Thursday, December 27, 2018

Lessons from the Cookie Jar

In 1959 I returned to Monroe from Oakland, California after an intermittent two-year stay in the Alameda County home for Delinquents. In California, I was incarcerated at eight years old for burglary and theft. Finally, the courts sent me back to Monroe where I was to live with my dad.

He was always busy with his businesses and I lived in his 20th street house mostly alone. I moved in the house of Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt Hill, who lived across the street. I moved in, spending the nights frequently and bringing more of my things with every overnight stay.

She noticed that I was obviously trying to move in and she and her husband talked to my dad who gladly gave his permission. 

I had to learn the rules of her house, which were very strict. She showed me the pictures of her three children on the wall. One was a nurse and two were school teachers. She said if I planned to live in her house that I should also plan to go to college, like all of her children.

She also showed me the cookie jar. It was green and yellow porcelain and looked like an oversized ear of corn. She baked fresh cookies regularly and kept the jar filled with oatmeal and peanut butter cookies. At the end of the day, if I didn’t break any rules, my reward was to treat myself with cookies from the jar.

If I broke the rules, I lost my cookie jar privileges and received an additional hour of “reading” as a punishment. (Three hours a day was standard reading time, seven days a week, 365 days a year. That was another house rule). When I broke a house rule she presented me with the “A” volume of the Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia which was followed by all of the others as my delinquent behavior continued.

It took two years for me to even slightly reform. When I didn’t earn a cookie, I took one. Each stolen cookie came with a long lecture afterward and another hour of reading. She counted the cookies in the jar, I counted the hours I spent reading stupid books like the encyclopedia.

“Don’t steal, don’t lie and don’t beg. Be a man that pleases God.” That was the lecture, I knew it from memory and could recite it verbatim. After the lecture, she’d hug me and say she expected great things from me. She was the only person close to me that hugged me. My dad never hugged me, I rarely saw my mother even though she was in the same city; she didn’t hug me either. No matter what I did, Mrs. Hill hugged me and said she expected great things from me; but only after I had finished reading.

The jar became more than a cookie container; it was a reminder that even though I was a delinquent I could grow up and do something meaningful if I could make a turn and keep my hand out of the cookie jar.

Since reading was the punishment for stealing cookies or breaking any of her rules
Ethan and Cadence Wright with the Cookie Jar
, I made it to “Z” many times.

When I saw a picture of my grandsons with that Cookie Jar, it brought back memories. I hated that cookie jar, but I loved the cookies. That cookie jar offered a reward but it also meant hours of reading for breaking the rules. As I sat for hours crying and reading, that cookie jar became symbol reward and punishment.

The upside from all of that reading was I began an honor student in the 5th grade at J.S.Clark Elementary although I never really completed the 3rd and 4th grade because I was locked up in juvenile hall. I learned to read well and increased my vocabulary.

I hated the cookie jar because it resulted in many extra hours of torment reading the encyclopedia, the Bible, Life Magazine, Ebony Magazine, Comic Books and the Newspaper.

Now, 60 years later, reading is a habit. On most weeks, I read four books at a time, jumping from one to another. My wife reads, too. 

I hope my grandsons learn the lessons of the cookie jar and develop a taste for reading, too. I’m glad they have the cookie jar and I hope they take of it because it has a lot of significance in our family.


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