“A Person’s a Person, No Matter How Small”

“A Person’s a Person, No Matter How Small”

Dr. Rachel Coleman

March 4, 2021

The subtitle of my blog is “the intermittent musings of Dr. Nana.” As Nana, one of the biggest personal griefs during the pandemic has been the interminable stretches of time without being able to cuddle the grandkids and read bedtime stories to them. Determined not to lose that connection completely, I started recording stories for them, making sure they had a hard copy of the book so they could follow along. We’ve worked our way through Bible stories, nursery rhymes, and children’s poems, then started in on the shelf of books that were the favorites of their mommy and uncle so many years ago. That has brought me to our Dr. Seuss collection, specifically to the delightful Horton Hears a Who![1]

Because our grandson is a full-speed-ahead, high-energy four-year-old (you do the math for his attention span!), I decided to read the book in short installments. And here is where pandemic-induced communicative creativity paid an unexpected dividend. Reading Horton’s story in stages, with a “recap” at the beginning of each new segment, made me pay attention in a way I’d never done when reading to my kids. (Perhaps because underneath each line back then was the desperately whispered prayer, “Please, please, please, let them go to sleep after this one!”) I watched Horton’s character develop as the plot advanced—and I discovered, in his journey with and for “the Whos of Who-ville,” some food for thought, prayer, and action in my own pilgrimage.

First, it struck me how very clueless and unsuspecting Horton was at the beginning of the story. There he was, lounging “in the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool,” at ease and totally unprepared for any world-changing, paradigm-splintering occurrence. And yet, in the midst of his carefree relaxing, there was something about this apparently indolent elephant that made him open to the unexpected. That first faint cry for help did not go ignored; Horton stopped his splashing and turned his attention to the sound. And even though Horton had no intellectual category into which this new voice could fit (“I’ve never heard tell of a small speck of dust that is able to yell”), he was open to the reality of what was happening on that dust speck, despite it falling so far outside his own experience of life. That reality intersected with a fundamental conviction in Horton’s worldview, that “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” We’re not told how Horton arrived at such a gospel-shaped conviction, but it was enough—enough to engender compassion, enough to get him out of the pool, enough to launch Horton on a new path. Now there’s a Holy Spirit head-slap of the first order! Do my gospel-shaped and Scripture-informed convictions about the imago Dei in every human being produce a Horton-like response for the “Whos” of our day?

In installment #2, we see Horton galvanized by his encounter with the tiny, invisible inhabitants of the dust speck. He has been entrusted with a mission of partnership and protection, and he’s resolute in his commitment to that mission: “I can’t put it down. And I won’t!” As Horton learns to listen to the tiny voices arising from that dust speck, he also gives them a voice in his world, in his sphere of influence. He calls them to speak up, gives them a forum for doing so, and advocates for them in the midst of hostile nay-sayers. The tiny font of the Who-words on the pages of the story reflects a long history of frustration; no matter how loudly or how unitedly they shout, “we are here, we are here, we are here, we are here,” their story is not being heard by the “big” folks—the ones with power to change the perilous nature of their daily existence. Horton also proves to be a humble partner, continuously willing to learn more about the Who-experience, open to having his assumptions challenged: “You mean,” Horton gasped, “you have buildings there, too?” And the Holy Spirit sneaks in another jab! Am I offering my voice to the voiceless, whether those voices call from the womb or from prisons or from the barrios and forgotten neighborhoods of our cities? Am I willing to listen humbly, when my ignorance needs challenged and corrected?

By the time we get to that clover field—so daunting in its scope—Horton is invested for the long haul. He’s willing to sacrifice his own comfort and well-being on behalf of his tiny friends, spending every last drop of energy and hope in what seems like a hopeless endeavor. But Horton perseveres, until he finally locates the Who-ville clover on the three millionth try. His jubilant cry is, “My friends!” A relational change has happened—the Whos are no longer a “project” for Horton, but his friends. The development of that relationship has added a new layer of commitment to Horton’s mission, so when the Mayor of Who-ville asks if Horton will stick by them, his answer is ready and sure: “Of course! Of course I will stick. I’ll stick by you small folks through thin and through thick!” Little did he know how thin their security would grow and how thick the hostility against them—and against him, as their friend and advocate.

Through it all, Horton is gracious with those who scoff at his passion and scorn his mission, who deny the very existence of his friends, who seek to bind his activism and silence both his voice and theirs. He doesn’t vilify the kangaroo for not being “woke” or compassionate; he kindly suggests that “the kangaroos’ ears aren’t as strong, quite, as mine.” He doesn’t give up on his opponents’ capacity to change, nor does he allow himself to absorb their hatred and disdain. By not becoming like them, by refusing to play by their rules, Horton retains the capacity to be able to speak truth to them in ways that have the potential to transform both the opponents and the friends, both the oppressed and the oppressor. Such grace!

I don’t know what my grandson has gotten out of our story time episodes with Horton, but Nana has been blown away by this little story! What shall we read next??

[1] I’m aware of the current controversy swirling around the decision made by Theodore Geisel’s estate to pull some of his books from the market. This post is not going to weigh in on that, one way or the other; it is simply a personal reflection on how one of Dr. Seuss’s books continues to speak some hard truths into my life, no matter the flaws that may be present in Geisel’s larger body of work.

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