I am a fervent traditionalist in most matters excluding race, gender, and human potential; I think it’s the Capricorn in me. I favor rooted things and try to anchor myself using nature’s rhythm as a guide. I especially appreciate spring. My azaleas are in bloom, and so are my seniors. They feel the sun rising even as gravity summons. No matter how much we honor the usual markers–award ceremonies, sports banquets, stellar yearbooks–and stop ever so briefly to lighten the weight of time, none of us is ever fully prepared to let go.
Friday was prom night. I arrived early and gathered by the entrance with some of my colleagues. As a teacher, I always feel privileged to attend an affair where parents are taboo. Of course, with three daughters, I can easily imagine the scene at home, the young man’s knock on the door, the nervous talk, the young lady’s grand entrance, the endless photos, the fancy car, the soft hugs at the door, the gentle release.
Prom is a fascinating ritual. I always picture a tribal past where the young adults flaunt their youth and announce their entry into the “big” world with all its privileges and glitz. As a parent, I always worried about secret plans that inevitably accompany the night. This weekend, as the couples arrived sparkling from head to toe, I almost saw myself–with a red, crushed velvet tux, ruffled shirt, and matching bow tie–stepping away from that limo years ago and strutting into the front atrium of my future life.
One of my buddies had smuggled champagne and two joints into the hotel room where we lounged afterwards. While we sipped and puffed with our dates, we laughed at our audacity. There would be time for college classes, awe-inspiring careers, a separate address, a lifetime love, and children of our own. But for that night nothing mattered except that we looked good and felt even better–not for what little we ingested, but more for what we finally believed we were ready to leave behind.
High school graduation is still a very big deal. Families become almost raucous as they cheer for their loved ones. Back when I taught in public school, a few of my students were reaching a graduation threshold the parents never had. So I understood the noise–even after the principal insisted all applause be held until the end, which never happened. At least one teacher always complained, “Why are the loudest parents the ones I never saw?”
I knew. In the years the child was growing, so were the adults. Challenges and circumstances confront us all. The unexpected must invariably be stirred into everyone’s stew. No matter how complete we wish to appear when the children arrive, parents are never ready for the ultimate surprise: children judge us most by what we do, not what we say. But the hardest part comes with accepting that some of the parental sacrifices will go unrecorded by younger eyes, while most of the shortcomings will not.
When it comes to raising children, I now realize the playing field is not intended to be even or fair. As a teacher, I try to remember I know nothing of dthe stories preceding my brief entry into a child’s life. So I try hard to refrain from judgement and focus on the miracle in front of me who someone fed and clothed and taught and steered and maybe even damaged long before opportunity knocked at my door.
Parents, grandparents, guardians and teachers are partners, even if we physically never meet. They are expecting me to arm their not-so-little ones with what truths and facts I can provide to make the future wonders absorpable, and the future obstacles manageable, and the future miracles meaningful and worthy of embrace. Meeting that expectation is the best part of my job.
One of my colleagues this year, a younger man from the Bahamas, has a three-year-old boy. We share a prep period, and he speaks often of the time he shares with his son. They read together and concoct a host of adventures to occupy their moments. He is a devoted father, but I sometimes worry about his perspective on the years to come. I am not sure he is prepared for the letting go. Now, his son still reaches for his Daddy-hand when they cross the street together. He listens to his father’s every word and obediently skips off to bed when asked. Last week, I laughed at a tale he told me about a near mishap at Saturday soccer, and then I inadvertently added, “Enjoy it while it lasts.”
“Why do you say that?” he asked.
I paused, then answered, “No reason. It’s just you teach. You see how they change some as they grow.”
“Not mine,” he said. “A lot of these kids don’t have a link with their parents, especially their Dad’s. I want him to enjoy spending time with me. I see us sitting down and talking when he’s in high school.”
“And I’m sure he will,” I said. “Just not everything.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, do you really want him to tell you everything? ”
“Yes. I want him to be comfortable sharing anything with me.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “But think about it. Let’s say life is a poker game. Sometimes you have a really great hand, you bet big, and win. Sometimes, you bet big and lose. And sometimes you have nothing and have to learn how to bluff and sell it. How will your son learn how to bluff if he keeps showing you his hand? Sooner or later, he’s gonna have to play for himself.
My colleague said nothing and went back to his work. I sensed I needed to elaborate.
“Think of it this way,” I said. “Teaching has shown me there are basically two kinds of people in the world; it all comes back to the way they were raised. Parents can either teach their children to value things or people, but not both, at least not equally. And I mean all people, not just the ones you know, or need, or resemble. You are teaching your son to value people. That will get him through whatever hand he’s dealt.”
“I never thought about it that way,” he said. “Thanks.”
The bringing up and the letting go is not easy for parents. It is not easy for children. It is not easy for teachers either. In eight years of classroom instruction, I have only missed one graduation, the Class of 2012, when wild horses kept me away. It is an absence I will always regret. And, while nothing matches witnessing my own children march those powerful steps, come this year’s graduation, I will get misty-eyed again as the principal reads the graduate roll. A tear may fall.
I have already warned my students.