Is Tom Sawyer’s Lesson Still Meaningful?

Is Tom Sawyer's Lesson Still Meaningful?

Tom was bored looking at all that fence. Then along came Ben Rogers…

You remember Tom Sawyer, he made whitewashing a fence look like the best thing to do on a bright summer day. When Ben Rogers came along on his way to the swimming hole, Tom made his work look fascinating. “Tom surveyed his last touch with the eye of an artist, then he gave his brush another gentle sweep and surveyed the result, as before. Ben, intrigued, asked if he could whitewash for a while. Tom thought for a while and then answered: “No – no – I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence… it’s got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done.”

Of course the rest is history. Ben is so eager to whitewash the fence that he gives Tom his red apple to be allowed to do so. Billy Fisher gives him a kite and Johnny Miller gives him a dead rat with a string attached.

But here’s the question: What would happen today? Would the boys coming upon, say Ray cleaning the garage, want to help? I think it’s possible. In fact if Ray were painting the garage, they might want to mess with the paint. If he’s cleaning, they might poke around and find some cool stuff. There are a lot of factors at play: the most important being how Ray presents the opportunity–like Tom Sawyer did. Really, it can be all about presentation. (Maybe Tom grew up to be a great salesman.) Or maybe, one doesn’t have to sell the situation, because the person that comes along finds the activity just different.

Recently, I decided to wash my grimy patio door. With Windex and paper towel in hand, I was working away when my granddaughter appeared. She immediately wanted to help; she was eager to spray Windex and wipe down the door. Two years ago when we planted a garden, she couldn’t wait to get her hands in the dirt and help. And give my grandson a leaf blower and he’ll clean your never-ending driveway.

Yes, we can make some chores attractive, like Tom Sawyer did. Squirt bottles and blowers are fun, but so is achieving an end, seeing a clean window or driveway, watching plants stand straight in the dirt. And if you are reading this and thinking “hogwash” — that’s a Tom Sawyer term–I truly disagree. Though reasons may vary, a person can be drawn into an activity because:

  • he craves order
  • she likes trying new things
  • she likes to please a person in authority
  • he likes to show he can do a better job than someone else
  • he likes a feeling of accomplishment no matter what the task.

I think it’s important that we give our children and grandchildren–no matter what their ages–the opportunity to show that they can cook a meal, clean their bedroom or other rooms in the house, shop for groceries, take care of the dog or some other pet, maintain toys, bikes, sports equipment–and paint a fence! Our daughters are still talking about the time they had to paint the shed. Not happy about it, they dressed in old jeans and my husband’s cast off white shirts and actually enjoyed some of the endeavor. They played music; they complained together. They talked about the task for months afterward. Bottom line: they did a responsible, awesome job.

In our world, which seems to become more complicated by the minute, responsibility just has to be one of the core features in our makeup. The sooner a person learns to be responsible, the easier life will be.

I confess, I sometimes wanted to “rescue” my children when they forgot something. But living through the day without the term paper, the book report or whatever–is a great way for the “forgetter” to remember next time.  And it has far-reaching effects. Learning to be responsible for something as simple as a book report means owning your faults. When you own that, you might also own your health, own the ability to financially take care of yourself, own how you treat other people etc etc. Responsibility builds character, helps prepare a person for the future when called upon to: tell the truth; refrain from cheating; protect a friend, reach out to help a stranger. I’m sure you can add some other excellent ideas.

Naw, you might be thinking–another Tom Sawyer word–having a kid wash a window or learn to remember a book report just cannot lead to all that good character stuff. Yes it can. It’s a start. It’s a process. It’s something to build on.

I found some people who agree with me. Jaipi Sixbear writes that Tom’s lesson helps  Make work pleasurable. If you want any people to help you, you have to give them a good reason. Some people may have viewed Tom as conniving when he talked his friends into painting that fence. I like to think of him as a genius entrepreneur. The way he made those kids want to paint that fence was sheer magic. Tom Sawyer taught me that with the right attitude, work becomes play. He also taught me that if you want to be a success in life, you better learn how to speak to people. 

Mark Twain himself commented on this memorable scene: Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

Thanks, Samuel Clemens, Mr. Mark Twain. I think Tom Sawyer’s fence scene is still a teachable moment. Readers, what do you think?

Thanks to Google Images

Is Tom Sawyer's Lesson Still Meaningful?


8 thoughts on “Is Tom Sawyer’s Lesson Still Meaningful?

  1. So glad you included the Norman Rockwell painting which is such a great illustration. Loved your list of grandkiddies helping: makes a very happy picture.

    • Thanks, John. I don’t believe we ever tried Tom’s approach, but we certainly had chores to choose from. Me

  2. To state the obvious, I think that Tom Sawyer inspired his friends to white wash the fence by his attitude. There is nothing as contagious as a positive attitude when dealing with something that could be construed as negative. Work can be fun, if the ones performing the task adapt a smile. I am sure the reason many employers allow music to be played in the work space is to encourage that type of behavior. I know when I painted the trellis over my back deck, I had the music blasting from the den stereo 🙂


    • Yes!! Attitude is a great component for making work become fun and music certainly helps. That’s why C&CH did a good job on the shed. Thanks!

  3. I love this post, Beth!

    Growing up on a farm, everyone had to pitch in, including the kids. We had to learn to manage our time between cleaning the barn (Oh, how I hated that!), bringing in the crop of cabbages, or performing our household duties.That skill has served me well over the years.

    I recall how my mom “worked it” so that we graduated from drying the dishes to washing them. That wily woman set up some of our chores as a right of passage – “When you’re older, you may _____.” Had us fooled! LOL!

    • Oh I love the dishwashing thing. There were 3 of us and the oldest got to wash, so that became the coveted chore. And yes, how smart of
      mothers to WORK IT. But I feel so good about doing what I did to help my mom and I know you do too. Thanks for your comment. Beth

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