Updated: Jan 19
When my 15-year-old son, Keith, was a rising 10th grader, I thought he should have learned to employ and master important life skills I had taught all his life. I found myself going through the same admonishments over and over again. “Keith, brush your teeth. Keith, did you take a shower? Keith, eat your food. Keith, do your homework…. ok, check your homework…. now it would be helpful if you would turn your homework in. Keith, clean your room……Keith….” I sounded like a broken record. In fact, I recorded his lacrosse coach’s closing season comments to him. “Keith, eat your vegetables and drink protein drinks over the summer so you can gain some weight.” At least I won’t have to keep saying that repeatedly.
My parents, especially my father, had unreasonably high, over-the-top expectations to succeed beyond the achievements of the previous generations, despite whatever real-life barrier we faced. I remember the absolute intolerance for poor/less that optimal academic performance. I hated report cards because mine were never good enough. Once I made two A’s, one B and one C. My father said, “Next time the C needs to a B, the B needs to be an A, and the two A’s need to be double A’s.” Yes, it was possible to make an AA grade in my high school, and my father thought that I should have AAs or A’s in every class.
Then there was dinner time. Nobody ever taught my father that dinnertime should be an enjoyable experience filled with supportive family conversation about non-controversial topics. Instead of lovely chatter about the weather or an exciting upcoming event, our dinner conversation revolved around…. wait for it…..what happened at school today? Or what do you think about (insert latest controversial issue)? Naturally, I was silly enough to try to engage Daddy in debate or intellectual conversation. The result was a lecture on why I had no business listening to, observing, or participating in whatever I was dumb enough to tell him happened at school that day. Then, for instance, there was the time I tried to instruct him about the virtues of the Black Panthers and necessary violent political revolution against the neo-colonialist fascist racist government we are forced to live in. That was a mistake! I think dinner lasted forever that night. And God help you if you split a verb or dangled a participle. You could end up reciting grammar rules well into the night. Speaking of rules – he had one for everything; how to act and how not to act; what to say and what not say; where to go and where not go; who to socialize with and who to avoid. I could write a book about Daddy’s rules. I tell you; it was a repressive environment. How I survived to lament to you about it is a mystery and a miracle.
When I went to college, I felt like a prisoner set free. No one has ever been happier to be away from somewhere as I was when my parents released me to Chatham College. Footloose and fancy free is a great place to be. I relished my freedom from the rules. Woohoo! I was a political science major and education minor. As part of my teacher training, I taught English to adult students in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, PA. My job was to prepare students for the GED test. All those dinner table grammar lessons came in handy. Twice each week I would take the bus to and from the community center. Getting back to campus was the hardest part because the buses didn’t run as frequently after rush hour and I had to walk up the long dark hill to campus from the bus stop. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the teaching experience. I had a small class. They were eager to learn. An older gentleman was my star student. He sat near the front of the class and answered every question correctly. I rewarded him with warm smiles and the proverbial, “very good”.
The students gave me a wonderful thank you card and a small gift at the end of the semester. I thought the gesture was sweet. When the last class was over, the old man rushed to my side to announce that he had a special gift for me. I would have to come outside to receive it. I gathered my things and followed him out of the building. There parked in front of the community center under the bright street light was a shiny 1968 canary yellow Dodge Charger. “Here are the keys” he said. “It’s my son’s car but he is in Vietnam. I worry about you riding the bus so late at night. You can drive it. All you have to do is go downtown and get it registered in your name. Here, I already signed the papers over to you.” “What?” I said. “You’re giving me a car for nothing?” “Sure. I just want to see you sometime…you know…we could go out to dinner.” I couldn’t believe it. The old man was trying to pick me up. I first thanked him for his generosity with his son’s car, and then apologized that I couldn’t accept such a gift. “Why?” he questioned. “Because my daddy did not send me to college with a car and he knows that I can’t afford a car on my $100/month allowance from home. He didn’t send me to college with a car and he better not find out that I have one.” “Well don’t tell your daddy,” he advised. “Sir you don’t know my daddy and trust me you don’t want to meet him if you give me this car. Thanks, but no thanks.”
I told this story to my husband and he had this to say. “Vernease, your father’s provision of a strong family life; his high expectations; the availability of opportunities to improve your life skills; the consistent system of rewards and punishments; and the constant monitoring of your activities by your parents, all worked together to create resiliency in your life. Your father and all his demanding pressures served as protective factors which you should stop resenting and come to appreciate as a blessing in your life. The repressive upbringing you describe made you resilient against old men with free cars. You should be grateful. Much of your success should be credited to your dad. And, by the way, you are just like him.” “Really” I wondered.
“Keith, get off that game and get to your homework…. did you hear me? I’m not going to say it again. And you better have that room cleaned up…. it’s time to take a bath and get to bed. You have school in the morning!”
Resiliency…. You have it or you don’t. Thanks to Vernon and Louise Herron, I think I’ve got it. How are your kids doing?