Tom. Look — I’ve got no thing, no single thing —
Amanda. Lower your voice!
Tom. In my life here that I can call my own!
The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams
I am in high school, junior or senior year, I think, playing pick-up basketball on the concrete court in my yard with several friends and my father.
At some point, I say something wrong to my father as the game heats up, and he slaps me hard across the face — bringing the game to a sudden stop and silence.
I had — as I did more and more often as a late teen — breached the respect line due all adults engrained in me by my father. I had been slapped before walking down the street when I failed to say “yes, sir” to someone we had spoken with in our hometown.
To this day, as reflex, I say “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” to almost everyone, from my students to my peers and always those older than me. To most people, it seems quaint, I am sure, and yet another marker of my very Southern Self.
On balance, however, my father was unflinchingly wonderful to me; my childhood, nearly idyllic — although I have had to cast aside many of the beliefs and practices my father passed onto me.
The iron-fisted authoritarianism of my childhood and teen years harvested the opposite effect intended. To this day, I bristle at all authority, mostly because I recognize in it such crass hypocrisy that I can barely hold my tongue — just as I often could not hold my tongue with my father triggering him to throw me across my bedroom and into the wall even though I was an inch taller then he, triggering him to wrestle me to the ground, pinning me down and demanding that I just not say one more word.
Straining against his weight and strength, I would add: “Word.”
In the wake of the four decades between then and now, I often think about that day I was slapped in front of all my friends. I do not recall it, and cannot make some dramatic claim that the slap still burns on my cheek.
I think about it, often.
During just under thirty years as a father, more than thirty as a teacher, and almost three as a grandfather, I think about that slap as I work moment by moment to be a kinder and more patient human, especially to children, young people, and anyone in my care.
“All we gotta do is be brave/And be kind,” guides me along with “I’m so sorry for everything.”
I urge my teacher candidates to say “please” and “thank you” to their students; I beg them to have higher standards for themselves than for the students in their care — always to walk the walk instead of or before talking the talk.
It is ours to be that which we expect in others, to earn and deserve the respect that my father demanded by default.
And without fail, my teacher candidates report to me that teachers in the field tell them to stop the “please,” stop the “thank you” because children don’t work that way, and often this is code for “those children” — black, brown, poor unlike the teachers embodying the same sort of stoic harshness of my father.
I was well on my way in this journey before the birth of my granddaughter almost three years ago, but that tiny human has accelerated my efforts, and sharpened my resolve.
I have helped with daycare with my granddaughter, Skylar, and now also my grandson, at least once a week throughout her life.
As a toddler, Skylar on those days when we were alone would often take my finger and guide me to the floor. I sat cross-legged, and she would use me as a chair; she would also just as often pull me next to her just to be touching as she played.
She still climbs onto the couch just to be close, taking my hand and guiding it to hold her foot or leaning into my hand as I scratch her tiny head beneath that wild flourish we call her hair.
I am now very conscious that she needs but is also learning about what healthy and promised intimacy means, how it looks and feels.
My granddaughter is also learning about this in the context of how men and women interact. It will be an ongoing journey for her — one about which I am terrified because the world remains a horrible and violent place for children and women.
Skylar, approaching three, also seeks from time to time her privacy, becoming aware that some of human behavior is ours alone, and not the loneliness alone, but the privacy alone.
We know when she hides around the corner or goes to another room, we need to change her diaper, which has also become a delicate matter between her and the people who love her, care for her.
I ask her gently for permission to change her diaper because she hates this necessary act; she is aware of its encroachment on her privacy, her emerging awareness of her physical privacy, her physical spaces that are hers to share or not.
I seek her consent, her understanding that I am a caregiver and simply fulfilling a duty she will be able to do on her own someday.
As I change her, especially as I wipe her, I say over and over, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Skylar has embraced this as well; her sweet refrain, “I’m sorry,” lacing any time she feels she has somehow breached expectations — prompting my always: “It’s ok.”
We talk softly to each other in these exchanges.
Because making mistakes is being a child, being fully human. Who among us is above that?
My dear Skylar, unlike me, has never been and will never be hit by me as a caretaker because this is something unlike my upbringing I have brought to my family, to my daughter’s family.
And so, this becoming fully human child, Skylar, rudders me, will not allow me to ignore the sanctity of intimacy, privacy, and consent.
These, I am resolute, shall not be breached; these remain inviolate.
Because “I’m so sorry for everything.”