Stepping Up

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“Stepping Up,” New Era, Jan. 1998, 41


Stepping Up

Aerobics were keeping my body fit. But what my character needed most was a simple walk to the bookstore.

If I had to name one thing I hated concerning college life, it was buying books each semester and watching my checking account go from a pitifully small amount to almost nothing in one mean whack. This was only the second semester of my freshman year, but I remembered the pain I’d gone through last semester, and I wasn’t too thrilled about dealing with the “money massacre” again.

I’d been mentally going through my classes for winter semester, figuring roughly the amount each book would cost while I tried to keep up with the step aerobics instructor and the rest of the sweating bodies around me. I was sure I must have added something wrong when I reached an eye-popping total of $200—not including tax.

“Hey, Jenny, are you okay?”

“Yeah, fine,” I mumbled.

“Here, let me help you.” Cathy’s a great friend. She doesn’t laugh at me when I do stupid things like tripping all over my bench during aerobics because I’m not concentrating. Even now, while I was busy trying to re-tie my shoelace, she was on the floor, straightening my bench for me.

“Killer class today, huh?”

“Yeah.” Tripping over my bench had made my very tender right hamstring muscle even more sore.

“So, Jenny, have you bought your books yet?”

Ugh. That again. “I’m going to buy them right after this class is through.”

“I spent $175 this time. I won’t be able to do anything fun for weeks.”

Only $175? I was wishing I could be so lucky all the way to the bookstore.

The place was jammed with other poor souls like myself who’d waited until the last possible second before taking the hardest plunge of the semester.

Chemistry, English 201, trigonometry, humanities, music appreciation. By the time I made my way to the cash register, I had two ugly stacks of reading material that would keep me busy for months.

The clerk behind the register hardly gave me a glance before rubbing her eyes and wearily lifting the first book from one of my piles. I was sure she must have hated the book rush as much as everyone else did.

“Hey, Jenny!”

I turned around and saw a waving figure with a big, blonde ponytail. Cathy again. She pushed and shoved her way through the endless line of students. Her eyebrows lifted to new heights while she examined my piles of books.

“Pretty impressive.”

“Just don’t be expecting a birthday present from me this year.”

Cathy laughed and rattled off her latest winter semester classes.

“That will be $157.30, please.”

I whipped my head in surprise to face the clerk. The look on her face dared me to make any negative comments, so I quickly wrote my check and escaped with Cathy.

I was all ready to gloat over the low cost of my books that night to Gary, my freshly returned missionary brother, since I knew his books had cost him a small fortune. But as I picked up my receipt and quickly scanned each book price, then the total, I stopped and frowned. I counted the figures again and again.

“Something’s not right here.”

“What’s wrong, Jenn?”

I glanced up from my cross-legged position in the middle of my bed. Gary was standing in the doorway.

“Oh, nothing, really. I bought my books today, and I think the lady at the register may have added them up wrong.”

“Really? Well, let’s have a look.”

I scooted over to make room for him on my bed, and in a matter of minutes, it was all figured out: Only one stack of my books had been rung up. I had gotten the other stack free.

“Gary, you know what a rip-off it is to buy books. The school makes a killing. Besides, all together my stuff isn’t worth more than $150.”

“It’s tough to part with hard-earned money, and if I were you, I’d feel the same way. At one time, I might never have taken the books back and paid for them.”

“After all, it’s not like I stole them. I didn’t see what she was doing. I thought she’d rung them all up. It’s her mistake, not mine,” I quickly chimed in defensively.

“I know, I know,” Gary soothed. “And I’m not going to tell you to take them back. You’re old enough to make your own decisions.”

I started to gather the books, my mind made up, but something in Gary’s voice stopped me.

“You know, this reminds me of something that happened to me about a year ago in the Netherlands.”

Great. An inspiring missionary story. I sighed and settled against my pillows to listen, resolving that nothing he could say would make me change my mind.

“One afternoon, my companion noticed we’d run out of milk, and since we had a really busy day ahead of us, we decided to pick some up at a small store on our way home from our last teaching appointment. We’d been walking everywhere all day long, and we were pretty tired by the time we bought the milk. The girl at the register rushed us through her line without really looking at us, and it wasn’t until we made it back to our apartment that I noticed we had more money than before we’d bought the milk.”

I lifted my eyebrows at him. “Really? How so?”

“Money in the Netherlands is called guilders. A five-guilder piece is about the same size as a 500-guilder piece, and they look alike, too. As part of my change, she should’ve given me a five guilder, but instead, she’d given me a 500 by mistake. So, in American terms, she’d given me five dollars back instead of five cents.”

“Wow. Of course, you took the money back, right?”

“I wasn’t going to. I mean, it was her mistake, not mine, right? It was late, we were both tired, and it was a good 15-minute walk back to the store. Plus, an extra five dollars would’ve helped us out that month. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more angry I became thinking about the position that girl’s thoughtlessness had put me in. I knew I wasn’t a dishonest person, and I hated feeling like I was one if I didn’t take back an insignificant 500-guilder piece.”

“It’s not fair.”

“No, Jenn, it’s not. Everything isn’t always fair. If it was, we’d never learn a thing. Realizing this, my companion and I walked back to the store, barely arriving before closing time. The girl was still there, counting the register’s money, rubbing her head and looking pretty worried. She looked up when we came in, both of us in our suits and nametags, and said, ‘You two were here before, weren’t you?’ I simply said yes, and put the 500 guilder on the counter between us. ‘We bought some milk today, and I think you gave us too much change.’ She looked so relieved I thought she was going to cry. ‘I’ve been trying to count my register’s money for almost an hour now, and I couldn’t figure out where I went wrong.’ She looked at us curiously then said, ‘You’re Mormons, aren’t you?’ I laughed and asked her what gave us away. She laughed, too, before saying that she couldn’t believe we’d come back. When I asked her why, she said, ‘Because no one here has ever done that before.’

“Later, the realization came to me that we may have been the first real contact she’d ever had with the Church, and even though we hadn’t taught her a discussion, we’d left her with the knowledge that Mormons are honest people, and that maybe it would help her become a little curious about our church.” He picked up my receipt and fiddled with it before continuing.

“One of the questions you’re asked during a temple recommend interview is whether or not you’re honest in all of your dealings. Honesty is a hard principle to live—harder than most people realize. There will be plenty of times in your life when being honest won’t leave you with a good, warm feeling at first. Often times, you may walk away feeling frustrated—even angry. Especially concerning financial matters, where every dime counts. Five-hundred guilders here, $150 there may seem insignificant. But little by little, something much more valuable is being lost: your integrity.

“Strengthening your integrity through honesty takes a lot of hard work—work that often goes unnoticed or unappreciated. But the payoff comes when you realize that each time you’re honest, it’s that much easier to be honest when the next challenge comes around. That’s when you know you’re building character, one of the most important works you can spend your time on. Your character and integrity are far too precious to sell for $150—or for 500 guilders.”

The next few days were miserable ones. I couldn’t get Gary’s words out of my head, let alone even look at my “free” books. It was hard for me to do, but Monday morning after my aerobics class, I waded through the endless line of students at the bookstore, ready to lose another $150.

The same clerk was behind the register as I shoved my books onto the counter before her.

“I was in here a few days ago, and these books of mine were never rung up.”

She lifted her eyebrows at me in surprise. “Really? And you brought them back? Even I wouldn’t have been so honest at your age.” She paused for a second. “Maybe not even now.”

For a moment I had a happy, fleeting thought that she was going to reward my honesty by telling me not to worry about these books—that I’d already paid for them in my own way. I almost smiled. Being honest wasn’t so hard.

“That’ll be $175 even.”

As I drove home, I tried to tell myself I wasn’t losing money but gaining an education. It didn’t help much. Especially considering the fact that my right hamstring was still pretty sore. Yet it hadn’t been as touchy today as it had been on Saturday. It would get stronger as I exercised. Pretty soon, it’d be so strong, no amount of fancy step work would bother it, and I’d be able to do all the steps with ease.

Gary’s words struck me again, and for the first time, the memory wasn’t painful. Exercising, integrity; it was all the same. Of course I’d walked away from the book incident feeling a little bruised. I had exercised something harder than ever before. But the next time, it’d be easier even if it was trickier.

Strengthening my muscles and my character in the same day. That was the true, total workout.

I waved to Gary as I maneuvered the car into the garage. I did feel sort of warm and good inside, and I wondered if realizations like these were truly the best types of warm feelings you could ever have.

“So how was your day?” Gary questioned as I jumped out of the car. I held up my bag of books for him to see.

“Hard and good. Even my hamstring is shaping up.” I grinned at him and hurried into the house. Doing something right when it was hard for me to do didn’t feel so terrible after all. In fact, it felt pretty good.

Illustrated by Roger Motzkus