The Heart Outside Our Body

Parents can sometimes be unreasonable; many of us put blinders on when it comes to our kids. Educators sometimes bear the brunt of this fact.  

How could you suspend my child?

How could you not play my child?

How could you not award my child?

My child’s grade should be higher!  

People who are normal in every other circumstance in life can seem completely unhinged when it comes to their children.  As educators we can quickly categorize these parents as a “crazy parent” and tune them out. That’s a dangerous practice since just because they are unreasonable when it comes to their kids, it doesn’t mean they aren’t sometimes right.

We must be careful not to label parents: those who are affluent as entitled, those who have not had as much schooling as uneducated, those who do not speak our language as uncaring.

When parents send their children off to us, into our charge, they are entrusting us with what matters most to them in the world.  We may not always agree with how they parent, how they speak to us, how they interact with their kids, but they need us to take care of their children as if they are our own. When you care about someone so much, as parents do about their kids, it can cause you to react in ways that you normally wouldn’t. When it feels like your heart is living outside of your body, you feel vulnerable.

It is an immense responsibility they place in our hands. They need us to do our best, to be our best, to give their children–our children–all they deserve.  

As for the child who doesn’t have a parent that cares that much, one that would die for them as many parents would, well, those kids need us even more.  

We get to partner with parents, to help develop their children into young adults that can leave the nest someday and be successful.

I can still remember when I officially left the nest for the first time. It was late in the summer of ‘90 and despite the Wilson sisters ‘Hold on” playing on my walkman, I had some serious butterflies in my stomach.  I would love to say I was one of those kids who was excited to leave home, to have some freedom, to live on my own. That was not my truth. I was scared, not about where I was going, rather what I was leaving behind. I loved High School. I was good at it. Being the proverbial big fish in a small pond was something I relished. The security of knowing that no matter how bad I messed up, my parents would have my back and living in my small town, although it was sometimes small minded, was also a safe haven.

I had a name, a girlfriend, a brand new Honda Prelude (complete with tinted windows and speakers in the trunk), I walked around with the confidence that comes with being young, naive, and completely unaware of how much you didn’t know.  I was petrified to see that phase of my life end.

Flaws I had at 16 are embarrassing to look back upon. Yet, surprisingly, an unawareness of time’s cruel march forward was not one of them.

I was painfully aware that life would never be the same.  I would never again be a senior in high school, play a sport competitively, make out under the staircase of the High School, or breathe in sweat spring air that was full of possibility, wonder, and joy.

I was aware that one of life’s greatest conundrums was that nothing lasts forever, a gift and curse at the same time.

I didn’t realize it then, but now as my oldest son nears the end of this chapter in his life, how very brave my mother was the day we headed off to Cortland in an OJ style Bronco. It must have been torture for her to put on a happy face and keep the tears at bay.  

She was saying goodbye to her only child, her best friend, and her confidant. She wanted me to be happy, wanted the best for me; because of that, she let me go without guilt, despite the fact that she would soon be returning to the scary house of a broken and often times violent marriage.

It wasn’t until years later that she shared with me that she cried for a week straight and only found solace by ritualistically cleaning my room over and over again, despite the fact that her pampered and never neat son was not there to dirty it.  

My mother was a superhero that day and many others of course, but I didn’t totally appreciate it then as I do now.  

You see, I am terrified of what that day will be like for me. What knots will be in my stomach, what heartache in my chest, what pride in my heart.  You have to let your kids go some day, this I know. I also know life will never be the same, as another stage slips away.  

The best we can do is hope we have done right by our kids.  We hope and pray they will make good decisions, that life will not be cruel, that they will find the happiness in their life that they brought to your life.

I know it is not goodbye forever. I know there will be breaks and summers. And, maybe a time as an adult our home is his again, but it will not be the same. Our child is leaving; it is hard to say goodbye, to let go.  It’s painful, but I cannot let my heart become bitter. I cannot let him see my sadness because he has so many other stages of life to live, find joy in, and so do I.

I want to enjoy and want him to enjoy every moment that is left of his senior year.

The melancholy feeling is not as strong, though, as the gratitude I feel from the opportunity to  see the world through his eyes, to see how a good person acts and thinks. I had the opportunity to teach him a few things, but, if truth be told, I learned much more from him than he ever learned from me.

When I entered his life he was an eight year boy who had just lost his father to brain cancer, a battle he witnessed day in and day out for three years of his young life. It was not uncommon for him to wake in the middle of the night sobbing, letting out his pain, not understanding why life was so cruel. I often wish I could go back to those days, not because I want to hear the primal screams of a child, but because I want to be a better dad.  

I want to give him more hugs.

I want to be more affectionate.

I want to let him know I will always be there for him.  

Unfortunately, I was new to being a stepdad; unfortunately I was dealing with my own guilt of a failed marriage and sharing my other son Scott’s time with his mother.  

I want to go back, be a better dad; if I only knew then what I know now.  The funny thing is it wasn’t a book I read, or a class I went to, or a show I watched. It was living with and learning from this amazing young man that has made me into the father I am today, the man I am today.  I am no doubt a flawed human being, but I am a lot better now than who I was before I met that hurt little boy with the squeaky voice who grew into handsome, confident football player and school president.

He is gregarious person who is always willing to put himself out there, to experience life, but, more impressively, do it with kindness and humility. My ego says “ I had something to do with that!” “I must be a great parent!” But, if truth be told, who he is has more to do with his mother, than me.

I just put down Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. In it Bradbury tells the reader to write from the heart, write from passion, write from anger, write from sadness, write from emotion.  That is why I decided to write about Justin. I just love the kid so much, am so impressed by him. I strive to be as good of a person as he is. Writing about all I have learned from him makes the words flow and, as Bradbury says, they come from deep inside me.

The truth in Bradbury’s advice is that when we are most open, when we share, when we care, our best work comes out. That may be in classroom, with the pen, on the ball field, or in the courtroom. When your work comes from something you care deeply about, it is usually high quality. When we put our heart into something, the critics matter less because we have satisfied our biggest critic, our biggest doubter, and the person that matters the most…ourselves.   

I tear up when I think of all lessons he has taught me; I tear up when I think of the times I could have and should have done better. When you love someone so much you always beat yourself up, you always wish you did more, did things differently, perfectly. But, in parenting, friendship, relationships, in life, we can’t hold on to mistakes; we can only learn from them.

Justin has taught me to do better, to be better.  I know every parent is proud of their child, and for good reason. Every child is special, has unique strengths that, as my wife says, make you feel like your heart is living outside of your chest.

Commitment

Am I proud that Justin won the presidency in his school this year?  Of course, who wouldn’t be proud? Yet, he impressed me much more with the dedication and loyalty he demonstrated during that presidency.  

He campaigned on a platform of increasing school spirit and bringing the student body together.  He saw it as his job to go to sporting events to lead the student body in cheers. He saw it as his duty to organize senior tailgate parties. He saw it as his duty to bring back pep rallies. It didn’t matter how busy his schedule was. When he committed to doing something, he did it.  He stayed committed to what he said he would do. If our politicians would follow that lead, our country would be a better place.

Loyalty

One night when we were watching TV together he got a text from an old friend from Elementary school. This friend was the star of the play and was looking to generate some buzz for this year’s show.  Jackson asked Justin if he would consider coming to auditions and bring some guys from the football team to have a small part in the play. This was way out of his comfort zone, but, despite some razzing from his teammates, he showed up, he got others to show up, and has been a dedicated member of the cast since.  His mother was worried he was over extending himself and when she questioned him, it was explained that Jackson was always a good friend, even if they had drifted. And, all of the drama kids supported him during the election so it was the least he could do to participate.

Patience

My engine runs hot. Meditation and self reflection have helped, but patience is not a virtue that is easily obtained. I am quick to fly off the handle, to jump to conclusions, convinced it is always about me. When I see Justin look at me with a look that says “why are you getting so tight over that?”, it helps me to keep things in perspective. When I see him take the time to say goodbye to each family member (while I am looking for an Irish goodbye), to be present with his grandparents, when he gives the attention and patience his mother, and brothers deserve, when he asks me to put my phone away at dinner, it makes me want to be a better person.

Inclusive

Justin, like many young people, does not see color, ethnicity, religion, or any other factor that adults may use to categorize people who are different.  He is just as comfortable eating soul food as a member of the Black Culture club as he is sitting Shiva with family members, as he is watching the Sopranos with his Italian American dad. He likes people because of who they are, not what they are.

I could go on and on about all things that my son has done that I am proud of. I could go on and on about all I learned from him. But, as proud as I am of him, I don’t what to be “that” dad.

I love my son, who he is, and the moral compass that he follows. I am trying to make the most of every special moment we have left of this stage in our lives. I do not want to let sadness poison the precious memories we are making as his High School days are coming to an end.

I smile when I think back to that first time I heard him refer to me as “my dad.” I remember the pride, the joy. Tears well up in my eyes now writing this as they did then hearing it.

I am not sure when it happened, but it inevitably happens to every parent, a realization that you want to impress your kids more than they want to impress you, make them proud of who you are, make them proud to call you dad.   

There is nothing I want more in this world than to make my kids proud of me, to be the role model they deserve. There is nothing I love more than hearing out of all three of my kids mouths than “my dad.”

There is nothing more that I want than for my kids to be happy.  My biggest fear as Justin heads off to college is not that he will not be successful, find a career, find a wife, find a life.  My biggest fear is that I have not done enough to prepare him to deal with the challenges that each stage in life presents.

My greatest hope is that no matter what, he will continue to be the type of person who prioritizes the right things, the type of person who makes the right decisions, the type of person who others want to be around, the type of person I strive to be.  

Educators have the biggest responsibility in the world.  They have the responsibility to protect, to inspire, to motivate, to teach my Justin, my kids, and every other parent’s heart that is living outside of their body.

This is important for us to remember. It is important for us to give parents some slack, even if they seem unhinged, even if they make us the bad guys, even if they seem like a “Crazy Parent.” Because, when it comes to our kids, we are all a little crazy.


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