Another marriage on the rocks, another job that went sour. Just when I thought nobody loved me, New York State proved me wrong.
Here was the situation: Once my steady but unsatisfying employment qualified us to get a mortgage and move into a beautiful old house in the proper school district for her sons, my new wife told me she didn't want to be married anymore. As if we really had been!
I thought of myself, if I thought at all, as a lamb led willingly to the slaughter. I should have known something was wrong, when, out of all the big, spacious rooms in the house, she chose the smallest cubicle for our bedroom. She obviously considered the conjugal bed the least important aspect of her new life.
So, reluctantly, I moved into a small, no-lease-required studio apartment in Schenectady and tried to figure out what to do next.
My soon-to-be ex got a job offer she didn't want, and suggested me for it. It was a one-year-only job with a new New York State Commission on the International Year of The Child. I interviewed and, to my surprise, was hired!
I gladly gave my notice at Communication and Design, letting the head of the agency think that I had more influence with the state than I actually did, leading him to believe he wouldn't get any more lucrative state jobs, which were some of the most profitable pieces of business ad agencies could have back in 1979.
There are many stories to tell about that year, but today I'll share just one.
Explaining The Year Of The Child To A Child
When you listen, be sure you can hear.
He would be in his mid-thirties now, and I don't remember his name, but the day I tried to explain The Year of the Child to him has stayed with me for thirty-one years.
Back then, in 1979, I had just begun a new job that would last for just one year. I left the business world to be the Communications Director for the New York State Governor's Commission on the International Year of the Child.
It sounds impressive, but as government commissions go, it was pretty small potatoes. Not a lot of money to do anything, except pay for a staff of three: a commissioner, an administrative assistant, and me. Our time would be spent begging – for corporate gifts, for underwriting of our activities, for free newspaper space and air time for public service messages that I would write and produce.
I was given an office in Albany's impressive Empire State Plaza, built during Nelson A. Rockefeller's tenure as governor. It's a complex of seven massive buildings, connected by an underground concourse that features a permanent exhibit of some of the finest examples of modern art and sculpture.
State agencies that occupy the buildings above also use the long, marble-lined concourse for weatherproof exhibits and fairs, promoting their services to the public. As I was strolling through one of these, trying to familiarize myself with the workings of New York State agencies, I met some friends of friends – New York State employees – who were setting up a booth.
They had their young son with them. He was about four or five, and he needed attention that they just couldn't supply at the moment. I asked them if it would be all right to take him for a walk down the concourse and back, giving them a break and giving me a chance to do some research with one of the people I'd be representing for the year.
They were more than pleased, and he wasn't shy, so with his parents approval, we took our stroll. He was interested in the activities around us, and thoughtfully considered what I was telling him. I explained to him what my new job was about.
“I'll be talking to a lot of people about children like you and your friends -- all the children in all the cities in the state. And I want to tell them what you think is important to you.”
He said he understood, and I could see in his large eyes that he was thinking seriously. As we sat down on a bench at the far end of the concourse, I asked him directly, “So, what's the most important thing you'd like me to tell all those people about children?”
He sat quietly for about the length of a commercial. Then, he said just three words, and the simplicity and directness of his message surprised me. I complimented him, and thanked him profusely. But somehow, I knew I wouldn't – or couldn't – use his advice. It seemed too, well... childlike.
As we walked back to rejoin his parents, he obviously considered me a new friend, because he invited me to his family's lakeside camp, in precisely the way a child would ask a contemporary. He said I should ask my mother if I could go.
That was my opportunity to repay the advice he had given to me. I said, “I'm going to tell you something important, too. When you get older, you don't have to ask.”
His eyes grew even larger, and as we approached his parents, he ran to them, proclaiming his new discovery – “When I grow up, I won't have to ask!”
They smiled and confirmed that what I told him was true. And when they learned what he told me, they said it was too bad I couldn't use what he said in a public service ad campaign. And I agreed.
During that year I wrote clever theme lines, had beautiful logos and banners created, produced TV spots that said “New York ♥ Children” and helped organize events for children and their parents in Battery Park and in that very same concourse in Albany.
But I have always regretted that I didn't re-create the moment with that serious, thoughtful and insightful little boy, and put his advice on radio and TV stations and in newspapers throughout the state.
His simple, straight from the heart message might have made a difference for many children. Because he understood the purpose of The Year Of The Child better than I did.
And he got it down to just three words: “Don't hurt us.”
Next time: I'm back!