The Second Day of School

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(written 3/23/2003, for Danny’s 7th birthday)

How many parents remember their child’s second day of kindergarten more clearly than their first? For parents who sent a child off to school for the first time in the fall of 2001, this may be the case. I know it is with me.

Typically, it is the first day of school that is etched so permanently into our minds. Parents harbor secret dreams and put forth high expectations as they try to combat separation anxiety and their fear of the unknown.   They do this as they try to shake the sense that time marches by much too quickly.

My son Danny’s first day in kindergarten was marked with all of these emotions. When I close my eyes, I can still replay our hug just inside the school door as I dropped him off. Before he turned away, I kissed his hand, a parting ritual from a favorite picture book of his. It was Danny’s way of knowing that if he needed reassurance during the day, he could get it simply by touching his hand to his face.

He didn’t know it, but I watched him for a while after we parted. I watched him to make sure he found friends in the crowd, to make sure he settled in, to make sure he was happy, to make sure he was safe. I was lingering because I wanted to soak up everything. I was letting my son go, in more ways than one, that day. It seemed like our lives had irreversibly changed. As I drove away that sunny fall morning, I hoped for the best and thought, “He’s going to be okay.”

And he was. He absolutely loved his first day of school. His future never seemed brighter.

Just a day later, though, I wasn’t so sure.  Danny’s second day in school was September 11th.

We didn’t know it at the time, but his first day of school was also the last day of what we would know as normal. I went from hope for my son to despair for our world within twenty-four hours. Looking back, two years later, his second day of school is the day I remember most.

Much has been written about the impact of that day. I spent most of it grieving for those lost in the terrorist attacks, as we all did. I spent part of the day pondering the momentous nature of things that suddenly and swiftly were changing my son’s world. I remember thinking that Danny would grow up in a world totally different than the one I had been raised in just a generation ago.

After leaving work on the afternoon of September 11th, I met my wife and kids at our friend Betsy’s house. It was comforting to be with family and friends after spending my working hours dazed and confused and scared. Betsy had a daughter starting kindergarten too, and we fell into a conversation about what the world was like when she and I had started school.

I lamented the fact that the world had deteriorated so much in those thirty years. I imagined our world as a much more peaceful one back then. I thought the good old days were gone, and I figured they were never coming back.

It was difficult not to get caught up in the doom and gloom. There was a sense that nothing good could come to Danny’s generation now. An absolute darkness had gathered at the edges of their existence. Unspeakable fear and anxiety would now tarnish everything they knew. I was convinced that Danny would be raised in a world filled with fear, terror, hatred and mistrust.

Two weeks before I entered kindergarten in the fall of 1969, the sixties came to a symbolic close with the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in Bethel, New York. I thought of the sixties a lot in the days that followed September 11th, as I longed for the simpler, more peaceful world of my youth.

But as I began to look closer and closer at the reality of my early school years, I found myself losing my rose-colored glasses for the past. And at the same time, thankfully, the pessimism I held for Danny’s future disappeared as well.

When I looked for events other than Woodstock to serve as a context for 1969, what I found wasn’t all peace, love, and understanding. The half-million concert goers in the dairy fields of upstate New York were not the only youth in the news at the time. Less than a week before Woodstock, the Manson Family committed the Tate-LaBianca murders in Los Angeles. Later on that year, and farther up the coast, a young rock fan was murdered by a member of Hell’s Angels at the Stones’ concert in Altamont. And half a world away, half a million U.S. troops waged war in Vietnam.

My prior thinking had been short sighted and flawed.  Was I really a more loving kindergartener when I focused on the huge crowds gathered in the name of peace, love and music a couple hundred miles from my elementary school? What if I had considered the kindergarten class of 1969 within the context of the hateful crimes that took place in California during the latter half of that year? Would that approach have made us seem like a more violent bunch of five year-olds?

I realized that my thinking was just as skewed when I first considered the impact of September 11th on my son. Was his elementary school suddenly filled with fear and hatred because terrorists enacted their awful plans in nearby New York City? Did the terrorists who attacked the United States doom his generation to death, despair and destruction?

In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, as I projected my adult fears onto my son’s future, it was difficult for me to think otherwise. But my close inspection of history in the weeks that followed helped me to see things more clearly. And in the months since then, it’s helped me keep my adult worries from affecting my son’s worldview.

If I grew up happy and content in a less than perfect world, then I know my son can too. In the end, I hope that Danny and his friends in the kindergarten class of 2001 are no more personally affected by the events of September 11th and the war on terrorism than I was by the war in Vietnam.

And here we are today, with the United States waging war in Iraq. I believe that all is not lost, though. When it’s dark enough, you can see the stars, as the saying goes.

It doesn’t matter that the events of Danny’s second day of school will stick with me more vividly than those of his first. It is the very brightness of that first day that will forever cut through the darkness of the second.

So…what can we do to help Danny’s generation face the future in these uncertain times?  I think we should do exactly what we did on their first day of school: focus on our dreams, put forth high expectations, help them feel settled, happy, and safe. Try not to dwell too long on our anxieties and fears.

All we can really do is hope for the best, help them find friends in the crowd, and keep right on thinking, “They’re going to be okay.”

 

My Dad, the Renaissance Man

Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well. – Voltaire

This past Thursday, the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany held a Bloomsday celebration of James Joyce’s modernist novel, Ulysses. My wife’s cousin Meg organized the event, and asked Nell and me to be two of the twelve readers that night. I wish I had planned ahead and invited my dad to Albany to be in the audience. He would have loved the humor and wordplay in the selections that were read. Hearing Joyce’s words read aloud this week gave me a chance to realize just how funny Ulysses is.

I’m not sure if my father knows it, but one of the many things he’s taught me is that the more you know and learn, the more humor and enjoyment you can find in life. Dad introduced me to the humor of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the early 1970s. I’d laugh at the obvious slapstick humor in their TV show, but I’d need my father’s help to understand and appreciate the historical and political humor on the show.

Until a week ago, I had never read any Joyce. Practicing my lines for the performance was my introduction to his work.  I clearly remember copies of Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Finnegan’s Wake on my father’s bookshelves when I was a child. My dad loves classic literature and is a devoted history buff. I remember browsing his shelves, marveling at the dense, lengthy tomes and wondering how he could actually enjoy reading them. But I’ve come a long way, thanks to my dad. I just requested Ulysses from the library and I can’t wait to talk to him about it the next time we’re together.

A love of reading and an appreciation for the humor that surrounds us are but two of the many gifts my father has given me over the years. Father’s Day seems like an appropriate time to share a few more of my dad’s lessons and gifts.

Dad taught me that your job title doesn’t define you.

Dad decided to go to work for his own father in the family heating oil and coal business in the 1950s. He ran the business for years after my grandfather died. But that’s not all that he did. It’s what my dad chose to do beyond his workday that defines him, in my opinion.

I always had the feeling that there probably weren’t many men that sold and delivered heating oil during the day and then came home and chose to relax by reading the plays of William Shakespeare and the novels of Charles Dickens. And he doesn’t just read for his own enjoyment, he lives to perform the written word, too.

In his forties and fifties, Dad acted in community theater in my hometown of Caledonia and in nearby Rochester, NY. He would often gain the role of the villain – he was Jud Fry in Oklahoma and Bill Sykes in Oliver – and I would marvel at how he could memorize lines and play these roles to the hilt. He would star in musicals and yet he was not a strong singer. He had a way of menacingly talking his way through the lyrics of the songs his evil characters sang.

He was a lector at Sunday mass at St. Columba’s Church for decades. He was a devoted volunteer reader at Reach Out Radio, a radio station for the blind in Rochester.

Even as a little league umpire for all the years that my brother John and I played, Dad was a performer. He could turn a “SAFE!” call for a close play at home plate into interpretive dance and make a third strike call last several seconds and stretch an octave. And he is a storyteller. One of the best. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being in a bar or at a party with my father as he holds court, you know what I mean.

Dad taught me to be an artist, and he taught me to love and appreciate the artistic talents of others.

As a child I remember my dad creating wall art in the form of a gigantic tic-tac-toe board. It hung above our mantel for years. It was right out of a Warhol exhibit. He and Mom made vases that were on display in our living room.

Dad is a gifted and funny writer. I still have letters he typed on his old Smith-Corona in his basement office and mailed to me in college. They are filled with whimsical and witty observations of the small town life I was missing out on when I was away. As the record keeper for their monthly couples bridge group, Dad was not content to simply compile the stats. He created monthly reports adorned with cover art that spoofed the films and TV shows of the day and wrote hilarious narratives of the evenings’ card playing and socializing.

My father loves British history. When I think of my dad, I am reminded of a quote that is often attributed to Winston Churchill. As the story goes, when Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in Great Britain in favor of the war effort, he simply replied, “Then what are we fighting for?”

That’s my dad. He stands in awe of the artistic talent of others. He is a film buff, a theater fan, and the most voracious reader I know. I think what he is most moved by is the individual performances of others…actors, singers, musicians. He’ll be moved to tears while watching YouTube videos of opera singers on Ukraine’s Got Talent and gets choked up watching his friends’ grandchildren in the local high school’s plays.

Dad taught me the DIY ethic.

Thinking back on my dad’s artistic talents and endeavors, I see that he didn’t let not knowing how to do something stop him. He just figured out what needed to be done and created his own art. He learned from the performers he admired, took risks, stepped out on stage and just did it. Better to stand under the lights and go for it, rather than to never even try. Enthusiasm and energy and devotion to your art can carry you far.

I know I’ve got a lot of my dad in me. I became a teacher at the age of thirty-two after failing to find meaningful work for ten years. I didn’t know what kind of a teacher I’d be, but I knew that taking the risk to find out was better than a lifetime of not knowing. I teach English and struggle with creating my own writing.

And at the age of 49, I became a drummer at the urging of one of my friends, an amazing guitarist. Andy had been pushing me for years to buy a drum set so we could start a neighborhood band with two other friends. Three years ago, we did it. One of my proudest moments was playing a local show with my mom and dad in attendance. It was outdoors in May, but the temperature was in the forties. Dad commented to one of my friends, “It’s freezing outside, but I’m warm inside watching these guys play.”

Dad taught me that the arts bring us together.

This spring, I was part of a group of teachers that participated in a challenge to post their own writing online every day in the month of March. It was an amazingly difficult, but ultimately rewarding and enjoyable experience. The group is structured so that all of the writers also provide feedback and support for each other throughout the month-long challenge. I loved and needed their feedback and encouragement, and I also appreciated the support I got from my parents. They’ve always been my biggest fans.

My mom and dad faithfully read my daily posts and supported my writing efforts. At one point, Dad told me that my daily blog posts certainly gave him and my mom a reason to wake up every morning. I didn’t realize that’s how Dad was starting each of his mornings in March.

But with the demands of my teaching job and the business of daily life, I found that I couldn’t continue writing at that pace. I stopped completely. For a few weeks, my dad would ask if I was working on anything, but after hearing “no” each time, he eventually stopped asking.

As of today, though, there are only four more days left in the school year and my mind is freeing up. Today’s tribute is the first thing I’ve written in weeks.

So…good morning, Dad! I’m back.

Happy Father’s Day.

On April 4th

Image       Os hat in snow

As predicted a few days ago, it snowed yesterday.  On April 4th.  There were car accidents, traffic delays, and evening activities canceled at schools. Pretty much everybody forgot what winter was like.  Our winter was so mild this year, I can see why.  April came in like a lion, not March.

I was struck by some of the juxtapositions of the day:

  • My principal sweeping snow off teachers’ cars because many of us had long since put our snow brushes and ice scrapers into storage. On April 4th.
  • MLB games getting snowed out on the east coast.
  • Watching the NCAA National Championship men’s basketball game deep into the night and wondering if I’d luck out and have a snow delay on the first day of NYS ELA Exams the next morning.
  • Smelling tulips in our kitchen as I rallied my kids to shovel snow for an hour when we got home from school. On April 4th.

It snowed yesterday.

I’ll remember the tulips.

 

Here Comes the Sun

 

Today is the first day of April, and the sun is shining bright.  I captured these photos this afternoon after it stopped raining.  As I walked around the house and yard, it was easy to see where the sun was casting shadows.  The sun could not be ignored.

Speaking of casting shadows, the forecast this weekend is calling for winter-like cold and there is the distinct possibility that it will snow on Sunday and Monday.  It’s April Fool’s Day today, and the forecast is calling for snow.  No joke.

Rather than dwelling on the forecast, I am choosing to focus on the sunlight in these photographs.  It may disappear for a few hours, but I know that it will come back stronger in the days to come.

 

 

End of March, But Still Marching On

Today is the last day in March, and it’s the last day in the Slice of Life Challenge for 2016. I am going to post another writing piece tomorrow since I started a day late on March 2nd, but today is the big finish for most of this year’s slicers.

For two years, I ignored the emails I received from Two Writing Teachers. Two whole years. This winter, I told myself things would be different. As February wound down, I thought more and more about joining in and accepting the challenge to write every day in March. March 1st snuck by on me, though, and in a fit of frustration and creative energy on the morning of the 2nd, I created a blog and wrote my first post.  And now, I’ve done it.  Well, almost.  I’ll finish my 31st consecutive day of writing on April Fool’s Day, instead of today. No foolin’.

This month has been remarkable. One of the things that proved to be a revelation for me was how motivating it is to know that there are readers out there, readers that are willing to provide support and feedback about my writing.  To read the blogs of other slicers on a daily basis was just as motivating for me – there, I saw my models, and I learned from my mentors.  In just four short weeks, I’ve gone from saying I was a writer, to believing that I am a writer. The daily habit of writing can do this to you. The daily support of other writers can do this to you.

I have dabbled as a writer for years. The writer’s notebooks I’ve kept in the past are evidence of that.  I drew on the entries within them from time to time throughout this month of writing.  My notebooks also serve as a type of commonplace book, which became popular in 17th century Europe. They’re essentially scrapbooks filled with knowledge of every kind, among them quotes and excerpts from the books I’ve read.

As I worked my way through the highs and lows of my month of daily writing, I thought about how I could summarize my experience and also thank family members, friends, and writers that have supported me with their comments and with their blogs.  Don DeLillo’s books came to mind. I tracked down some excerpts I had copied down as I read White Noise, his novel from 1985. And I found some excerpts from Falling Man, his novel about 9/11 that I read in 2007.

Both excerpts speak to my experience with the SOL writing community this March:

But there were a thousand high times the members experienced, given a chance to encounter the crossing points of insight and memory that the act of writing allows.

They laughed loud and often.

They worked into themselves, finding narratives that rolled and tumbled, and how natural it seemed to do this, tell stories about themselves.

– from Falling Man

 

In the commonplace I find unexpected themes and intensities.  

 

What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation.

– from White Noise

 

I am looking forward to writing and reading slices on Tuesdays throughout the rest of the year.

 

Four Writers

Tonight, in my family, four writers are at work.

Jimmy is writing, pencil on paper, an essay for his application to get into an advanced technology class in 8th grade. When asked to describe himself on the application, he mentions the sports he plays, his older brother and sister, and his dog. He says he loves music and that he plays the drums. I suggested he omit the part about how the zebra is his favorite animal, but that’s his call. He’s working at the kitchen table, next to his backpack, some lacrosse gear, and a few dirty dishes.

Maggie is upstairs in “The Apartment” (her bedroom), working on my Chromebook as she writes a response to an AP US History DBQ assignment on World War I. She is trying to document and explain how World War I caused the Great Depression and World War II. If she writes it up as well as she explained it to me earlier, then she’ll do a great job on the DBQ.

Nell is in the living room, on the couch, writing on her laptop. HGTV’s Property Brothers provides a perfect level of background noise. She’s a literacy coach at her elementary school and she’s finishing up her monthly newsletter to parents. The column she’s working on provides ways parents might motivate reluctant readers.

The fourth writer in the family is miles away, in his dorm room. Dan is working on a case study for a public relations class on the Navy’s responsible drinking campaign, Keep What You’ve Earned. He also just finished up a paper on the theme of power in playwright Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, How I Learned to Drive.

No…Make That Five

Now I can add my name to the list of family members writing. I’m at the desktop computer near the kitchen listening to Explosions in the Sky on the Soundtrack to Friday Night Lights. After struggling to find something to write about tonight, I zoom in on the four writers in my family. No…make that five.

Waiting on Opening Day

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Spring is but nine days old and there are only six more days until Opening Day.  I love this time of year.

We had a fairly mild winter this year, and for the first time that I can remember, we had zero snow days, not even a delay.  The promise of green grass on baseball diamonds each April is one of the things that gets me through our typically harsh upstate New York winters.  Even though I only shoveled snow twice this winter, the arrival of Major League Baseball next week will still be a welcome change.

From the time I was little, I loved the game.  I played Little League, Babe Ruth, and then JV baseball.  My baseball playing days ended when I felt like I couldn’t handle the pitching and the big field anymore.  My friends outgrew me, in terms of size and skill, but I never let the game get away from me.

I grew up a Baltimore Orioles fan because their AAA minor league team was based in nearby Rochester, NY.  I went to Red Wings games every year and loved it when the Orioles came to Rochester each summer to play their minor league counterparts.  Driving back home from visits to my Ohio cousins, my dad would time it so that we could go to Cleveland Indians games on those Sunday afternoons.

My dad and my grandmother taught me how to keep score of a baseball game, which we sometimes did while watching the Game of the Week on TV on Saturday afternoons.  I remember my grandmother taking two sheets of graph paper and showing me how to draw the grids for a homemade scorebook.  She was unbelievably patient as she taught me how to draw accurately, write neatly, and fix my mistakes.  My dad was the same way, too, as he taught me about the game.  He was often one of my Little League coaches and he prided himself on being the most knowledgeable, fair, and entertaining umpire in town.

My grandmother knew the nuances of the game and as she taught me the incredibly complicated scoring system, she also began to ingrain in me a deep appreciation for baseball.  She was also teaching me something more, though – that the more we learn about something, and the more we understand it, then the more we will come to enjoy it.

Despite me being in the third generation (and probably more) of baseball fans in my larger family, I am actually the only baseball fan in my house now.  My oldest played baseball through 8th grade, but then switched to playing AAU basketball each spring.  My daughter never played softball, and my youngest switched from Little League to playing lacrosse when he was in 4th grade.  Nell will watch World Series games with me occasionally, but that’s about it.

My own family seems to be representative of the larger picture of baseball in America in the 21st century.  Baseball is dying.  NFL football is America’s game now, and there are so many distractions luring young kids away from sandlots and baseball diamonds that they don’t know a change up from a double steal.

No matter.  In six days, I’ll be driving home from work in the late afternoon listening to the Orioles take on the Twins on the MLB app on my phone.  Hopefully, the sun will be shining, a breeze will be blowing, and the Orioles will be ahead.  Spring has sprung and the baseball season is a long one.   I might even get out some graph paper when I get home that night and listen to the rest of the game.