On the first day of fifth grade, circa 1972, my classmates and I were instructed to write a one-page essay on what we believed in — no mean feat for a 10-year-old who spent most of the time fretting that her nose was too elfin or with said protuberance buried in Enid Blyton books or Betty and Veronica comics.
Looking back on where my priorities lay at that age, my essay was probably a rambling jumble of unfinished thoughts about how I believed that kids should not leave homework until the last minute, that older sisters should not bully younger sisters and that rice pudding was really gross. In other words, it was likely a whingy roster of average pre-adolescent obsessions about foibles, siblings and general daily trials such as unappetizing dishes at dinnertime.
Lucky for me, that myopia was soon ripped open by a trio of groovy, newbie teachers who, in the "combined classroom" setting popular in those days, did their darndest to get about 60 kids to reconsider their world from new and, to use the lexicon of the day, radical angles.
There was Mr. Berry, who addressed us as if we, too, were 30-ish political activists who cared deeply about things like the Vietnam war, littering and Jungian psychology; Mr. Lindbergh who, with dulcet tones and gentle manner, ended each day reading aloud to us from books such as "Where the Red Fern Grows" or "Travels With Charley;" and Ms. Ayling who taught us about Bella Abzug, the women's' rights movement and how the birth control pill heralded a social revolution.
And yet it wasn't only school that kept me steeped in thought-provoking ideas and sensibilities. With working-class parents who recalled the terror of buzz bombs during WWII, an atheist grandmother who regularly disparaged Nixon, my older sister canvassing for the McGovern-Shriver campaign after school every day and perpetual familial fears that my brother might be drafted, I already had some fairly strong opinions about the world. It was just that no one had ever asked for them.
Plenty of folks go through life keeping their beliefs largely to themselves, for one reason or another, although given the right opportunity even the quietest voices can rise and be heard.
"This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women," a collection of 80 absorbing essays based on the NPR show of the same name, gives voice to private citizens and public figures. Based on eminent journalist Edward R. Murrow's venerated 1950s-era "This I Believe" radio show, the book contains views from present day luminaries such as Gloria Steinem, Colin Powell and Eve Ensler, as well as those who were in Murrow's original broadcasts, including Helen Keller, Albert Einstein and Oscar Hammerstein.
Some are simple and moving, others complex and bold, but all are fearless, forthright and timeless.
A few entries paint social observations with a broad philosophical brush, such as Mr. Hammerstein, who declared: "I am a man who believes he is happy. What makes it unusual is that a man who is happy seldom tells anyone. The unhappy man is more communicative. He is eager to recite what is wrong with the world, and he seems to have a talent for gathering a large audience. It is a modern tragedy that despair has so many spokesmen, and hope so few."
Likewise, the words of Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan, brim with an egalitarian celebration of humanity: "I believe in the brotherhood and equality of man. I recognize no division or privilege based on race, color, family or wealth. The only badge of honor and nobility that I recognize is the purity and righteousness of a man's life."
At 7 p.m. Saturday, Jay Allison, who co-edited the book and co-produces the radio show with fellow NPR reporter Dan Gediman, will speak at Northshire Books along with Casey Murrow, the son of Edward R. Murrow.
With the immense popularity of the radio shows and the book, the breadth of their contributors and the journalistic brilliance of the founder himself, "This I Believe" is an ever-pertinent source of insight and connection in which a core impulse of human nature is eloquently and mightily manifest.
Edward R. Murrow once said, "The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it."
Respectfully expanding upon Mr. Murrow's discerning observation, Allison and Gediman also created "This I Believe," the Web site and nonprofit organization, "to promote the free and respectful exchange of ideas." Giving anyone and everyone an opportunity to express his or her personal philosophies via an online database of personal essays from around the globe, the site invites regular folks like you and me to tell the world what we believe.
A remarkably intimate peek into the achievements, hardships, regrets and revelations of people from more than 70 countries, the site is an expansive example of the computer at its best, making the world seem smaller by sewing the experience of humanity together across the ether.
"This I Believe" asks all of us to look within and express our innermost credos, though it's not the first such publication to do so. Way back in 1941, a book called "Vermont Is Where You Find It" by Keith Warren Jennison asked the same thing, in so many words. Pairing stark portraits of Vermonters with wry questions and observations, one page asks "What do you know today … for sure?"
Go to the "This I Believe" Web site and you'll see just what 241 fellow Vermonters know for sure. They believe in a great many things, including the power of goodness, of laughter and of working together. They believe that everyday life is filled with profound moments, that creatures should not suffer because of human greed and that toddlers can be our teachers. They believe in the right to dignity, in giving oneself the gift of time and in hope. One woman even believes in soil and expounds upon her conviction as passionately and powerfully as her online kin.
The sum of these varied versions of "This I Believe" — the book, the old and new radio show and now this visionary database of personal principles — is a wealth of wisdom and compassion that serves to edify, inspire and galvanize us all.
It is particularly striking to note how many of the essays from the original show are germane to our present-day socio-political climate. Pearl S. Buck, who recorded her thoughts for Murrow's show in 1951, seems to have presaged the current state of international affairs.
"I believe that the normal human heart is born good. That is, it's born sensitive and feeling, eager to be approved and to approve, hungry for simple happiness and the chance to live. It neither wishes to be killed, nor to kill. If through circumstances, it is overcome by evil, it never becomes entirely evil. There remain in it elements of good, however recessive, which continue to hold the possibility of restoration."
One of the "This I Believe" online entries, from a man in Vermont, decisively synopsizes Murrow, Allison and Gediman's collective motivation: He believes there is a person inside all of us who needs to be heard.
Say what you have to say on the "This I Believe" Web site and head to Northshire Books for what is sure to be an enthralling evening built around one of the airwaves' most consistently meaningful shows.