In my first year of high school at the prestigious Hampton School for girls in Jamaica, then Principal Mrs. Heather Murray read this story to us; five years later at my valedictory service she asked how many of us remembered the story of the five dollar lawn. I was one of the young ladies who raised my hand. Fourteen years after first hearing this story, I still think it is a good story and life lesson.
“No one in our Utah town knew where the Countess had come from; her
carefully precise English indicated that she was not a native American. From
the size of her house and staff we knew that she must be wealthy, but she
never entertained and she made it clear that when she was at home she was
completely inaccessible. Only when she stepped outdoors did she become at
all a public figure–and then chiefly to the small fry of the town, who lived in
awe of her.
“The countess always carried a cane not only for support, but as a
means of chastising any youngster she thought needed disciplining. And at
one time or another most of the kids in our neighborhood seemed to display
that need. By running fast and staying alert, I had managed to keep out of
her reach. But one day when I was about thirteen, as I was short-cutting
through her hedge, she got close enough to rap my head with her stick.
“‘Ouch!’ I yelled, jumping a couple of feet.
“‘Young man, I want to talk to you,’ she said. I was expecting a
lecture on the evils of trespassing, but as she looked at me, half smiling,
she seemed to change her mind.
“‘Don’t you live in that green house with the willow trees in the next
“‘Yes, ma’am.’ . . .
“‘Good. I’ve lost my gardener. Be at my house Thursday morning at
seven, and don’t tell me you have something else to do; I’ve seen you
slouching around on Thursdays.’
“When the Countess gave an order, it was carried out. I didn’t dare not
come on that next Thursday. I went over the whole lawn three times with a
mower before she was satisfied and then she had me down on all fours looking
for weeds until my knees were as green as the grass. She finally called me
up to the porch.
“‘Well, young man, how much do you want for your day’s work?’
“‘I don’t know. Fifty cents, maybe.’
“‘Is that what you figure you’re worth?”
“‘Yes’m. About that.’
“‘Very well. Here’s the fifty cents you say you’re worth and here’s the
dollar and a half more that I’ve earned for you by pushing you. Now I’m
going to tell you something about how you and I are going to work together.
There are as many ways of mowing a lawn as there are people, and they may be
worth anywhere from a penny to five dollars. Let’s say that a three-dollar
job would be just what you have done today, except that you’d have to be
something of a fool to spend that much time on a lawn. A five-dollar lawn is
well, it’s impossible, so we’ll forget about that. Now then, each week I’m
going to pay you according to your own evaluation of your work.’
“I left with my two dollars, richer than I remembered being in my whole
life, and determined that I would get four dollars out of her the next week.
But I failed to reach even the three dollar mark. My will began to falter
the second time around her yard.
“‘Two dollars again, eh? That kind of job puts you right on the edge of
being dismissed, young man.’
“‘Yes’m. But I’ll do better next week.’
“And somehow I did. The last time around the lawn I was exhausted, but
I found I could spur myself on. In the exhilaration of that new feeling, I
had no hesitation in asking the Countess for three dollars.
“Each Thursday for the next four or five weeks, I varied between a
three-and a three-and-a-half dollar job. The more I became more acquainted
with her lawn, places where the ground was a little high or a little low,
places where it needed to be clipped short or left long on the edges to make
a more satisfying curve along the garden, the more I became aware of just
what a four-dollar lawn would consist of. And each week I would resolve to
do just that kind of a job. But by the time I had made my three dollar or
three and-a-half dollar mark I was too tired to remember even having had the
ambition to go beyond that.
“‘You look like a good consistent $3.50 man,’ she would say as she
handed me the money.
“‘I guess so’ I would say, too happy at the sight of the money to
remember that I had shot for something higher.
“‘Well don’t feel too bad,’ she would comfort me. ‘After all, there are
only a handful of people in the world who could do a four-dollar job.’
“And her words were a comfort at first, but then, without my noticing
what was happening, her comfort became an irritant that made me resolve to
do that four-dollar job, even if it killed me. In the fever of my resolve, I
could see myself expiring on her lawn, with the Countess leaning over me,
handing me the four dollars with a tear in her eye, begging my forgiveness
for having thought I couldn’t do it.
“It was in the middle of such a fever, one Thursday night when I was
trying to forget the day’s defeat and get some sleep, that the truth hit me
so hard that I sat upright, half choking in my excitement. It was the
five-dollar job I had to do, not the four-dollar one! I had to do the job
that no one could do because it was impossible.