Jewish World Review March 15, 2006 / 15 Adar, 5766
Willard the Two Faced
By Libby Lazewnik
Were there ever four more magical words in the English language?
There was an instant scramble as her children moved closer, the better to hear. Ma waited till they were settled. The littlest ones climbed into her lap, and those who were slightly older and surely had better thing to do than curl up around their mother and listen to a story — curled up nevertheless, and gave her their full attention.
"Once upon a time," Ma said, "there was a man named Willard..."
Of course, Willard hadn't always been a man. Long before, he had been a little boy. A pleasant little boy, with curly hair and big, blue eyes and a very engaging smile. He was kind of little boy that people liked to pet and talk to. Willard soon learned how very engaging his smile was — not to mention those big, blue eyes. He was a favorite with his mother's friends, and even strangers such as the mailman or street cleaner would stop and grin at the sight of the lad, swinging on the gate or playing in his garden.
"That Willard!" people would say. "He could charm the hair right off your head!"
Yes, Willard was certainly a charmer. One summer afternoon, when his mother was throwing a tea party for ten or twelve of her closest friends, young Willard wandered into the room. A Mrs. Gray, standing at the window with a teacup in her hand, turned and smiled at him.
"Why, hello, Willard," she said. "How are you this afternoon? And why aren't you outside, enjoying the marvelous sunshine?"
"It's a little hot out there," Willard said.
"Hot? Nonsense! Why, there's nothing I like better than bright, beautiful sunshine. I adore being out beneath the sky, with the sun warming the whole world and making it sparkle! Don't you agree?"
And because she was looking at him eagerly and because disagreeing was so unpleasant, he nodded his curly head and said, "Oh, yes, ma'am, I certainly do. There's nothing like a sunshiny day, no sir!"
"Aren't you mixing up your 'ma'am's and your 'sirs'?" she twinkled down at him.
With a last, engaging smile, Willard wandered off to inspect the tea table. He was just trying decide between a pink-frosted cake and one that was liberally sprinkled with chocolate bits, when Mrs. Stone, another of his mother's friends, swooped down on him.
"Willard!" she exclaimed. "How nice to see you! What have you been doing with yourself all summer?"
"Playing, mostly. The garden's nice to be in, this time of year."
"The garden! Oh, I wouldn't spend too much time out there if I were you. You could get sunstroke. I abhor the sun! Give me a nice, shady nook any time. Surely you agree with me about that, Willard?"
And because she was gazing at him as if she fully expected him to share her opinion, and because it was so disagreeable to disagree, Willard nodded and said, "I sure do, ma'am. You won't catch me out there in the sun for very long! No, sirree!" Then he selected a lemon tart and ate it with great pleasure.
Willard, you see, had learned something that day that would lead him down a very troublesome path as he grew older. He'd learned that it was far easier to agree with people than to actually state his own opinion. After a while, he began to forget to question himself as to what his own opinion really was! When you agreed with people, they smiled at you and made you feel loved and admired - a very comfortable feeling. It felt as good as a warm fur coat on a winter's day, or a lick of cold ice cream in summer...
Willard soon found that he could enjoy the sensation just about all the time. All it took was a pair of big, interested eyes, a charming smile, and the trick of making everyone believe that you agreed with whatever it was they were saying — one hundred percent! That was the secret of Willard's success.
And successful he certainly was. When he became old enough to go to school, his teachers always found him delightful conformable. He listened politely to whatever they told him, nodding all the while as though he couldn't have agreed more. At recess, he was very popular. If one classmate insisted that punchball was the best game in the world, Willard would nod and agree with all his heart. And if, later that day when walking home from school, someone else declared that, in his opinion, there was no better game than baseball — why, then, Willard would agree with him, too. All this was not very problematic until Willard was in the eighth grade and his teacher decided to hold class elections.
Suddenly, Willard realized that he had a hankering for power. He would like to be President of his class. So he dropped a hint in some of the other boys' ears, and one of them duly nominated him as a candidate for President.
"Elections will be held in one week's time," the teacher announced.
The campaign was on.
A big part of any campaign, as everyone knows, is — campaign promises. Willard found that this was something he was very, very good at.
"Willard, if you're voted president, will you make sure we get to go on more school trips?" a classmate named Eddie demanded. "We deserve a lot more trips than we get each year."
"We sure do," Willard agreed warmly. "And you're going to get them, if I have anything to say about it!"
"Really?" Eddie's eyes kindled. "Will you really make sure of that?"
"If I possibly can," Willard promised solemnly, "I will make sure that our class gets to go on more school trips."
"Yeah!" Smiling from ear to ear, his classmate hurried off to spread the word: Willard for President!
A day or two later — the campaign was now in full swing, with posters plastered all over the classroom walls and supporters of both candidates stumping for their sides — someone else approached Willard at recess. It was Thomas, the class brain.
"I think it's terrible, the way so much class time is wasted on frivolous things," Thomas said, pushing his glasses further up the bridge of his nose. "This campaign, for instance. We could have completed the whole election process in just a day or two. Why the week-long disruption of our studies?"
"Good point," Willard murmured. "There's no reason for it that I can see!"
"My sentiments exactly," Thomas said with approval. "If you're elected president, will you see to it that less class time is wasted? Fewer school trips, for starters..."
"Naturally," Willard assured him. "School is for studying. Class trips are the ultimate waste of time."
Thomas beamed at him through his large spectacles, and went off to urge people to vote for Willard for President.
The vote went off without a hitch. When it was over, Willard was President of his class.
When Eddie complained later that there were still too few class trips, Willard assured him that he couldn't agree more. "School policy," he said with a sigh. "You know how hard that is to change.
It's as if it were poured in cement!"
"But you're still working on it, aren't you?" Eddie asked anxiously.
"Will all my heart," Willard said.
And when Thomas grumbled because their teachers, in his opinion, still found too many projects with which to beguile time better used for studies, Willard comforted him, saying, "You know what teachers are like. It takes time to get them to accept a new idea."
"But you're trying, aren't you?" Thomas asked.
"With all my heart," Willard said.
He became President of his high-school class, too — for four years running. Willard was
everybody's friend. He stood for whatever you wanted him to stand for. And he always, always
earnestly assured you that you were one-hundred-percent right in whatever it was you happened to
be telling him. What Willard really felt about the issues, no one ever knew. He wore one face in
public, and the other hidden somewhere inside, where even he had nearly forgotten it existed...
It is no surprise, then, that when Willard grew up he entered the world of politics.
He became a councilman first, helping the Mayor run the town in which Willard lived. After a while, he was voted Deputy Mayor. And finally, there came the momentous day when he threw his name into the ring for the big one: the Mayoral campaign. Willard was going for the top.
It was a hard-fought campaign. The incumbent Mayor had been in power for many years, and the people were used to him. At the same time, it was nice seeing a new and very charming face on election posters, and it was pleasant hearing campaign promises delivered in a pleasant, earnest voice to the town's voters.
"Mr. Candidate, if elected Mayor of this town, will you enforce stricter laws about safety in our mines?" a reporter for the local paper asked him in the course of the campaign.
Theirs was a mining town, where many of the men earned their living digging deep under the ground for valuable ore. Mining is a dangerous profession, and the people wanted their leadership to make sure that the mines were as safe as could possibly be.
"Absolutely," Willard told the reporter. "If elected, I would see to the safety of every miner in this town. Safety is my number-one priority..." On and on he went, the words coming smooth as oil from long practice. He was glad to see a write-up of the interview in the paper next morning, with his solemn campaign promise to shore up the mines. That night, he had a meeting with a certain Mr. Higgins — a mining magnate who owned the town's main mine as well as others in the vicinity. Mr. Higgins had no desire to spend the large sum of money that it would take to shore up his mines and make them safer.
"They're safe enough as it is," he declared to Willard. "Anyone who works carefully will have no trouble in any of my mines."
"Absolutely!" Willard agreed. "Safety is as safety does, I always say."
"That's right!" Mr. Higgins beamed. "So, if elected, you'll see to it that the unions stay off my back about making things safer for the miners?"
"Of course," Willard promised promptly, with his most engaging smile. He was still smiling when the mining magnate handed him a very hefty check towards his campaign...
Election day dawned warm and clear. The townspeople came out in droves to vote — and when the stars came out that night and the ballots were counted, Willard was the clear winner.
Willard enjoyed the job of being Mayor very much. He liked living in a big mansion and having people treat him with deference and admiration. He liked issuing orders and seeing them carried out. Most of all, he liked the warm feeling of being universally liked — the feeling he'd first learned to love back in his childhood home with his mother's friends, and which he'd cultivated through all the years in between.
Then, about a year after Willard came to power, there came a day which would live on in the
town's memory as "Black Monday"... and which would feature in Willard's own life as the
Beginning of the End.
He was sitting at his desk in City Hall that Monday morning, as usual. His secretary had just brought in a steaming cup of cappuccino — Willard usually enjoyed at least three of these a day — when an explosion rocked City Hall.
"What was that?" Willard asked, startled. His secretary, equally startled, dropped the cappuccino, which fell to the floor and made an ugly brown stain which no amount of rug-cleaner could ever quite remove afterward. She ran out of the room to find out what had happened — and returned just minutes later with her breathless report:
"There's been a cave-in at the mine! Ten people trapped inside!"
Willard sat up, electrified. This was his shining moment. He would go out to the mine, reassure the trapped miners' distraught families, issue grave but optimistic statements to the press, and generally exude an air of great leadership. He leaped to his feet and hurried out to the site of the explosion.
As he'd expected, he found the trapped miners' families there before him, frightened and white-faced. They implored the Mayor to do something to rescue their loved ones.
There was one angry woman who did more than implore. Glaring at the Mayor, she screamed, "It's your fault! You promised to see to it that the mines were made safer — and you've done nothing. Nothing at all!"
The others shushed her, anxious not to distract the Mayor from the all-important job of supervising the rescue operation. Willard was more than happy to ignore the woman's accusation. He bustled about, issuing orders and setting in motion the rescue efforts. All that day, as the weary hours dragged on, the miners worked assiduously to try and reach the men trapped deep beneath the earth. Those above ground had no way of knowing what condition the trapped miners' were in, or even if they were still alive.
As the hours went by, the miner's wife who had screamed at the Mayor that morning went muttering through the crowd that had gathered at the site. Sympathetic onlookers began to look askance at the Mayor. As for the families of the trapped miners', they began to simmer with the fury of people who know themselves to be the victims of injustice. Willard beat a hasty retreat, with instructions to "call me at once if there are any new developments!"
The "new development" finally came at eight o'clock that evening — a full ten hours after the cave-in. The rescue workers had reached the subterranean chamber where their fellow miners had been trapped. Six of them were in good shape, but four had been injured — two of them seriously.
There was a vigil outside the hospital that night, where people prayed for the injured men. By morning, the doctors made two announcements. One of the injured miners had turned the corner, and would live. The other... had died in the night.
Pity and grief soon turned to outrage. Every single miner in that town — in other words, most of its male population — had known the man who had been killed by the cave-in. Every one of them also knew that the tragedy might easily have been avoided — had the safety measures they'd demanded been instituted. Instead, despite the Mayor's promises, nothing at all had been done. Mr. Higgins had gone his merry way, ignoring his workers' safety as he cheerfully pocketed the money they made for him.
Mr. Higgins was far away at the moment - on vacation in Europe, in fact. But Willard was close at hand. So it was Willard that a group of some one hundred angry miners — with plenty of enraged wives and uncles and cousins to swell their ranks — surrounded the City Hall and demanded to see the Mayor.
When Willard put in an appearance, there was no sign of his engaging smile. Instead, he looked suitably grave. He began an earnest speech to the miners and their kin, telling them how very sorry he was for them in their grief.
"Not sorry enough!" someone shouted. "What about those promises you made us? What about making the mines safer, which you never did?"
"I couldn't agree with you more," Willard said promptly. "Those mines ought to be safer. I'm going to tell Mr. Higgins so the moment I see him."
"We told you so last year! And you did nothing!"
"You're absolutely right. I couldn't agree more. I share your grief and your outrage..."
But the people were no longer interested in Willard's words. Because, by now, they had finally realized that that was all they were: words. Empty words, like all his empty promises, emerging from an empty face and deriving from an empty heart. Willard had long since forgotten what it means to know yourself, to take a stand, to believe in something. He had learned only one skill in his life, and that skill had carried him successfully though everything he did. Until today.
Now, I'm not saying that what the people did next was right. Citizens should not take the law into their own hands. But in this town, the people were angry, and they were grief-stricken, and they wanted to teach their two-faced Mayor a lesson he would never forget. So four of the hardiest and strongest among the miners gripped the Mayor's arms and began hustling him down the City Hall steps.
"Where are you taking me?" he cried, for once too flustered to remember to be charming.
"To the mine," one of them, older than the rest, said quietly. "To a deep, dark chamber in the very mine where our friends were trapped."
"But — why? What do you expect to accomplish with that?"
The miner turned to look into the Mayor's eyes. "It's not what we expect to accomplish," he said.
"It what we hope you will accomplish. Down in the dark, all alone, there'll be no one for you to talk to. No one to charm. No one to agree with. Just you and yourself — by yourself. Maybe you'll be forced to face yourself then, and see what kind of person you've become."
"What have I done that's so wrong?" Willard asked, struggling wildly to free himself but not gaining an inch on those powerful miners.
"You've forgotten how to be a man. You have become a mirror instead - something that simply lets everyone see his own self, reflected back."
"But agreeing with people makes them like me!" Willard wailed.
"Maybe some people would like you a little less, if you said what you really thought and stuck to it. But they would respect you a whole lot more."
They'd reached the mine entrance. With those words, the miners thrust Willard down into the dark and made sure he couldn't get out in a hurry. As the old miner had said, there's no better classroom in which to learn all about oneself than in the school of enforced solitude...
When they let him out, some hours later, it was a pale and solemn Mayor who emerged into the waning light of day.
"I'll try," he whispered, looking at the ground because he was suddenly ashamed to look those men in the eye.
And that was just what he did. Starting from that day, he tried always to remember the lesson he'd learned down in that black cave in the ground, as he'd sat trembling and alone, afraid at any moment that the roof would fall in on his head: that being an honest person, and one that is true to himself, is a lot more important than being the most popular kid in the class — or at the polls.
So the Black Monday that had started out so painfully may just have been the best Monday of Willard's life!
Ma finished talking. "Did you like the story?" she asked her children.
The younger ones hopped off her lap with contented smiles, while the older ones nodded, just as content. Ma's eyes went over the heads of the little ones, straight to one particular child. "And did you understand it?" she asked softly.
Again, the older children nodded. Ma's eyes were still on one particular face. That child nodded, too — a jerky bob of the head. Then Ma watched that child leave the room, with a slow step that held a great deal of thoughtfulness and perhaps a bit of pain, too.
She was satisfied. Her own, dear "Willard" had got the message.
JewishWorldReview.com regularly publishes uplifting and inspirational stories. Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
A Promise fulfilled
© 2005, Yated Ne'eman