I was leading a building tour of the Times Free Press the other day when a little Hispanic boy — maybe 6 years old — raised his hand timidly to ask a question.
At first, I didn't understand what he was asking, a complication of his halting English and my 60-year-old ears.
Finally, though, it became clear to me what he was saying.
"How do you get fired here?" he said, barely above a whisper.
What an odd question, I thought, and I stammered something about how breaking the rules could be grounds for firing. Meanwhile, one of the adults, perhaps sensing my discomfort, seconded my explanation that rule-following is important for kids, too.
Later in the tour, I heard the little boy whisper to a friend, "My daddy got fired yesterday."
Immediately, my heart sank. The boy was clearly struggling for context. What did "getting fired" mean, he probably wondered? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? How does it happen?
I grew up in a home with a disabled father, a Korean War veteran whose multiple back surgeries left him bedridden and unable to walk without a cane. He was a good man with hard edges. Our family subsisted on my mother's paycheck as a bank teller and my father's Social Security disability checks.
I remembered filling out forms when I was a kid and writing disabled after "father's occupation." I remember because I could never remember how to spell disabled — often transposing the "l" and "e" and writing "disabeld." I covered my answer with my hand.
In the mid-20th-century South, having a non-working father resulted in a palpable loss of social status. And feeling that loss was compounded by a sense of shame for entertaining such thoughts. I loved my dad and didn't blame him for being sick, but, to my childhood self, our family felt somehow unwhole.
All this was running through my mind the other day when I felt the full weight of the little boy's question.
It prompted me to think about how fear of unemployment has shaped my adult life. I have been extremely blessed to have worked as a journalist in Chattanooga for more than 35 years. Still, I picked the wrong career to be a job-security fanatic.
Still, developing survival skills sometimes brings out the best in us. My fear of unemployment has made me a lifetime saver, no doubt a remnant of those lean years as a child. It's also given me the instincts to navigate a series of bosses, all with different priorities, expectations and goals.
Adapting to change — and losing a job is really just abrupt change — is really not a bad skill to learn as a child. Some day my tour-group 6-year-old may look back on the week his father lost a job as life-changing moment. Or he may forget it altogether.
Either way, being hardened to change and risk as a youngster helps us later on. God's blessings sometimes come wrapped in hardships to inoculate us against hard times.
Anyway, I see the image of the little boy even days after our exchange.
I've said a prayer for God to protect his heart during what is undoubtedly a tough week for his family. I know how he feels. I really do.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645.