Seeing Goodness by Beth Anderson￼
I grew up in “The Land of Lincoln.” As a child, I learned about Lincoln in school, visited Lincoln sites on vacations, and read about him. My dad, tall and thin with dark hair, reminded me a bit of the sixteenth President. It seems like Abraham Lincoln always had a place in my heart. Now, as a children’s author, I continue to be fascinated by the man, and I’m particularly taken with Lincoln’s ability to “see goodness” in people, even when some were termed “enemy.”
This quality jumped out in the story of the first presidential turkey pardon in 1863—when ten-year-old Tad asked his father to pardon the Christmas turkey he’d adopted as a pet. Here was a boy, Lincoln’s son, who not only saw goodness, but sought justice: “I can’t help it. He’s a good turkey, and I don’t want him killed.” Suddenly, a name in history, Tad Lincoln, beckoned me, and as I read more, he became delightfully human.
When most people in and around the President’s House, now the White House, called young Tad a mischief maker, a wildcat, spoiled, undisciplined, and out of control, his father saw his goodness. When Mary Lincoln referred to Tad as their “troublesome sunshine,” Abraham thought any incidental inconvenience worth the joy their son offered. When Tad sawed the dining room table and used barrel staves to make rocking chairs for the Old Soldiers’ home, Papa understood his good intentions—and ingenuity. I had to know more!
Tad Lincoln had a lot of energy—what I like to think of as his restless wriggle in Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle: Pandemonium and Patience in the President’s House. He tested the patience of others, as they tested his. He escaped his tutors, raced through the mansion, and struggled to make his voice heard. Why? I wondered. What was going on with Tad?
I dug in. As I researched Tad Lincoln’s behavior, I found an endearing, creative, wise-beyond-his-years child who had way too much to deal with. Experts used photographs, his “phonetically reported” speech, need for specially prepared food, learning issues, and behavioral anecdotes to conclude that he had a partial cleft palate, language based learning disabilities, and might be considered ADHD today. In addition, he was dealing with the death of his brother Willie and a home that was a public building where people judged his every move. Tad didn’t read and write until he was thirteen and out of the “fishbowl” of the White House. As a “differently-abled learner,” he was misunderstood by most everyone. Learning all this helped me begin to see the world through Tad’s eyes.
There are many children like him. Kids who want to succeed, be respected and valued, but tend to be dismissed because they’re “challenging” for others. Tad reminded me of all those kids I had in my classroom who responded to the world a little differently, pushed me to be a better teacher, and stuck in my heart forever. But there was more that grabbed me with this story. It was eye opening to see Abraham Lincoln as an amazing father (despite being stressed to the max) who guided his son in sharing his goodness with the world. BUT…it was “heart opening” to see Tad (the child dealing with so many personal issues, the child others tried to shut down) as the vital person who kept his father going with joy, humor, and relief during those difficult times. Their mutual need and relationship were so powerful. That a child became the saving grace for a President was extraordinary.
With every manuscript, I find lessons for myself, both writing and personal. Telling the story from Tad’s point of view brought to mind that patience, often the requirement for seeing goodness in others, works both ways. Tad’s patience, too, was being tested. It’s clear early on that Tad had a generous heart like his father. And it’s inspiring to see how Tad finds his voice to speak and advocate for those who can’t. As he transforms, he’s able to help others see the world a little bit differently, too. While I hope the idea of patience and seeing goodness in others comes through, I also think it’s important for children to recognize their own goodness.
Seeing historical figures “at home” allows us to see more humanity in history. Characters emerge as real people meeting challenges, making decisions, and impacting the world. Real people not so different than us. And that we, too, are actors in history who can influence others with the goodness we hold inside.
Quote from: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Mr. Lincoln’s White House. mrlincolnswhitehouse.org