The crowd gathered outside Thompson Middle School in St. Charles, Illinois was mostly in their late 50s. Hands were shaken. Hugs doled out. Smiles of confidence and query mixed among the faces.
But what one noticed most was the eyes. The eyes never seem to change. Over forty years had passed since high school graduation. It was time to reunite and, just for kicks, take a tour through the old high school.
Newer facilities had long since been built. Referendums passed. Taxes rose. Two new high schools and additions later, the former St. Charles High School still stood, a bit forlorn in places, but with a shiny new entrance that was even air-conditioned.
Inside the school the tour guide showed off the new resource center and murals painted on the entrance hallway. Then the group was taken to the spot where the former front entrance to the school was built up into the ceiling. There were no lights on the old entrance, but there was a plexiglass portal through which one could see the archway. Glancing around, people were not sure whether this was something to be celebrated, or simply strange.
Inside the school not much had really changed. The bland brown brick that lined the hallways was still there untouched. No drywall had covered up the mood of the place. The wear and cracks and linoleum floors marked the passage of time. But there was more.
The former auditorium had been co-opted into the band classrooms. Yet there it was, another archway lofting up into the ceiling. This was almost like a theme. Or a meme.
Yet the classic aspects of school environs never really do seem to change. The tape coming up off the wooden gym floor. The peeling paint on old gymnasium benches. “This is where we spent a lot of time,” one former basketball player laughed while pointing at the bleachers where the scrubs perched their butts during games.
It all has a certain chemistry, but the passage of time is more like alchemy. It transforms some things but leaves others far behind to be considered. Did the magic formula of youthful enthusiasm actually work or not? Were we changed from the kids that roamed these halls? Were we much different from the children who roam those halls now?
It has been said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Which made some people laugh when a during a tour of the almost classically preserved chemistry room a classmate recalled a tragic result in which he had accidentally replaced a chemical in a large jar that was not supposed to mix with the new liquid involed. Whoom! The entire jar turned bright blue and the ingredients for the day’s experiment were instantly ruined and unavailable.
Another student recalled cheating on a genetics test by using a crib sheet tucked under his thigh. The teacher had put him out in the hall for a makeup test and it seemed like he could get away with a little cheating. But the teacher, a biology instructor and birding buddy of the student involved came up behind the guilty party and said, “Well, if it isn’t the furtive nutscratcher…”
The track stars recalled doing distance work in loops around the upstairs and downstairs hallways. That involved tearing down the stairs at high rates of speed in running shoes slick with dust. That would never, ever happen in most schools today. But it was how the indoor track season started in the 1970s.
Finally, the group paused by the upstairs lockers and people began recalling the placement of their own locker in the school. That brought up old girlfriends and boyfriends. You could almost feel the palpable presence of young love in the hallways by then. But you could also see the merit of long-term love and trust in the faces of all those standing together in their old high school. Almost everyone shared quiet stories of challenge and loss along the way. Some lost spouses. Many had lost parents. A person in the late 50s of their life on earth is often at the cusp of so much loss.
As the crew stepped our from the hot hallways of the old school a few looked a bit relieved. It was almost a tangible feeling on the order of “We made it…”
That’s what so many said that last day of the graduation ceremony. “We made it!”
The old school is proof of that, we must suppose. We bear cracks and wrinkles and signs of age just like the building in which our high school years had passed. But as one woman stated while looking at the aged clock on the wall, “It’s not even the right time.” Indeed. But then again, even a stopped clock is right once a day.
We stopped the clock for a few moments, just to take a look around. Time breathed in and time breathed out. Then we all went and had a few drinks. Because otherwise the second hand will hit you in the ass. Best to keep moving, wherever that takes you in this life.
The morning that my son Evan was born was both a great joy and a tremendous relief. My wife had gone through fifteen hours of labor contractions every three minutes. He came into this world around 7:00 a.m. on October 30, 1986.
The thrill of having your first child is complemented by the arrival of the second. Our daughter Emily arrived around 9:00 p.m. on a warm April 26, 1990. That delivery rushed along so fast that we needed to call friends and family to watch our son when we rushed off to the hospital on the heels of a spicy Mexican meal a few hours earlier.
The pain and humor of fatherhood is never-ending. Your children grow up so fast that it is the small moments you accumulate in your mind that constitute being a father or mother.
I remember one late afternoon when the sun was falling through the front window of our tiny Geneva home. My daughter was crawling around on the bare floor chewing on a flexible teething ring. The sun was bouncing off the floor and struck her blue eyes. I raced for my film camera and snapped off a few photos before the sun went down. Later when I showed those photos to a friend she quietly murmured. “Her eyes look like cracked glass.”
I also recall the first word of my son. He was sitting on the back porch with my wife who often held him in her lap and pointed to flowers and other natural items around the yard. A small sparrow landed beneath their feet and my wife said to Evan, “Bird.” And he repeated the word, “Bird.” He was six months old.
In fact word games became a big part of all our lives. On our way home from grandma’s house one December, we drove through Geneva where the Christmas lights were blazing and Evan had a question for us both. “What’s the word, ‘wreath?”
He was always asking questions about language. We laughed years later when he admitted that he never knew what we were talking about when referring to Forced Preserves. That would be ‘forest preserves.” As Emily Latella might say, “Never mind.”
With Emily it was always the purpose of language and song that mattered. We have a wonderful video of her in a pink ballerina dress practicing a Disney song. If the words did not come out just right she would stop and huff in frustration. Then she’d begin again. But you dared not interrupt her either. This was her challenge to complete and she did not want help recalling or repeating the words. That was her job, and hers alone.
It is true that the character of your children emerges early and lives in their core their whole lives. Through creative means we learn how they think and believe and play. But it is through their character that we really know them.
Sometimes as a father of adult children I want desperately to know what they are really thinking. It is of course easy to dwell on our personal failings as a parent. When a child calls and the phone call ends, you wonder to yourself, “Did I give them what they need? Was I enthusiastic to their purpose? Am I being a good father to them?”
Those questions surface more frequently in absence of the mother that raised them. I know they miss their mother because she was superb at saying the right things when they called. I listened to hundreds of conversations over the years. Her attention to their needs was superb.
But these questions exist whether someone is alive or gone to another place. All it takes is a missed phone call in this life to get behind in our relationships. While modern technology is great, and we see each other on Facebook and catch up by phone when we can, there is a strange back-pressure that comes from so much attenuation to communication. If you’re not careful, the pressures of communication can become an undertow. That’s true for all of us, and with everyone.
It’s important as a father to remember that your family needs their own space as well. So much of my own children’s upbringing was done by other adults and friends in life that I cannot claim all the facets of their character as my own. Those summers that my son spent over at a friend’s house building forts and beating each other up with floats in a tiny pool were critical in the formation of his personality. A father simply cannot provide all that input. That friendship. That love. It has to come from other sources too. The same goes for my daughter and those concert trips with her friends. It’s not the same if your father’s standing around at a concert. That has to be experienced on your own, and with your own community.
I do know that many parents struggle to know their full roles. When I encouraged my daughter as a teenager to invite the bands she’d met at concerts to crash at our house overnight during a tour, it was not always with permission of my wife.
Yet I knew the importance and resonance of that connection because where else in the world would you encounter such amazing people in a close circumstance?
The morning she woke up to find a fantastic group of musicians sitting around her bedroom singing and playing guitar could never be replicated again. Later she leveraged her musical connections to recruit the group Goldhouse to play at her graduation party. The band was about to embark on a concert series called Warped Tour. Their set was polished and when the first notes of the first song rocked through our oversized basement with 60+ people crammed into that space, people shrieked in amazement. My son turned to me in wonder and joy, shouting, “Ohhhh Myyyy Godddddd!” It was fantastic. And it was ours to share with our friends and the world.
It is our job as parents and especially fathers to support our families any way we can. Yet it was the morning after a long drive down to Illinois State University that made me realize the ultimate role of a father. We had left late the night before because my son was involved in a school play. Leaving at 10 p.m., we made it to the Interstate just as a deep fog settled over central Illinois. As the fog thickened, my son nodded off in the seat beside me. I focused on the tail light ahead of me for a couple hours until we pulled into the hotel parking lot. I turned to him and asked, “Were you at all nervous about the fog?”
“I decided to go to sleep,” he said matter-of-factly. “I figured if I woke up dead it didn’t matter.”
We chuckled about that and piled into the hotel to catch a few hours of sleep. He was excited to rise early and join his friends for the student state government convention he’d been invited to attend. We exchanged quick greetings and a partial hug. Then he walked confidently down the hall without turning back. I watched him go and realized that I’d helped raise a reasonably confident son. That made me proud. Yet is also made me feel alone. That’s fatherhood in a nutshell.
It hasn’t been easy for our family in a number of ways over the years. Yet my children have told me that they appreciated the stability and love found in our home. As parents perhaps we were sometimes a little too lenient in making them do chores. Yet our children were involved in positive things that occupied their time. There was plenty of time in life to learn chores it seemed. Many times they’d come home to tell of us some onerous task they’d just done for someone else’s parents. We’d laugh and confess, “Well, at least they’re learning responsibility somewhere.”
In the wake of my wife’s death I elected to begin dating and have been in a relationship now for two years with a woman named Sue that appreciates the legacy of my wife and respects my children. I try to do the same for her. Now her daughter is an intern with the magazine where my daughter is managing editor. We are an evolving family. Our lives have converged and convened in positive ways. We spend time together with my mother-in-law and other relatives. My wife’s best friend confided to me last year that my wife said she knew that I would date after she was gone. I thanked that friend for sharing that insight. This is not about forgetting my late wife. It is about companionship and love and supporting each other and our families.
It troubles me sometimes that so many people fail to grasp the value of loving relationships wherever they occur. This obsessive absorption with the idea of a “traditional family” is so lame and disaffecting it should be trampled underfoot by the crowd of people truly seeking love in this world. Aren’t we all sick and tired of the loss of love in this world? Can’t we dispense with the angry ideology that emanates from this selective reading of the Bible and its ugly byproducts.
After all, it was the literalistic approach to scripture that was used to justify slavery for years, and racial discrimination for the century after that. Long ago it generated crusades over faith and then helped lead to the death of millions of Jews through anti-Semitism. The rigid practice of patriarchal faith still foments a disturbingly immature view of women as property. Biblical literalism fuels an ignorant brand of politics that denies science and the educational process that goes with it. In the face of so much ignorant history why do we still even listen to people whining about “traditional marriage” based on a religious view that is clearly anachronistic and damaging to society?
Parenting skills and simple tools
Into this social void we wade… while wondering what the next generation will bring. Some people seem to worry that this generation of children is irresponsible and somehow lacking in important social skills. As a father that has met dozens of my children’s Millennial friends, I do not share that worry. I know their character because they helped raise my own children. I see great hope in a generation that cares not what race a person is. I see love in the fact that they don’t care if someone is gay or not. I (somewhat radically it appears) think this generation of so-called Millennials has an etiquette and a respect for self and others that older generations are simply failing to grasp.
For example, I know now to occasionally text my son or daughter if I’m going to call them. Why? Because it’s not always appropriate to answer you cell phone, but you can handle a quiet text to call later. If they’re occupied I don’t get voice mail. And quite often they’re occupied with other tasks and cannot take a call. There’s no imposition there.
That might seem like an affront to some. But as a father I look at it from a completely different perspective. I respect my children as well as love them. It simply makes sense to try to understand their social constructs and not impose mine on them. As a society we seem to have migrated toward this world where holding people at a disadvantage is considered something of a power chip and a point of pride. But it’s the wrong kind of pride. Barking about how millennials are poorly trained and communicate differently is not a sign of maturity. It is a sign of emotional immaturity and selfishness.
The right kind of pride is taking the time to examine why people react the way they do to the demands of social pressure, communications and opportunity. I think Millennials have evolved a patent way to accord each other respect. It’s the blunderbuss of a generation that complains about entitlement and then acts like they’re entitled to have everyone do things their way or the Old-Fashioned Way that is hopelessly out of touch. But that’s no surprise in a society where Winner-Take-All is now the social style of both politicians and the religious. It’s no wonder Millennials are running from politics and the church. Would you stick around to listen if people were sending their message in ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME?
Father’s Day lessons
It seems the real lesson we need to learn on something so familiar as Father’s Day is this: parenting is not a one-way street. It’s a partnership and a revelation as well as a responsibility.
The ultimate vision of a Father is that of God. And if we’re wise we also recognize that God doesn’t just want obedience and contrition from the human race. There’s a relationship there as well. God the Father, if that’s how you prefer to visualize the ultimate form of love, is basically wondering how we’re doing. He wants to know. Sometimes it’s the smallest moments and the smallest things that matter. If you cease paying attention and miss those, then life is not so abundant as you might like.
And that’s the real message of Father’s Day.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, Character, Caregiving and Community, which chronicles the journey of his family through cancer survivorship. It is available on Amazon.com.
In my late 20s I visited the classroom of my eldest brother who was an English teacher for 30 years. He invited me to come talk about writing and marketing. He taught at a private school serving disadvantaged students. The institution was funded by a very large corporation where a nickel from every dollar of profit was dedicated to the school.
My brother was a masterful teacher with methods honed by years of working with students in the classroom. He was rightfully proud of all that he had learned about how students learn best. Many of his students returned years later to thank him for his contribution to their lives.
But I came into his classroom thinking I knew a few things about teaching myself. After all, my mother was a teacher for 20 years in the public school system. My late wife was a teacher for LD and BD students at a high school, and later moved to a preschool where she taught Pre-K.
For an hour I led my brother’s classroom in a lecture and discussion. Only it was more me talking than them. By the time the hour was over, exhaustion had taken over. I was spent.
My brother issued a soft chuckle and told me to sit down for the next class. “Let me show you how it’s done,” he whispered. From that point he opened discussion with a few questions and let the students talk. He responded to their answers with even more questions. My brother only talked when necessary for instruction. The kids were learning through their own impetus and eagerness to learn.
There’s an art and a science to teaching. Some of my best friends served as teachers in a nearby public school system for 30 years. One of them earned the State Teacher of the Year Award. Another earned the Golden Apple award from their district. They both taught in the same school, often side by side, working with 4th graders. Their teaching methods were a combination of curriculum-guided instruction and well-considered creative learning strategies. They were the best imaginable teachers.
They recently retired a bit frustrated by how little control they had over their teaching methodologies. Federal programs like No Child Left Behind left them “teaching to the test” rather than teaching kids to learn.
Ready for life
My late wife taught at a Christian preschool that focused on the importance of socialization for the child. That started as young as two years old and continued all the way through the Pre-K program where children learned the basics of being ready for school. In other words, that foundational learning perspective was about much more than the classroom. It was teaching kids about how to be ready for life.
We’ve all seen those memes where people claim “Everything I need to know about the world I learned in kindergarten.” Respect others. Share. Don’t pick your nose in public. Right. And so on.
So it distresses me when I hear people attacking teachers like they’re lazy or earn too much. Because what’s more important, paying a teacher a fair wage for 12 hour days (and that’s typically a minimum) or paying some pro baseball player $20M a year when he has a lifetime 116-67 pitching record. Those are real facts. The dude hasn’t even won twice as many times as he’s lost and he’s being paid $20M a year.
Value of teaching
Teachers perform such vital functions for society. And yes, there are bad teachers out there. I’ve had a few of them, including one who told me that I’d fail his class because a cross country runner like me had once accidentally spit on his shoe during a race on campus. “You’re going to have a tough time in this class,” he warned.
Bad apples are everywhere. They can damage people. But that’s the point here. Only by recognizing and rewarding the best teachers can we encourage the best types of individuals to enter the classroom. Because teaching is about more than the classroom. It’s about knowing how to learn first, and then sharing that with others.
As I learned while standing up in front of that classroom years ago, it’s not about hearing yourself talk. It’s about hearing what others think, and helping them do more of that. Teaching is about far more than the classroom, and it seems like too many Americans have never learned that lesson at all. Now that I’m out giving talks about my book, it is important to remember that people don’t only want to listen. They want to be heard as well. Often the important discussions take place after the real teaching is through. Because teaching is about more than the classroom.
The art of living
A year ago I was invited to teach one of those live painting classes where wine is served and people copy another artist’s work. Rather than choose some cheesy image I insisted we paint copies of the Andrew Wyeth painting known as Christina’s World. The people in the class started to freak out because it looked so austere and difficult. The panic got worse when I told them to first coat the canvas in bright red paint. Then we scuttled it over in green. And things turned brown. With the addition of a thin glaze of yellow the canvas started to look like a grassy hill. And that’s when the lights went on in all their heads.
We moved from a moment where everyone thought they would fail to a point where everyone knew they could succeed if they took a risk and followed along. By the end everyone had created a passable image of the Wyeth painting and more than one commented, “I never thought I could do this.”
That’s the real role of a teacher in this world. Helping people achieve things they never thought possible. And that’s the right kind of pride.
Christopher Cudworth is the author of the book The Right Kind of Pride on Amazon.com, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and meeting life’s challenges with practical and inspired purpose. This blog is in keeping with the philosophies of that book. Please give this a FOLLOW!
For many years a beautiful ceramic hung on the wall of our kitchen. It featured an elegantly composed design of grapes and vines. The wall on which it hung was the entryway to the basement. We looked at that grape ceramic every day and walked by it perhaps 1000 times over the years.
The pocket door that led to the basement had a broken latch. It was therefore hard to pull it out from the wall. In fact that door had not been closed in nearly five years. Every time I tried pulling it out there seemed to be something stopping it. The door felt stuck.
Finally curiosity forced me to take a closer look at how the door worked, and why it seemed so stuck. Using an LED flashlight, I shone the beam between the wall and the pocket door. The mystery was solved.
When we hung that ceramic on the wall the nail had pierced the wall and embedded its point in the surface of the door. It basically nailed the door in place.
I took the ceramic down and pulled the nail out of the door. The pocket door easily slid out of the wall.
We had a good laugh thinking about the many times I had tugged and tried to get that door to work. We’d assumed the problem was insufficient leverage from the broken latch.
That wasn’t it at all. It took a look inside the door to figure out the simple solution to the pocket door problem.
There are quite a few things like that in life. We imagine things holding us back or keeping us stuck in place. Usually the solutions are much simpler than we’ve taught ourselves to think. Slowing down and actually taking a look at the situation can often reveal the answer to our inner questions, those things that make us doubt ourselves or make us too proud to question our self-perceptions. Little flaws can cause our whole world to stick.
It’s always worth a second look.
Christopher Cudworth’s book The Right Kind of Pride features insights on how to face life’s challenges and make the most of life’s opportunities. It’s available on Amazon.com. This blog continues the vein of thoughts and insights gleaned from 8 years of cancer survivorship and all that it taught and wrought.
Sorting through the real truths of the Bible takes work. Some people work instead to promote truths that support either their desires, their fears or their source of earthly power, including wealth and the position it buys you society. It’s a challenge to understand that balance.
Painting by Christopher Cudworth of Chicago skyline with peregrine falcon.
As a very young artist I was fortunate to receive a series of commissions from a man who would go on to earn great wealth. At the time I met him, he was in the early throes of a vision that led to one of the top investment trust companies in America. A decade or more later he sold his firm to a larger entity for a profit of $400 million dollars.
For a short period of a couple years I worked for that company. That was a strange experience in some ways. The man who founded the company was also a zealous Christian fundamentalist. He formed several churches during his life. At times it was rumored that he wrote the sermons himself, critiquing the pastors he hired to deliver them.
With his growing wealth he accumulated a collection of some…