A story I don’t know that isn’t mine to tell

Many years ago I had this young man in my classes, we’ll call him Johnny, which isn’t his name. Johnny was in an all-boys’ class, the only one I’ve ever taught, and a group that, in general, drove me insane, because temperamentally I am not very well suited to teaching large groups of boys. I had him in 6th grade. He was a pretty good kid, as it went, but he was prone to getting dragged into shit if shit was nearby to get dragged into. I have described this type of student to parents before as a “kindling kid”– he’s not going to do anything on his own, but if there’s fire, he’ll burn.

Anyway, I was describing his behavior to his mother at parent teacher conferences once, and she was reacting quite a bit more strongly than I really felt like she ought to have, and at one point she looked at him and hissed something at him that I actually had to have her repeat to make sure I’d heard it correctly.

Quarterbacks don’t act like this,” she’d said. And I was immediately of two minds; the first being of course they do, and the second being why are you laying that on your twelve-year-old right now? And let me get to the moral of the story before I tell the rest of it: parents, can we not set our kids up to peak in high school, please, and can we absolutely definitely not set them up so that if they aren’t the star QB they don’t feel like their lives are over before they’ve had a chance to start?

This is the part where I start making stuff up, by the way, because I really don’t have any evidence for any of what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it anyway because it’s on my mind.

Anyway, this kid randomly popped into my head this weekend– I found a random little gift that he’d given me in the course of cleaning up, and it had his name on it, and this story came to mind. And I did a little bit of research. Johnny did play football in high school, but didn’t play quarterback, and frankly while he was on the team he doesn’t appear to have played much at all– I was able to look through the box scores of his senior year, because America’s obsession with high school football is genuinely creepy, and I couldn’t find any evidence that he’d contributed to the team in any meaningful way. I didn’t look at every game or anything like that, but it was pretty clear that, at the least, this kid wasn’t the star player.

And then I found a picture of him, from what would have been his sophomore year of college if he’d gone, posted by a local Painters and Allied Trades union. The tone of the caption is celebratory; they’re honoring their newest member. And I honestly can’t believe that they chose this picture to post, because the kid looks like his life is literally crumbling down around his eyes. Johnny grew up getting his head pumped full of stories about how he was going to be the star quarterback, and then he was going to go on to college and then probably the NFL and be a famous football player, and instead he’s 20 with no degree, no sports career, and joining the painter’s union.

This isn’t to say that I look down on these people; I don’t, and as a union member myself I consider the trades unions members to be brothers and sisters. I don’t look down on anybody who works for a living. But Johnny very clearly got raised to believe that there was one way his life was going to go, and it didn’t, and I know I’m reading a lot into it and I haven’t seen the kid in years but the look on his face in this picture is just fucking heartbreaking.

And maybe Labor Day isn’t the best day to post this, either. But fuck it, I’ve been thinking about him all weekend, and I hate it how quickly young kids are willing to cling to sports as what’s going to make them rich and famous when the truest thing I can say to any of them is no, it’s not. You’re not going to be in the NBA or the NFL or really anything else. You might play in high school, but I can count the number of college athletes I’ve taught over the years on one hand. This isn’t any more realistic as a life goal than “I’m going to win the lottery” is.

We’ve gotta stop doing this to our kids.

Some brief and poorly thought-out considerations about religious education

I went looking, and this was the most heinous Sunday School graphic I could find. I’m sure there are worse ones out there, but this is good enough for me.

Some background, before I get to the actual reason I’m writing this: I am, if such a thing actually exists, biologically Catholic. What I mean by that is that my family on both sides is Catholic, and while I was not raised to be religious (and have, in fact, considered myself to be an atheist since about 2nd grade) the type of religion I am most familiar with is Catholicism, and I actually taught at a Catholic school for three years with no particular problems. I can fake Catholicism to a degree that I can’t with other religions, to say nothing of other forms of Christianity.

I also have undergraduate degrees in Religious Studies and Jewish Studies, and a Master’s degree in Biblical studies, with a concentration in the Old Testament.

This means that I don’t believe a single thing about your religion or your holy book and I know more about it than you do. Which is a dangerous combination, frankly.

My wife attended a Catholic school until high school, and went through all of the traditional accoutrements of growing up Catholic. We got married in a greenhouse with my best friend using her Universal Life Church ministry credential to officiate, so it … uh, didn’t stick? And honestly by now she might be more anti-Catholic than I am, to be honest. I’ve mellowed as I’ve gotten older, which seems weird to say but is actually true.

On the way home from his birthday shopping trip yesterday, the boy pipes up that he has a question for us. We agree to hear said question.

“What’s the name of the guy from the Bible again?”

I avoided having a stroke while driving out of sheer willpower, folks. My wife cracked up so hard she could barely breathe.

He meant Jesus, of course.

Christians (and I assume members of other religions, but I live in America, so it’s mostly Christian sources that I see this from) love to pretend that kids are somehow naturally religious and can sort of intuit the existence of God on their own, and my kid has been the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a pure refutation of that idea. He knows nothing about religion. We don’t go to church, we didn’t have him baptized (I was strapped, packed, and ready for that fight with my mother-in-law, and it never happened) and no one in the family is the type to pray before meals. He’s been to a couple of funerals, and I’m pretty sure that’s been his whole and entire exposure to religion, whether Christianity, Judaism or anything else. I think he has a vague conception that Jesus was generally a pretty nice guy but beyond that? He thinks Easter is a bunny holiday (my Mom always got him a basket, but that’s fallen away since she died) and Christmas is when your parents buy you presents. That’s it.

(For the record, if forced at gunpoint to join a religion, I would be a Muslim, but that’s an entire separate conversation.)

Anyway, a long lead-in to a pretty basic question: all of this has me wondering where exactly my responsibilities lie to at least give the kid a basic familiarity with at least some of the beliefs that nearly everyone he encounters throughout his day holds. Like, I’m not religious, and I don’t especially want him to be religious, but I’m also not entirely sure that I want him living in a pit of ignorance about what religion is, at least well enough that he can recognize some of the more culturally relevant Bible stories and maybe sketch out some of the differences between some of the major world religions. And that he doesn’t refer to Jesus as “the guy from the Bible” again. I was fervently hoping that he meant Moses; I don’t think he’s ever even heard of Moses.

(I also don’t want him to get a little bit older and get sucked into some sort of fundamentalist horseshit somehow because he doesn’t have any inoculation against it.)

I’ve always said my parents’ big mistake was throwing dinosaur books and Greek mythology at me before my grandmother got me a book of Bible stories; I couldn’t see why the Bible didn’t mention dinosaurs or why I should take these myths any more seriously than those myths, and absent any parental pressure to the contrary that was it for religion for me. Maybe I should toss a book of Bible stories at him to see how he reacts. I mean, other than ducking and getting out of the way.

On my ten-year Dadiversary

I don’t have specific memories of many of my birthdays, at least not without sitting down and thinking hard about it. My 21st, which probably wasn’t as exciting as you think it was. My 22nd, which happened while I was in Israel. My 16th, where my family managed to arrange a surprise pool party for me. And my 10th, where I remember being very unhappy for at least part of it, and very upset that whatever was upsetting me had dared to intrude on my “double digit day.”

Do I remember what I was upset about? Not a bit. I don’t have even the vaguest idea, and I’ve been kind of racking my brain about it for the last few days. It could have been my fault; perhaps I was being a shithead that day, and pissed my parents off. Something may have had to be cancelled, or maybe I didn’t get something I really wanted. No idea at all. And I’m pretty sure my Dad will see this, and I’ll be surprised if he remembers either– if he does, I’ll let y’all know. I just remember being upset.

My son turns 10 tomorrow. The three of us went out and went shopping today and blew all of his birthday money– close to a couple hundred dollars, when you roll in everybody who sent him something– and we came home with a pretty respectable haul, for a 10-year-old: a couple of Lego sets, a couple of Switch games, five or six books (he is my kid, after all) and a ridiculous new Nerf gun with a bloody ammo drum attached to it that I’m terrified he’s going to turn on me the next time I walk into the same room with him. Plus $25 in Roblox money that he can spend on nonsense digital stuff. Surprisingly, he did not want to go to the comic shop and buy a bunch of blind boxes.

Weird, to think we’ve been parents for ten years. Weirder, to think that his last couple of birthdays have been fucked up by Covid. He wanted to have a birthday party at a local trampoline park this year; we had to tell him no. He didn’t even ask last year. I think we’ll try and get some of his friends over next weekend to frolic in the pool for a few hours, though, if the weather cooperates.

I don’t know that I have any more complicated observations than that; I think so far his 10th birthday is going better than mine did, even if I don’t remember why, and I’m feeling a deep melancholy at the idea that my little boy is growing up.

(And just to keep this post from being completely sappy, in the process of getting his gift card transferred to his Roblox account, I discovered that the young master appears to have figured out how to delete his YouTube history. I will wait until after his birthday to perform the necessary interrogations about that, however.)

EDITED TO ADD: My father suspects that the USS FLAGG, or rather my lack of same, may have been the culprit. I looked and discovered that yes, in fact, the Flagg was available in 1985-86, which means it was out there for buying on my 10th birthday. I can only say that as the goddamned thing was seven and a half feet long and something north of $200 in 2020-equivalent funds, I’d have let my kid sit on the couch and cry too. That said, if anyone wants to buy me one to make up for my childhood trauma, I am an adult now who lives in a house, and I will make room for the motherfucker.

Parenting level +1

My exhaustion level for the last couple of days has been extraordinary even for the first (full) week of school, and today we had to get the boy ready for his upcoming first day of school– which included a meeting with the band director so that he could pick an instrument to play this year and then meeting with the local instrument rental folks to remortgage my house set up a rental plan for the new instrument. My wife, who you may remember makes considerably more than I do, generally handles any sort of payments that school requires, but I’m taking care of instrument rental, more or less because it’s my turn. And after 32 payments, we’ll own an alto saxophone!

Super exciting.

Actually, I am excited, if only because the boy is out of his mind about the idea of getting to play the saxophone, and his enthusiasm is infectious. I have attempted to play a host of instruments in my time– violin, French horn, trombone, ukulele and harmonica come to mind without thinking too hard, and the closest I’ve ever come to being a competent player of an instrument was getting good enough to consistently 100% anything on medium difficulty in Guitar Hero. Once I had to start moving my hand to pick up that blue fret, though, I was done. I think I have a passable, or at least not embarrassing, singing voice, and that’s as close as I’ll ever get to being a musician. My wife is staggeringly more talented than me in that department, so we’ll hope the boy follows in her footsteps and not mine.

What this means, of course, is that there are fourth grade band concerts in my future. I will grit my teeth and clap and be supportive while dying on the inside, like a good dad’s supposed to, and hope that he sticks with this long enough to become legitimately good at it.

We’ll see, I suppose.

On cell phones, classrooms and idiots

I suspect that what happened in my classroom today could be used by other members of our staff as evidence that I need to be more vigilant in patrolling our students for cell phones and confiscating them or forcing them to be returned to lockers. And while I don’t actually want this post to be About Cellphones, I think it’s just more evidence that schools have irretrievably lost the battle about cell phones. To be clear, before I get too far ahead of myself: I do think cellphones were used in my classroom today in a way that is a problem. However, I think the problem doesn’t lie with the phones themselves, I think it lies with the people using them– and, worse, the people I’m referring to are the adults, not the kids.

Anyway. I had just gotten class started today in my 3rd-4th hour group, which is my largest by a decent margin and, oh gee what a surprise, also my most disciplinarily problematic by a similarly large margin. Suddenly one of my girls jumped up out of her seat, in tears, and started hollering about how she had to go to the office, and then headed for the door. Like, out of Goddamned nowhere.

I caught up to her just before she actually got out of the room and got her into the hallway to talk to me, and it turned out that there was some sort of sudden family emergency. I’m not clear on the details and don’t see the point of sharing them anyway, but Mom decided that the way to let her daughter know that something horrible had happened with one of her family members was to text her while she was in fucking class and tell her.

So now she’s panicking, my class is blown up, and every fucker in the room knows something’s going on with her family and is bothering her and asking her all sorts of questions. And had it been a teacher other than me whose room this happened in, I can easily imagine it turning into a fucking power struggle over the cell phone and not a quick pass down to the office, which was my reaction– or, if she’d moved faster, an utterly confused call to security, where all I have is so-and-so just got up and ran out and I have no idea where the fuck she went.

PARENTS! I understand why kids have cell phones! My kid is 9 and he will likely have one within a year. Why? Well, he lives in a house with no Goddamned land line, and he’s getting old enough that leaving him at home alone for brief periods of time and/or having him at activities without us is starting to become a conceivable thing, and once those things are happening he needs a way to get ahold of us. I also do not agree that kids should keep their expensive-ass cell phones (or even their cheap burner cell phones) in their lockers, which are not remotely as secure as administration would like us to believe. Nah. Their phones are in their pockets. I don’t love it, but I’ve made my peace with it. Schools lost that battle. So be it.

Don’t fucking call or text your kids when they’re at Goddamned school.

Especially do not call your kids and tell them about family emergencies when they are at school, even if your overarching goal is to get them down to the office so you can pick them up. You call the fucking office, and the office calls for the kid to come down and bring their stuff, and then your kid doesn’t have a fucking panic attack in front of their entire class.

Christ. I need y’all to be smarter than this.