When Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning,” he may as well have been speaking directly to children.
Indeed, a child’s inquisitiveness is boundless, the ceaseless, rapid-fire, how-what-where-why interrupted only by a few blessed hours of sleep. Early on, their queries are deliciously simple; as they grow, their questions get a bit more delicate — God, death, (gulp) sex. Regardless, I tackle them directly and positively, formulating an age-appropriate response. Soon enough the children are on their way again, intellectually quenched, or, admittedly, thoroughly bored.
Yet recently I discovered not every question can be answered so easily. The TV was on and I barely noticed as the three children came in and sat next to me on the couch. “Hey, that’s Papa,” they shrieked, and indeed their Papa, my father, was being interviewed on the news. “Why’s he on TV?” they asked, and I stumbled for a response. The facts were simple, of course: My father, Gerald Walpin, had been fired as inspector general for the Corporation of National Community Service. This he claimed — and many have defended his position — was an illegal action, and he was now forced to defend himself against increasingly virulent — and untrue — attacks by the White House.
But truthfully, I was less concerned about conveying an accurate portrayal of his firing than the underscored lesson it so plainly revealed. The bottom line: He was dismissed simply for doing a job with integrity and honesty and for daring to pursue a case regardless of personal risk — a fatal combination in Washington.
How could I explain this obscene scenario to my children? What sense did it make? Our family doesn’t just utter the old mantra, “Honesty is the best policy.” We live it: by going back into the supermarket after we had loaded up the trunk of the car with bags full of groceries because I discovered a pack of unpaid batteries hidden at the bottom of the cart though it would have been easy to tuck it into a bag; by calling customer service after the store sent us an absolutely free duplicate patio table, though the easy thing to do would have been to use it on the other side of the patio; by bringing the $40 we found in the parking lot into the store, hoping the rightful owner would claim it, even though the easy thing to do would have been to stash it inside my pocket book; by showing my son’s third-grade teacher that she added up his mistakes incorrectly, even though the easy thing to do would have been for my son to keep the “A” and hope she never noticed.
But then Papa gets fired for his unyielding honesty. So what’s the purpose? My children are bombarded by sports heroes proclaiming they would never take any illegal substance, until the tests come back; governors who promise they never would abuse taxpayers’ money or trust until itineraries leak out or cell-phone numbers are released; financial gurus who never manipulated a single dollar until sentencing, when they beg for leniency. I realize I am fighting a losing battle.
Everywhere, people flaunt the fact that honesty only matters if you get caught — and if you do get caught, hold a press conference, say you were misled by personal trainers, weep about an internal crisis, hope a celebrity dies so your story will be buried to the back of the paper.
So I sit them down and explain that, yes, Papa was fired for doing his job and yes, people are now calling him confused and disoriented and other nonsensical untruths, but no, none of this matters because in the end, he did his job with honesty and integrity. And perhaps even more importantly, he had the courage to do the right thing and to fight for it when others fervently hoped he would slink away as most people usually do.
And for that reason only, I am glad they have to watch my father dealing with such a political and personal injustice so my children can ask, “Why?” I want my three children to understand there will be times when they are confronted by a decision — hide behind lies to protect yourself or stand up and allow honesty and integrity to guide you.
And again I think of Einstein, who probably would applaud my children’s incessant questions. And I know it was he who also said, “Never do anything against conscience, even if the state demands it.”
We would all be a bit better off if we tackled the profusion of deceit and disingenuity permeating our society and listened to the conscience of honesty. What a concept.
Jennifer Walpin Tananbaum, a freelance writer, is a full-time mother of three in New Jersey. She is the daughter of fired AmeriCorps Inspector General Gerald Walpin.