it’s a class to which i’ve not been admitted. but i take notes. the tests will never be mine. but i keep watch from corners, wince when learning takes its lumps, and savor all the triumphs.
it’s boy school. and i think we might be up to some new level here, the 300s, maybe, the ones for upper classmen, even though the boy enrolled, the one up yonder trying to tie a knot before dashing to a train downtown last eve, is merely a high school freshman.
the headmaster, and chief instructor, is, no doubt, my firstborn’s father. there are, of course, visiting professors–uncles, teachers, men with roles to model. but mostly–and of late–it is one-on-one tutorial, and it might well last a lifetime.
it started, long long ago, with blocks and building towers. the little one i loved–now a manchild–sat for hours on the floor with his tower-loving papa. they stacked oblong blocks of maple as high as they could go before the whole thing toppled. the little one learned the intricacies of load and balance, and eventually, how to sweep his heart up off the floor when the tower finally crashed.
there was, for a semester that stretched across quite a string of springs and summers, baseball for beginners. that pitching thing never came too easy to the one who now dreams of being a philosophy professor.
his papa tried, oh, he tried. i can still hear the ball banging against the house in our teeny tiny city yard. can still see them out the window, in the mostly-empty lot next door, running bases, steering clear of the apricot tree sheared to only stump and sawed-off limb, smack dab in centerfield. that sorry stump had once bloomed, like real live inhale-able art right outside my window, but one odd afternoon it was attacked with saw and hatchet by the wild-haired lady who let the players play there, and gave them lemonade when the inning finally ended.
i watched as father and son became obsessed with collecting baseball cards. i was there when the banged-up rusty scarlet tin came home from the papa’s boyhood bedroom. i remember…
how the two of them sank deep into a world of names and numbers (some in print so small i could barely read it then, and that was before the old-lady glasses became essential to my getting dressed each day). how that child, and his dear best friends, could trade all day and night. how the numbers seemed to mean something. and how they knew them all, upside down and sideways. and how the man i married seemed to have some uncanny storehouse of knowledge i’d never known about. he remembered plays–you know, who threw to who, whose feet slid where, who swore, who was a sorry loser–from ancient times, but re-told them as if he’d just then seen them on the TV.
i shook my head, and kept right on wiping down the stove. or cleaning out the sink. or maybe even opting for a game of solitaire. bleary-eyed at all the ball talk.
ah, but now, now i’m listening in.
the lessons these days are like the peeling back of the genetic code. the lessons here are all about how to be a man. and i don’t mean some global sweep. not the politics of manhood. nor any sort of wretched macho diatribe. there’s no room for that in the raising of a thinking, feeling soul–at least i don’t think so. and if there is, i’ve closed my eyes and shut my ears for the imparting of such stuff.
what i’m talking here is far more charming. it is all the basics: how to hail a cab. how to stanch a nick while shaving. how to shine a pair of shoes (and mind you, the man i married was first described in adoring terms by my mother as “old shoe,” a phrase born perhaps of the gaping holes in his penny loafers, and the less-than-ironed shorts that had long lost their hem).
what color belt belongs with shoes of black, and shoes of brown. (these things don’t come intuitively with the gene pool here, i tell you, it involves some teaching.)
why, i’ve heard whole paragraphs on the navy blazer. and the essential nature of what i heard referred to as “the uniform,” and how once you had it assembled (preferably on hangers, not heaped on closet floor, i pipe in, my maternal contribution, in case anyone is listening), you could just about go anywhere, do anything, your growing heart desires.
if it sounds intensely sartorial, it is not. there is in this comprehensive course something so sweet, so loving, i know men who would weep at hearing of it.
i know men whose fathers loved them very much. but somehow they never got this all spelled out. and what was lost was not only a sense of how to get your socks on in the morning, but the very notion that along the mountain climb they had both guide and hand behind their back.
in the whole of parenting, there is occasional mention of teaching children how to ride a bike, or swing a bat, or mix a chocolate cake.
but this art of steeping a child in how to step into a civilized, grown-up world, it is often overlooked. it’s quite easy to miss.
sometimes, with all the shepherding and signing-up of children, the most essential thread of parenting–the teaching, day in and day out, for years and years and years, through every phase and tumble down, and every scraping off the floor–is simply barely given airtime.
but to miss it, don’t you think, is to wholly miss the point. and all the grace. and noble beauty.
one generation trying with all its might, and accumulated mistakes, to smooth the bumpy road for the next one up the pike.
if i were not the mother here, if i were not hearing bits i’ve never heard spelled out, i might, too, miss all this. i know, as the only girl among four brothers, i never heard such things. perhaps, a sister pays no heed in quite the way a mother studies how her boy becomes a man.
perhaps, too, it is in hearing all this acquired knowledge being passed in chapter and in verse, it rubs raw, just a bit, the fact that i’ve no girl to whom i can whisper all the things i know about trying to be a woman. geez, what to do with the little bit i know about mascara?
it is tender stuff, this transferring of time-tried truths. it melts my heart to watch the father of my firstborn care enough to shine the child’s shoes before his first high school dance (never mind that he got the polish all over the kitchen floor, or that he tried to do it without a cloth, and thus his pointer finger was black as night for a day or two).
i nearly wobble as i hear the ping-pong volleys late at night, punctuated by all the talk about what to look for in a college, and how one fine prof might just change your life.
it is at once heady and knee-buckling, this esoterica and plain old sidewalk smarts.
it humbles me to hear it. i wonder, did i have some deeply buried clue when i fell in love with him, that the man i married would so finely, keenly raise a son?
just last night, i watched the child shave without a nick. i peeked around the corner as he tried, and tried again, to knot his father’s tie. i tried not to sigh as he slipped on that navy blazer, became a man, grabbed his nearly-tattered tome, the odyssey, and bounded down the stairs, and out the door.
the train downtown–to meet his father for a worldly sort of lecture at a club where that blazer was expected–he nearly missed. in fact, he hurdled up the ramp with just a minute and a half till that hissing hulk lurched into the station.
that class, train catching on time, he’ll try again. a boy does not become a man without a few retakes along the route.
and, if he’s truly blessed, a teacher who wholly understands the art of knowing when to turn the page, and when to let the pupil learn the hard way.
trusting all the while that someday the student, by then a man at last, will be the sort who, in turn, as he once was taught, will impart his very best to some young boy who has no clue what to do with razors and blazers and all those manly mysteries.
have you watched a child–boy or girl–learn the ropes tied to adulthood? are you, like me, without a child of a gender that’s your own, so all that wisdom–most of it learned the hard way i assure you–has no place to go, no deposit box? do you remember being pulled aside and showed the little things that made you feel the world was a place you belonged, and just maybe could conquer?