This Christmas “pondering” for the university ‘ohana is longer than most because I wanted to share some stories—a story from Dickens famous novella, and from his experience working in a blacking factory, my own Dickensian work experience, and the inspiring stories of some of our wonderful students. In a greetings that Dickens made famous: “Merry Christmas!” and “God bless us, every one!”
Pondering A Christmas Carol
“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens)
These portentous lines from A Christmas Carol are pronounced at the end of Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Present. In a highly dramatic scene, the ghost opens his robe to reveal “two children, wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable.” They are “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish figures,” made all the more pathetic because they are children. Dickens feared that unless society addressed the plight of working class children, it was doomed.
I recalled this powerful scene when I was given a beautifully bound copy of A Christmas Carol last week at the Presidents Roundtable. It occurred to me that all those gathered there—the Commissioner of Education, the presidents of the Church’s universities, and the director of Seminaries and Institutes—were, in their own way, trying to erase ignorance and thus prevent poverty and the doom that Dickens feared.
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in part precisely because he wanted to pronounce this powerful prophetic warning about the dire consequence of childhood ignorance and poverty. He originally intended to write a political pamphlet entitled An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child, but chose instead to write A Christmas Carol.
He conceived the plot of A Christmas Carol in Manchester, an industrial city where the early ills of industrialism were everywhere evident. One year later in Manchester Fredrich Engels would publish The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. A few years earlier in Manchester, Brigham Young would write a remarkable letter to the Prophet Joseph Smith describing the condition of Dickensian England in terms that would do credit to the author. The apostles saw in full display the “two nations” of rich and poor that Disraeli would decry a few years later.
Like these social reformers, Dickens was appalled by the conditions of children in the mines and factories of England, as well as in its urban schools. But he knew and felt them most from his own experience of being taken from school and sent to a blacking factory, which made black shoe polish. This experience traumatized young Dickens. It imprinted itself so deeply that the plight of a child trapped in poverty and social isolation recurs again and again in his novels. He writes with great sympathy for destitute children because he had been one.
I had my own experience of working in a blacking factory of sorts. It was not traumatic, as was Dickens’s, but colorful in highly Dickensian way. In high school I worked after school and in summer in a business that manufactured tire paint. It was called “Universal Products,” but the only products it made were tire paint and, incongruously, lemon-scented dust cloths.
“Universal Products” had three employees, the owners—a father and his balding middle-aged son—and a troll of a man who haunted the back of the shop and made the paint. And me, at least one spring and summer.
The owners occupied a shabby office in the front of a ram-shackle building near the railroad tracks. They were surrounded by invoices, arrived late and left early, and mostly seemed to talk on the phone. They rarely came into the plant.
That was the domain of a man who looked more like a troll than anyone I have ever known. He was a short, round, hulking figure with a large head that seemed to be connected directly to his torso. He had a craggy face with several days-growth on his beard, perhaps because it was difficult to shave, his face being so covered with bristly moles. His voice was raspy when he spoke, which he rarely did or even emerge from the dark back room where he mixed black powder into paint while listening all day long to talk radio. The room was full of black dust. He was covered in it, as was I by the end of every day. It clung to my clothes, face, hair, everywhere.
I would walk home along the tracks and up the hill to my house hoping not to see anyone. I would take off my outer clothes on the back porch because they were so filthy. Then I would bathe. And bathe. And bathe again. Each time the bathwater became slightly less gray. But I could never get rid of the gray hue in my pores, nor the black rings around my nails, nor the smell of paint dust in my nostrils. I felt, for all the world, that I was living in a Dickensian novel.
But, of course, I was not condemned to inhabit this world of squalor forever. I would go back to school in the fall. I would find other work, sometimes blue-collar work and eventually white-collar work. Now I am a university president, a long way from my work as an apprentice in a tire-paint factory. I have been given a passport into a larger world by education. Education has enabled me not merely to get better employment, but to read, to reason, to think, to understand, and to appreciate the world, including the imaginative worlds of Dickens’s novels.
I am so grateful to have had the privilege all my adult life to help “erase ignorance.” And I am especially grateful in this season of my life to participate in the work of BYU-Hawaii, which has an especially rich, noble, and inspiring mission to help God’s most disadvantaged children escape from ignorance and want. Dickens would approve.
When I received the gift of his Christmas Carol and recalled the warning from the Ghost of Christmas Present, I thought about our student Sery Kone, who was abandoned as a child like a figure from one of Dickens’s novel, but who is now building schools in the Ivory Coast so children can escape from the “ignorance and want” he endured.
And I remember Lilian Martino-Bradley, a soccer player here who will graduate soon. As a young orphan in Ghana, Lilian was adopted by a Utah family. Since coming to BYU-Hawaii she has organized a non-profit in Ghana to prevent human trafficking.
I also thought of Easter Niko who is helping educate children in his home country of Tuvalu. Niko was recently honored by Queen Elizabeth II for his humanitarian work in building schools.
BYU-Hawaii is helping erase ignorance and pull people out of poverty all over the world. This is part of its prophetic mission, to educate the disadvantaged and send forth students who will become leaders and peace-builders around the world.
So this Christmas, I want to recommit myself to fulfilling the charge from the Ghost of Christmas Present. Like the reformed Scrooge, I want to reach out to the Tiny Tims of the world—well, maybe not those who are not so tiny now— those who need our help. I invite faculty and staff to do the same.
And if you are a student, I invite you to take advantage of your opportunities here to fulfill your “great expectations,” like Pip in the novel of this title.
This is my Christmas message. May we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who also came to erase ignorance and push back darkness. And may “God bless us, everyone!”