Study Guide

Famous Morality and Ethics

By Naomi Shihab Nye

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Morality and Ethics

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back. (15-18)

Nye chooses very specific groups of people to smile at. This isn't her boss or her mother-in-law or that hall monitor that will never tell on you as long as you keep the smiles coming. In fact, these people are not known to her and can do very little in return for her kindness. Is that what fame is: being kind to those who can do virtually nothing in return for you?

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do. (19-21)

Nye highlights the traditional definition of famous here at the end—the doing of something spectacular—and she contrasts that with her own definition, which is never forgetting what she can do. Is it hard to do what we can? Is this, in itself, a virtue? Is doing what we can do a bit spectacular all on its own? Go ahead, fellow Shmoopers, admit it: we are pretty spectacular, aren't we?

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