Big things come in small packages, so the adage goes.
I’m no stranger to the truth of this. One of my best friends of many decades is barely five feet tall but she has the biggest heart and the most amazing ability to paint in watercolors. A little closer to home: I have five boys decades younger than me (and some small enough to still sit on my lap, although that’s rapidly changing…<sob>!) and they mean the entire world to me.
Then there are the many little things that happen each day that, sifted and sorted and blended together, make up that great marvelous thing called Life. And sometimes, when the stars align and the universe smiles, one of those little things can even be hugely profound in and of itself.
Even something as tiny and minute and seemingly inconsequential as a mung bean. (Or more accurately, five of them.) But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the very beginning.
Mung beans, which are more commonly called monggo in my part of the world, are tiny. In fact, the first word that Wikipedia uses to describe them is “small.” They make their appearance on the dinner table in many different forms: most often as a vegetable soup (stewed with onions and garlic and topped with bits of chicharon, or crunchy pork rind), or cooked and rolled in a thin rice wrapper as lumpia, or tucked into a Chinese bun known as hopia.
They also frequently make an appearance in grade school classrooms, thanks to Science teachers who know the value of the quick-sprouting seeds in teaching lessons that focus on plant parts and plant growth.
Well, that was exactly the kind of appearance demanded of the humble mung bean today in my little grader’s Science class. Except I didn’t know it beforehand. So there I was, bringing him to the door of his classroom, when we walked in on four or five little boys scrambling on the floor, laughing and chasing after tiny things that I couldn’t quite make out. They, of course, turned out to be mung beans, escapees from the plastic container that held about a thousand more of their kind.
And that’s when my son turns to me with a quiet gasp and says:
“Oh no, Mom. We were supposed to bring five pieces of monggo beans to school today for Science.”
Oh no, indeed. We live quite a distance from the school, and that would mean increasing the usual four-drives-to-and-from-school into six, if I were to deliver monggo beans in time for my son to use them for his class.
But a quick glance at the situation unfolding turns on the lightbulb in my head, and I smile and calmly say to my boy, “Oh dear. You should have told me about that yesterday. But don’t worry. It looks like your classmate has quite a lot of them… why don’t you go to him and ask if he can share five of his beans with you?”
So he does as I suggest, with a sweet smile on his face. I turn my head to look away for about 30 seconds, and when I turn back, I find my son standing in front of me, trying his best not to look sad. He opens his mouth and tells me, “He said No.”
Momentarily stunned, I ask him, “What?”
Patiently, he repeats what he just said, word for word: “He said No.”
I promise, I’m usually quite quick at grasping things, but this morning I think I may have been experiencing a slow connection error, because I say, “What do you mean, he said No?”
“He said No, Mama.”
I can’t believe that he heard right. Five beans? Versus hundreds, heck perhaps even a thousand, in a plastic container? I bend to whisper to him, “You might have heard wrong. Or perhaps he heard you wrong.” You know, it’s possible, right? So I gently nudge him in the direction of the little boy who’s still in the process of scooping up the hundred wayward fallen mung beans and pouring them back into his container, and say to my son, “Ask him again, sweetie.”
My little boy goes to his classmate, whispers to him, comes back to me, and delivers the verdict: “I asked him again if he would share five monggo beans with me, and he said ‘No. This is all mine.’ ” He pauses to smile a little hopeful smile, and then says, ”So can you just bring me monggo beans later, Mama? Please?”
I didn’t think it was possible to be stunned twice in the span of five minutes, but there we go. I was flabbergasted.
You see, these things are tiny. Have you ever seen a mung bean? They’re so tiny that you could scoop a handful in your palm and you’d easily have, what, a hundred beans right there? Perhaps more?
Seriously. Check them out:
And so, there I was, wondering how anyone could have an entire plastic container filled with at least a thousand beans, definitely more than five times the number of beans the entire class needed, and turn down one asking for a measly five beans. In my mind, I could see Mark Lester as Oliver Twist, holding his bowl and asking, “Please, Sir, may I have some more?”
Except my boy wasn’t asking for more. He was asking for five. mung. beans.
Granted, my son should have been responsible enough to bring his homework of five monggo beans. In his nine-year-old wisdom, I’m pretty sure the minute I reminded him that he should have prepared it the day before, he understood where he failed, and for me that was enough of a greater life-lesson learning experience for him.
Mind, I’m not excusing my son for his lapse in responsibility. But somehow I can’t help thinking: There also happens to be a classmate who has more than enough monggo beans to go around the entire class and still have hundreds more left over. Am I wrong in wanting to break out singing ”Oh, lucky day!” and encouraging my son to ask for a few? Isn’t it a great lesson in humility to beg for a few beans and to admit that one is asking because one happened to forget his?
My sons have often told me stories about their classmates or even they themselves forgetting a pencil or a sheet of pad paper or a sheet of Oslo paper and it’s so natural for them to say, “it wasn’t a big deal because we shared, because we had some left over.” The same spirit of sharing and give-and-take permeates their daily life at school, not just for materials or tools like pencil sharpeners but even food that a classmate wishes to have a taste of. Perhaps that’s why I am stunned: because I am so used to the great brotherhood that exists among the boys in my son’s school (or most of them, at least) that this is a first-time thing for me to actually witness.
When I arrive home about half an hour later, I tell my 20-year-old son this story over breakfast. He says to me, “Mom, why are you surprised? As sad as it is, there are people like that everywhere.”
And I reply, “But at that young age? Refusing to share when you have more than enough? That’s terribly sad.”
My husband looks up from his newspaper and says, “But isn’t it normal for very young kids to be selfish?”
I say, “For very young children, perhaps. Studies have shown that until two years of age, a child in a play group will focus on just his toy because his awareness of his surroundings is limited to himself and his toys. But children older than 2 begin to learn that there are others who exist in the world besides himself, so that same child when he gets older will focus on interacting with other children and their toys as well. And I don’t think that’s selfishness. It’s simply a matter of awareness-of-self expanding to include awareness-of-others as the child grows and develops after 2.”
My 20-year-old son looks at me and says, “Yeah. Well. It happens. In the real world, there are adults who are like that too.”
To which I reply, “And that’s exactly what makes me sad. If it’s difficult for a child to dole out five puny pieces of monggo seeds when he has hundreds to spare and only needs five himself… I don’t even want to imagine what the adult version of that child would be like.”
Okay, so there’s justice and fairness. The child was responsible enough to remember his homework; my child wasn’t. It’s perfectly logical to say, “Well, tough luck, kiddo, but you should have been more responsible. You should have remembered. I did, so I get to keep my mung beans. You didn’t, so you can’t come to me and ask me to bail you out just because I have more than I need.”
In the same way, an adult can perfectly say, “I work hard, day in and day out, no matter how tired I get, no matter how much I look forward to retirement, no matter how many times I wish I could have a day to rest and get my energy back… and so I deserve to reap the benefits of my hard work. Even if I have more than I need left over, why should I share what I have with the poor? Why don’t they work hard and reap the benefits of their hard work?”
Makes sense, right? Logical. Fair. And just. And let me qualify: I’m all about justice. I am a big believer in fairness. But I am a bigger believer in mercy. You know? The kind that hopes that my sons will one day grow up to be men that give generously of what much or little they have, just because it’s good to do so. Just because we’re all in this life together, and we’re all part of the bigger picture, the Big Family of the world, and that’s what brothers do with each other. And if the roles this morning were reversed, I’d like to think that my kid would be the kind that says, “You should have been more responsible. Write it down on a post-it next time and stick it to your forehead if you need to, just so you remember. But for today, sure, here are five beans. I have more than enough, anyway, and you’re welcome to take what you need.”
And so, I pack a plastic container with about a hundred beans to bring to my son later. Just in case there are any other little boys who, like my son, might have forgotten to bring their own five seeds. (I happen to know that two of his friends forgot too, so definitely there would be at least a couple who will benefit from his plastic container of seeds).
And you know what? I didn’t bother to tuck in a note that says, “Share, honey, with those who don’t have.” Because I’m hoping and betting that my son’s experience today will further impress upon him the lessons that my husband and I try to impart to him and his brothers daily. Lessons that include not only the importance of not forgetting one’s homework but much more, extending into Life Lessons that will make him a much better person and a much better man.
So thank you, Science teacher who required mung beans for today’s class. And thank you, mung beans, for not being in my son’s bag when you should have been. Because the ruminations you inspired today are far-reaching and of much greater value than simply identifying plant parts and plant growth. I dare to think today’s real lessons have more to do with growth of the heart. And that’s always a great lesson to learn.