faces. For a few minutes we examined our views about the universe. Can it be fragile, too?

A boy agreed with the girl. “Suns are like stars. They can explode.”

“Black holes suck everything up,” said a popular boy, creating a great whooshing noise with puckered lips as he pretended to suck in the world. Everyone laughed.

“What about us? Is there anything fragile about people?”

Just about everyone’s hands shot up.

“Teeth.” “Hair.” “Eyeballs.” (Laughter). “Fingernails.” “Skin.” “Babies.” “Bones.”

“Yeah, I broke my arm, see?” A boy showed off his cast.

“Anything else?”

A girl sucked in her breath. “Your heart.”

Several boys grabbed their chests and pretended to fall forward.

“You’re right. Any one of us could have a heart attack. But I think she’s talking about something else. What do you think she means?”

Several kids fidgeted. Finally someone said, “Feelings.”

The popular boy added, “You break up with your girlfriend.”

“Eeeeeeuuuuuwwww!” This from the rest of the class.

Others raised their hands.

“You lose your dog.” “Your cat dies.” “Your friend gets mad and moves away.” “My grandma died.”

A girl put her arm around her friend who lost her grandmother.

The popular boy decided to break the mood with, “Someone says your guinea pig’s ugly.” Everyone laughed.

“It doesn’t take much to break our hearts, does it? A tone of voice. A look. Someone teasing us. Words, gestures, facial expressions—they can all be powerful heartbreakers.”

Several children agreed. Others made faces and stuck out their tongues.

“If we realize that every person on earth has a heart that can easily break, how do we treat each other?”

A lot of fidgeting now. A girl hesitated before raising her hand.

“Kind,” she said.

Another girl added, “Gentle.”

“Yes. It’s all about being careful. Careful is a compound word. What are the two words here?”

“Care and full,” said the girl who lost her grandmother.

“Full of care. Imagine during the next ten minutes everyone in the world is filled with care. Everything they do is filled with care. Only for the next ten minutes. Would that change anything?”

A lot of nodding.

“No war.”

“No politicians.”

“No cops. My dad would be out of a job,” said a boy.

“Not if it’s only ten minutes,” the popular boy said. Everyone laughed.

“Would it change anything on the playground at recess?”

Vehement agreement, especially from the girls.

“Do you think it’s possible to be filled with care, to be kind, for ten minutes?”

Most of the kids nodded.

“What about every day for a whole year?”

They all shook their heads. Many shouted out, “NO!”

“Why not?”

“It’s hard,” said a girl. “You’d have to be a saint or something.”

The popular boy agreed. “It’s hard because you’d have to ‘pussy foot’ around all the time. It’d be boring.” He gestured toward the window. “I can just see myself on the playground. La-de-dah. I go up to the monkey bars. La-de-dah. I barely touch them because I don’t want to hurt them, so I swing all pretty-like, you know. Then I tiptoe down the steps to the other side. I’m NOT doing that. That would NOT be cool.”

Everyone in the class laughed, even the girls.

He had a point. To be cool in today’s world often means the opposite of being careful, or even kind.

“Tell me about being cool,” I asked.

“It’s like you’re tough. You can’t show you’re weak,” said the popular boy.

“Yeah,” said the boy next to him.

Then another boy added, “The really cool kids? They push you around.”

“Not all the time,” said someone else.

“Maybe it’s just the ones who think they’re cool,” suggested a girl.

“Cool kids have cool stuff,” said a boy.

“You know, the really cool kids—I mean the really, really cool kids—they trade good lunches with you,” said the popular boy.

“Yeah, but some of the cool kids, they won’t even look at you,” said a girl.

“Would being ‘filled with care’ involve noticing each other? Paying attention?”

No response.

“Let’s say I’m walking into the post office. I have a song on my mind or I’m thinking about what I’m going to eat for lunch. I’m so involved with my thoughts that I don’t notice the lady walking toward the door. She’s carrying an armload of packages. If I were paying attention, I’d open the door for her because I want to be cool. Or perhaps I could care less about anything and don’t even bother to look around. What would you do?”

“Open the door,” said a girl.

“Wait,” said the popular boy. “Being cool doesn’t mean you’re mean.”

“What does it mean?”

“It just means you’d open the door and be cool about it.”

“How would you open the door in a cool way?”

“You know, you do this.” The boy put on a flirtatious smile and shifted his shoulders back and forth while moving his head side to side. More laughter.

“That’s not cool,” said the girl he was looking at. “That’s being silly.”

“Maybe being cool just means you pay attention to what’s happening around you, and you respond appropriately?”

Blank stares.

“Okay. Here’s one scenario: I walk into the post office. Thoughts about the day are racing through my head. I have to go to the bank. Do I have enough time to paint that cool picture on an ostrich egg? Can I afford new brushes? How will I paint the colors in the sky? Maybe a bit of red? Not drop-jaw red, mind you—maybe a rose color instead? What do I do with the clouds? Sweep them across a windy sky? I’m thinking all these things, and a woman with an armload of packages approaches the door I’ve just walked through? Do I help her? Do I turn and open the door? Of course not. I don’t even see her. I’m too busy thinking about drop-jaw red. That woman must think I’m extremely rude. If she’s really nice, a positive thinker, she might just think I’m careless. Both are true. I’m extremely rude and careless. At that moment I’m only interested in my own thoughts.

“Here’s another scenario: I walk into the post office while thinking about going to the bank. At the same time I notice a little girl opening the post office box for her mother; an older man smiling as he reads a handwritten letter; a service dog carrying bills in his mouth for his owner who wheels her wheelchair toward the door on the opposite side of the hallway. A boy opens the door for her. Just then the woman with an armload of packages appears from around the corner. I see her coming, approach her, help her with the small box about to fall from the top of the pile, and open the door. Now my actions are filled with care. And look at everything I might have missed if I were too busy trying to figure out how to paint a sky in my head.”

“I don’t know if you could do that every day,” said a girl. “Sometimes you want to be nice, I mean when you get up in the morning. Everything’s still good then. But then somebody is mean to you, and it ruins your day. It’s hard to be nice after that.”

“Excellent point. One negative comment or look or experience seems to cancel out all the positive things that happen during the day. How do we turn that around? Is it even possible?”

“Not really.”

“If someone is really nice to you, does that make it easier for you to be nice to other people?”


“Maybe that’s the key. Being nice gives people good energy. Being mean takes energy away—it even takes energy away from the person being mean. Both are contagious. If we make a habit of being rude, we’ll attract rudeness to us. People will avoid us because they don’t like how we treat them. No one will want to be our friend. Maybe nobody will be around to help us when we need it most. On the other hand, if we’re good to people, they will probably return the kindness and help us feel good about ourselves. Maybe people will even bend over backwards to help us out. Life in general might not be quite as hard.”

“I’m not sure if it’s possible to be kind every minute of every day of your life,” said the popular boy.

“Anyone else feel the same way?” I asked.

Hands filled the air.

“I think it’s possible to be nice,” offered Miguel, who hadn’t spoken yet. “My grandmother’s nice all the time. To everyone.”

“Yeah, but she’s a grandmother. Grandmothers are supposed to be like that,” said the popular boy.

“Your grandmother’s a good role model,” I said.

Miguel smiled.

“I tell you what. We could be here forever talking about caring. Philosophers have debated these kinds of questions for centuries. There are no easy answers, are there? But these are important things to think about. Do you know why I’m spending so much time talking about caring in an egg painting workshop?”

The popular boy raised his hand. “You’re going to show us some eggs, and you don’t want us to break them.”

“What if we break one of your eggs?” asked a girl.

“On purpose?”

“No. By accident.”

“That’s when awareness and care turn into courage. Courage to pick up the pieces and continue moving forward.”

This is exactly what Miguel did the day he broke his masterpiece egg. He found the courage to pick up his pencil and begin again.

It takes courage to do a good job. It also takes courage to pay attention, to stay awake, to survive in this world. More than anything, it takes a lot of courage to care.