America came out looking great

In eighth grade we had a history teacher named Miss Grimm. When we entered school that fall, our class had been buzzing with talk about the new teachers, especially this one. Contrary to the negative connotation of her name, in our eyes she was a fascinating individual.

She was young, pretty, and engaged. All sharp-eyed (and dreamy-eyed) girls had seen the solitaire diamond on the third finger of her left hand. Much time and talk was given to speculation about the nature, looks, and whereabouts of her fiance. We watched her every move, as students do with a new instructor. Clothes, hair, complexion, and even breath were closely scrutinized. While we were so occupied with the trivial aspects of our new teacher, little did we realize that what we would gain from Miss Grimm was made of solid stuff.

She gave us our first introduction to communism. A product of the late 1950s academic world, Miss Grimm was outspoken against it. Making us read and memorize the main aspects of the communist philosophy produced a shock effect. It forced us to pit those ideas against the traditional American culture that we were familiar with - and America came out looking great.

But I still felt a need to understand better how our own system worked. The quest to find the insides, the workings of democracy, was fulfilled in a college course: ''Introduction to Economics.'' It was basic and clear; I could see that free enterprise is the method on which our system thrives. The method puts to use qualities (initiative, ingenuity, integrity), and these perpetuate the system.

One question resolved; later, another raised: How do we pass down loved values and insights to our own children? My parents could not have anticipated the effect the history class would have on me; nor could I have predicted the way my own children would discover an appreciation for our political and economic system.

As parents, my husband and I used common-sense approaches to ensure good values. Having children participate in earning and saving programs that we set up for them seemed like a good idea. But these endeavors failed to unfold the heart of economic ideas, and the hoped-for revelations had to be left to the children's own experiences. We had not taught them the very basic economic principles: finding some goods or services that might be in demand, getting the capital to propel an enterprise, and supplying the demand at a price that would pay back the capital and make a profit.

Our children had the pleasure of seeing these in action through their grandparents. It happened one hot August. The two boys were eagerly taking their first plane flight by themselves. No matter that only a propeller-powered plane (no jet) was flying to upper New York State. It would be an exciting trip anyway. To them the feeling of independence was its own fulfillment. We had put them in ''good'' clothes, made sure that they had all their favorite treasures in their suitcases, and had walked them out to the small plane. They quickly settled into the closely packed seats and snapped shut the seat belts. They were ready to go. No need for lengthy goodbyes; they were off to grandma's.

During their stay we only checked briefly by telephone and did not get a full account of their busy activities until we arrived to take them home.

They had been there during the height of the August blueberry season. Coming from a fruit-loving family, they thought that was as good as Christmas. Plump, juicy blueberries could easily be consumed three times a day. But the boys reaped other rewards. Their grandfather had offered to set them up in a business if they would do the labor. When they went to bed, they lay awake predicting what profits they might make.

Their grandparents took them to the farm nearby where blueberries were commercially raised and lent them $1 to pay for each quart they picked. The boys sold them around the neighborhood for $2.50, paid back their grandparents the $1 capital investment on each quart, and netted $1.50 per quart.

I thought this a rather generous and typically grandparent-type arrangement, but it gave them initiative and a plan. They loved the whole endeavor. I believe they had as much fun picking their 30 quarts as they did dreaming about their profits. And soft, sweet blueberries, warm from the sun, were little rewards along the way for their hard work.

They were full of stories about their sales adventures and successes in the neighborhood. They had discovered that approaching strange homes not only took initiative but ingenuity as well. A smiling face and friendly greeting went much further than merely holding up the merchandise when the door was opened. It also helped to talk about the freshness of the fruit and how recently it had been picked. Free samples were offered to dubious customers. They were becoming good salesmen.

The excitement mounted as the cash came in. I helped them complete their last deliveries. They both exclaimed over the large sum they had - larger than they had ever anticipated. One son quietly observed how large it would be if they didn't have to pay ''grandpa back the last four dollars'' for the final quarts sold.

But integrity won out. The three of us knew that their grandfather would not begrudge his grandsons a few dollars, but as a matter of principle they had to pay their creditor his due. (I didn't mention what he had spent on gasoline, and that he had received no interest on his loan.)

They enjoyed their profits more for it. They were now consumers! And, like all consumers, each used his money differently. One son went out and bought a long-awaited Swiss army knife. The other decided to save his money, add to it, and buy something more costly later.

The project blessed both generations. It gave the boys a simple and compressed view of how well capitalism can work, and gave the grandparents satisfaction in being able to guide and share the project. The parents had only to enjoy watching the benefits to both.

Mission accomplished, Miss Grimm!

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