A New Profoortalkline.com post. And a good one!
I've been writing a column for ProFootballTalkLine.com. Here's the kicker, if you will. I was hired to write about the New York Giants. But I don't know anything about the New York Giants. I am a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. I have been a Steelers fan since I was 13, which is umm... a whole bunch of years ago.
So, what does a skilled writer and teacher do when they need to write about something that they don't know anything about? They do some research.
Yes, there's that dirty word: research!
It's a word that, in my experience, students despise and run from.
To students, the word "research" means "work". But to a writer in need of a story, "research" equals "not sounding like a total idiot when I write about the New York Giants for a website that caters to hard-core Football fans."
And when you want to know about sports and teams the best resource is young people. I mean, who has the time to follow sports teams, with their daily deals and ins and outs like a kid shuffling school and extra curricular activities?
Okay, so there are some adults who follow sports like religion. In fact, some pray to the god of their favorite teams more fervently than they do in any house of worship.
So I went to the source.
I asked around between kids and parents. I discovered who the young New York Giants football fans were and went for it.
I now have a team of young analysts out there, between the ages of 10 and 16.
I do my own research, of course. but seeking out those who know more than I do makes me look intelligent when I write my own columns.
And as long as I look good, that's all that matters, right?
In all sincerity, I am grateful to the young devoted fans out there. I recall being that dedicated to a team. I recall having a bedroom plastered with posters of my favorite players.
Being a kid is a great thing. You get to be an expert in a topic before life and obligations fractures your focus. So, to all the young fans out there, stay committed for as long as you can.
It's a beautiful thing!
I took a friend and his son to a New York Giants preseason game. My friend and I are long-time Steelers fans. but his son, Jack, is a 10-year-old Giant superfan. The kid has been studying the Giants. At the age of 8, living in a Steeler-nation family, he bravely confessed his Giants allegiance to his parents. These were the early signals of leadership quality.
Since I possessed the tickets, Jack decided that I was a huge football fan. I'm not.
I remember lots of great teams and great plays from when I was a teenager and a Steeler fan, because then, I had the time and the commitment to be a fan.
"I'm gonna pound my shirt when I see Cleveland Brown's fans, Steve," Jack said, wearing his #15, Brandon Marshall shirt from last year's team. "I see any Brown's fans, I'm gonna pound my chest and yell COMMITTED! I'm gonna pound my chest an yell Committed, Steve!"
Jack speaks in a loop until what he is saying is acknowledged.
As we climbed the escalators to the 300 tier he said "I don't think anyone else is wearing a Brandon Marshall shirt, Steve." he looked around and repeated it. "I'm the only one wearing a Brandon Marshall shirt."
When we climbed to our perch in section 332, Jack remarked "these are great seats, Steve. Great seats," and sat down next to me, as far away from his Dad as possible. I would soon find out why.
We took in the stadium in all it's glory. There really wasn't a bad seat in the place. As high as we were, we could see the players on the field and make out what was happening without having to rely on the video screens.
"You think OBJ's gonna have a breakout game, Steve?" Jack was refering to the Giant's colorful star wide receiver, Odell Beckam Jr. OBJ. "I think OBJ's gonna have a breakout game."
"Jack," I said, "this is pre-season. They don't play their stars during pre-season. Teams use pre-season to see who they can use in what situations and to make last cut decisions."
"Yeah, yeah. I know," Jack said. "I just wanna see OBJ have a breakout game."
Here's the thing: Jack is a kid with learning disabilities. School does not come easily to him. At least it didn't. his parent's, who are huge advocates for their children, researched his needs and the barriers he had to being the learner he could be. They got him the services he needed.
Still. Jack was an outsider who did not make friends or fit in easily.
And then he discovered football.
Since joining the football team, Jack has changed. his confidence level shot through the roof. his ability to make himself heard was no longer an issue. And his ability to learn? The kid knows more stats than a Sunday afternoon commentator getting fed his or her info through a monitor or earpiece.
Football gave Jack a purpose. And he's running with it.
The Brown's emerged from their locker room to boos and jeers and a couple of cheers from the bold Brown's fans.
A lovely young woman sang the Star Spangled Banner beautifully.
The crowd applauded.
The coin toss.
"It's Sequon Barkley time!" Jack shouted, referring to rookie running-back sensation. "It's Sequon Barkley time, right Steve? Right? It's Barkley time!" he was bouncing in his seat. "BARKLEY TIME!!"
Sure enough the rookie back carried for a sudden 39-yard romp. Jack was jumping on his seat. Slapping hands with everyone around him and smiling big-time at the Brown's fans sitting close by.
But alas, the opening promise of Giants dominance was short-lived.
And here's where kids are more resilient than the average fan.
Like I said, I'm not much of a football fan. But in Jack's eyes, because I had tickets, I was elevated to the status of UberFan. At least someone he could talk to about the Giants.
Did I mention that I was a Steelers fan?
After Giants starting quarterback, 37 year old Eli Manning, did his thing, backup quartback David Webb entered the game and proceeded to suck in a Giant way, which Jack's Dad was happy to mention.
"Jack, your team needs a backup QB. Manning's got a year left. Maybe two. Maybe. Outside chance."
Jack's dad went to get some snacks and drinks. Jack leaned into me and said, "the Giants are really putting on a shit show, Steve. Aren't they? They're really putting on a shit show."
It was obvious to me how much fun jack was having letting those words roll off his tongue. It's a phrase with built-in alliteration and flow. And the word 'shit.'
"Don't think your Dad wants you to talk like that," I said.
"I know," jack said.
"It's the first pre-season games. They're not going to play their stars. They're looking at what the new players have to offer and what they have to work with. They try out new strategies, test out some new plays. It's not about winning."
"I get it. Can I just say one thing, though?"
"Giants are putting on a real shit show!"
When the game was coming to a close and it became crystal clear that the Giants were not going to win the day, Jack's positive attitude found a way to spin the night.
"At least we're at a football game, right Steve? At least we're at a real football game, Steve."
"You're right, Jack. It's great."
"It is, Steve. It's great."
Great. That a kid with learning issues can find a way to master the content and knowledge of something he loves. That's great!
I love being a teacher.
And I get kids that hate school.
Because I hated school when I was in it.
Couldn't think of anything more pointless.
The world was outside those windows and walls.
There was more happening on the lawn than inside any classroom.
More happening in the bathroom,
in the locker rooms,
on the basketball court,
on the soccer field.
On the streets.
In my house.
That's where life was happening.
I get the kids today who hate school.
And because I get them, because I am honest with them,
they are honest and open with me.
This is what they tell me:
Why do we have to all come to the same building to learn?
Why do we all have to be in the same room? Why can't I sit outside?
Why can't I be in the library while y'all up in here?
Why can't I be... anywhere else?
I can learn from anywhere. Helloo... wifi...
Can't we learn from home?
On a beach?
In a car.
We work from those locations, why can't we learn in those locations?
Why isn't all educational learning personalized? Kids are not robots.
They are not the same.
This is what they tell me:
Why do I have to know math? Why can't math people who love math learn it and I will learn about what I love:
Sustainable Cooking Practices!
Why do I need to know how to write an essay? I'm never going to write an essay.
I'm going to write tweets and posts that will establish my brand and educate the public about the benefits of my vision.
Do I need a topic sentence to do that?
I promise you, my writing will have a topic and a searing focus. It will inform and persuade and I will have the evidence to back it up or my mission will fail.
And I will learn from my mistakes.
Or I won't.
And I'll do something else while someone more passionate and committed than me will complete the mission.
They will build the brand.
They will do the heavy lifting.
They will get it right.
Then I will go to work for them.
Why can't I just learn from my trying and failing?
Why can't I just go out there and do it?
Just let me try.
Just let me try.
Just let me try it!
Just let me... be me.
Good teaching is helping kids follow their passions and become masters of their own interests.
A lot of what teaching is, is knowing when to get out of the way.
While my ADHD 10 year old son was practicing his new favorite activity/sport, rollerblading, I served my own adult ADD by pulling out my phone and downloading a trailer for a new Netflix show entitled Atypical.
We are in the middle of our block. He’s skating, I'm sort-of watching It’s darkening, almost night. Perfect time to watch a trailer on my phone.
Brief synopsis without any spoilers, the show centers around a relatively high functioning autistic or Asperger’s teenager in high school whose sole desire is to have a relationship with a girl.
As I’m watching the trailer my son skates over. He’s a little tired from doing spins and tricks. He catches his breath by resting his arm around me and we watch together. He’s immediately wrapped up in the show's trailer.
Moments later, the main character says, “at some point in my lifetime I want to see boobs.”
My son says, “Dad, I want to see boobs, too.”
“You don’t need to see boobs.”
“Have you ever seen boobs?”
“I don’t want to have this conversation with you right now,” I say, chickening out. “You’re ten.”
“I want to see boobs.”
“You don’t need to.”
“I can if I want to.”
“Doesn’t work that way.”
“Have you ever seen mommy’s boobs?”
“I do not want to talk about this with you,” I say.
“Just tell me!”
“I’m not talking about it!”
“I’ll take that as a No!” he says and skates off triumphantly.
I often experience financial insecurity.
I worry about how I will cover all my bills. I worry about how we will give our kids the best education, repair things when they break, or find the time to concentrate on the work that will improve our lifestyle.
I never seem to have enough money to do or get or buy all the things that I want for my family.
Look closer at the wording in the above lines: "never able to get or buy all the things that I want."
I'm talking about things.
I'm talking about things that I want.
Things are not necessities. And wants are not what we need.
My family has everything that they need. I have everything that I need. It's what we do with what we have that makes the difference.
Similarly, my own inner critic just won't shut up. He - or they, since it seems like a panel of critics at times - perpetually try to convince me that I'm not good enough to do what I want; I don't have the training, I'm not experienced enough, too old, too young, wrong background, etc. From writing a book to fixing a car, to teaching a class, my inner critic tries to convince me to give up before I even start. And when I do start, as soon as something goes wrong - and somethIng usually goes wrong - that critical voice comes screaming from the back of my head saying, "I TOLD YOU SO!!"
I'm a grown man. I have succeeded in many accomplishments. And still, that voice calls out.
Imagine what it's like for kids.
Kids and teenagers go through these same feelings of insecurity. They see what other people have and suddenly feel that what they have isn't good enough. That inexplicably translates - immediately - into feeling that they are not good enough. And voila! - low self-esteem is birthed.
Kids compare themselves to other kids all the time. They see other kids in bigger houses or with nicer, more expensive equipment, or getting tutors and personal coaches. How is an average kid from an average home supposed to compete with a kid who is shuttled from one mentor to another, practice, coaching, games, travel teams, more practice, math tutors, music lessons, tournaments and competitions, and on and on.
And social media does not help at all!
Social media is the place where people get to brag about all the wonderful amazing things they are doing with their lives; snapshots of moments that exclude the failures along the way.
Everybody fails. So why are we so afraid of it?
Kids do not get a chance to be kids today. Is it their fault? Hell no! It's the fault of the parents who think that their kid has to keep up with every other kid, not miss out, lose a step, blow a scholarship opportunity... at 8 years old!
Insecurity is the result of a society that feeds off of achieving greatness and accomplishing goals, without acknowledging the hard work and failures that had to be overcome along the way.
Scholarships and rewards and trophies - they are results. They are not the story.
The first step, the hard work, the desire to quit, the prayers for the inner strength to press on, get back up and keep going - that's the story
Parents focus on the end-game, not the journey. As a society, we are preoccupied with status and so are our kids, as a result. It's the wrong message.
Celebrating the spirit of endurance and hard work - that's the message.
By focusing on each step in our paths we can empower our children to also find pride and confidence in their ability to sustain their effort, to not give up, and to know that they are better than those critical inner voices that want to tell the they're not good enough.
We all have that inner critical voice - some ore than others.
It's just a feeling. It's not real.
And it's not true.
Failure has a bad reputation; but failure is the best teacher.
Be proud of your failures because they are the result of trying to do better.
One of my students this year came from another school. He arrived in January. And immediately, he was trouble. When I say he 'was' trouble, I mean that he embodied trouble; he sought it out; he raced towards it like moths to flame; and he loved it, he loved it, he loved it. he loved the rep it gave him, the status it gave him, the circle of like-minded friends it gave him. If I described him to another student they knew who I was talking about without my even having to say his name, he was that good at building his rep for being trouble, being disrespectful, being that student who just didn't give a shit. And he was proud of it.
Every day he would come into the classroom late. He wouldn't slide in quietly. No, that wasn't good enough for his rep. He would strut in, loudly announcing to another kid in the class the highlights of his day, such as, "Oh, I just got my helmet today!" referring to the day he was introduced to the football team (probably as a last resort. I've never heard of a student carrying a 30% average being allowed to play on a school team) or the day some other kid stepped up to him, or the day he said he was going to throw down outside the school. All kinds of stuff, announced loudly across the room.
Every day that he walked in like that I sent him out with a do-over: "you can come back in respectfully, not disturbing the lesson, or anyone in the class."
And nearly every day, that's the game we played.
Miraculously, this kid could miss half the classes, screw around during class time, never crack a book, fall asleep (which is what he did when he had no one in the class to talk to) but when it came time to take a test on the topic, he would easily score in the 80's and sometimes higher.
I pulled him aside. I told him how smart he was. "You hear things. You are an auditorial learner."
"Huh?" he asked.
"You learn and take in information primarily through what you hear."
"Oh. Yeah," he said, and he kept looking at me. I had his attention. I understood how he learned. Here was a kid who needed to move around and do other things while in the meantime, listen to what was going on and what others were talking about.
"You're certainly not looking at the information. And you never crack a book. You barely pick up a pencil, but you get 80's or higher. Because you learn through what you hear." he was engaged. he was listening. This time, to me.
I designed lessons to provide additional access to the learning through audio. Audible and pre-recorded you tube recordings of books on tape are a great resource. The kid learned. During class discussion his hand shot up. he called out. He didn't understand the etiquette of classroom behavior and respect - didn't get the idea of taking turns - but the kid knew his stuff and didn't have the patience for someone else to come up with it.
But, peer pressure and a school rep is strong when you're 16. His behavior spiraled downward again towards the end of the year, when most kids lose interest. But this guy, he could lose interest in special ways. One day I had to talk to him privately.
"You stopped coming to class."
"And your being disruptive and not doing anything again."
"School's whack, yo. It's stupid. I ain't learning nothin' here."
"You're not learning anything," I corrected him, always the teacher.
"That's what I said!"
"So, what's the plan?"
"What plan?" he asked.
"The plan. What are you going to do? With your life? You're 16. You can work. You can drive. You don't want to come to school, so... what else are you going to do?"
"Oh, you know... I dunno... sell weed. Work. Live with my Mom's."
"You think your mother's gonna let you live on her couch doing nothing? I met her. She will throw your ass outta the house!"
"Naawwhh," he drawled.
"So, you got no education, you're gonna sell weed and do some kind of job. Where does that lead?"
He said it like it was memorized: "Jails... institutions... or dead...."
I nodded, "right. That what'chu want?"
He shrugged it off so I kept going. He was staring at the floor, the walls, anything but at me.
"Hey, tough guy. You disrespect what everybody's trying to do here, but you're not man enough to hold your head up and look me in the eye?"
He lifted his head. Now we were eye to eye. He wasn't as tall as me, but he was muscular and trim. If he wanted to get physical, he'd put up a good fight. I didn't want to think that way, but I had to. You have to when you're dealing with a kid on the edge. They feel like they've got nothing to lose, and that is a dangerous mindset for an opponent.
"What are you waiting for? You got it all planned out. Why are here? You don't need a license to sell drugs. There's no age requirement. You wanna live that life? You think you'll look good in a shit-brown jump suit that says State Prison on it, go ahead. Go for it. But what are you wasting your time for here?"
He didn't answer, but he held my eyes in his. It was a staring contest. And I took the bait.
"Look, I'm not talking to you teacher to student now. This is person to person. I know guys who went the route you're on. And I've been to their funerals. You wanna run the streets? Be a hot shot out there? When you're mother's waiting at home for you? Go for it. But know that you're running into a war zone. Kids like you die every day doing the shit you're glorifying in your head right now. You told me your own old man got shot down dealing on the corner. Just like that dude who came to speak to our school, the one on the crutches. 6 shots in the back. And your old man's crippled for life. And you think this is a fucking path to glory. Are you serious?"
Still, no words from him. Still, he held my eyes. But his nostrils were twitching - a sign he was nervous, maybe even scared.
"I've been there," I said. "I've seen kids arrested. I've been arrested. Cops don't play. It's not a game to them. Your dealing means that someone's kid - someone they know - will be a victim and they will rain hell down on you. They will blame you for every kid that ever died from drugs. And so will the judges. And so will the other inmates who decide that you're good looking enough from behind to satisfy them for the night. And the next. And the next. An the next."
His nostrils were flickering wildly now.
"I'm not trying to scare you, but I am telling you the truth. You are a smart kid! You have gifts that these other kids in there don't have. Some of those other kids try super hard to do well and don't have the natural intelligence that you do. They have to work for it. And they do. Fo you, it comes easy, if you let it." I paused. "What is so bad about success?"
This time I waited for his answer.
"Are you afraid of being smart? Afraid of standing out by doing well in school?"
He shrugged. Looked down at his feet.
"Look at me," I repeated. "You have it all. You've got what it takes. And I will believe in you until you start believing in yourself." To this he nodded.
"Now, I don't expect you to suddenly be super star student, but while you're trying to figure all this shit out, let me do my job. You... just lay low. Keep a low profile. You don't have to figure it out, but think about what you love to do, and then make that your purpose. Maybe that's football. Maybe it's money. You'll know. But don't throw your life away. 'Cause that's just a waist."
Things turned around after that. He laid low. He wasn't intent on causing trouble. He didn't come to class much either. And I could only hope that he wasn't out on the streets trying to deal drugs like his dad did, hoping for a shower of bullets to point him in the direction of motivational speaker.
All I can do is try. But I do know that briefly... briefly... I had him. For a moment, he was listening.
How One Student Mastered Their Own Mindset
Meet Ricksen Opont. He’s a muscular, baby-faced 20 year-old with a soft voice. When Ricksen was in my 7th grade English class, he was a small shy kid who could barely speak for fear of ridicule. Now, Ricksen carries himself with a humble confidence. He has a passion for helping kids find their inner strength and overcome challenges in their life. And it’s no surprise that he’s good at it. He’s been there. And he mastered the mindset to succeed.
Ricksen was born and raised in Haiti where “education was exclusive and expensive…. If you wanted it, you had to pay.” Ricksen’s mother “worked hard so that [he] could have a good education.”
Teachers in Haiti “gave us a list of words every night. Up to 2 or 3 chapters of vocabulary to memorize.”. The next day they had to recite by memory every word. Ricksen recalls, “the number of words we got wrong is the number of times they beat us.”
Ricksen was sent to live with another, wealthier host family where he attended a ‘better’ school. Ricksen visited his mother on weekends. Separation from his mother was hard. He cried as he left her, every time.
At nine years old, his mother put Ricksen on a plane and sent him to live with an older sister and her husband in Florida so that he could ‘get a better life and a better education.’ Ricksen cried the entire trip and many times when he was in Florida. He never felt acceptance in his older sister’s home. He felt unloved much of the time. Feelings of low self-esteem grew in him. He shaved his eyebrows as a signal that he “felt unloved.”
Ricksen’s only language up to this point was the creole patois of Haitian French. Ricksen was terrified to attend an American school. But on his way to his first day of school the phone rang. His mother asked Ricksen if he would rather live with his father, in New York. Ricksen had been in touch with his dad but rarely seen him. Without hesitation, he said yes and headed north.
Ricksen attended elementary school in Nyack, NY as an ESL student - English as a Second Language. Coming from his the strict, discipline-focused schools of Haiti, he was immediately aware of the difference in educational approach that his new teachers offered. “The teacher’s were like totally different than the way I was brought up so I took advantage of that right away. I mean, I was eager to learn,” Ricksen recounts, his eyes looking up and out with fondness. His work ethic helped him “[pick] up English very quickly. Within 5 or 6 months (he) could have a conversation,” even though his grammar still needed work. But he noticed that his teachers “were more concerned making sure that students actually were learning.”
By 5th grade, Ricksen realized that he was a different learner than other kids. “I knew I was capable,” he says, and he wanted it. Badly: “I ask a lot of questions for clarity, then I attack the task. If a teacher helps me get started, then I am good to go,” he says.
Ricksen realized that he did not have to be too dependent on the teacher or anyone else if he knew what to do. All he had to do was ask enough questions to get there. For a shy kid, Ricksen discovered the power of being his own advocate: when in doubt ask.
“One thing I do need,” he said, “is the reassurance of the teacher that I’m going in the right direction.” For Ricksen, the feeling of being unloved at home in his sister’s house, separated from his mother, carried over into the classroom where he craved the acknowledgement that he was okay. He needed validation, and once he had that, he was fine.
“Teachers are so important,” Ricksen points out. “They lift people up. They give kids hope.”
And then, Ricksen entered middle school. “Being from a different culture made me different from other kids,” said. “I got bullied and made fun of because I was from Haiti and for no other reason.”
Ricksen recalls that his lack of self-esteem kicked in because he lacked confidence. He was nervous and shy. Like many kids, he was a “visual and hands on learner.” If he could watch “someone else do it [he could] do it [himself]” or if someone physically walked him through the steps of a task, he could carry on from there.
However, Ricksen “realized he was different [from other students] because he had a good work ethic” and this helped to separate him from the crowd. “I started getting good grades when I applied myself. School and sports helped me escape the bullying and gave me the confidence to deal with other things…. It showed me that I think differently.”
Imagine, just having a good work ethic separated him from his other classmates.
More importantly, a solid work ethic attracted influential teachers, some of whom had a huge impact on Ricksen. His ESL teacher in middle school refused to accept ‘lesser’ as an option. She wanted to “make sure they would be ready for general education classes’ when they left ESL. She was very demanding, but at the same time, very encouraging. The perfect kind of teacher for Ricksen’s learning needs, and a great match for his work-ethic.
In 7th grade, Ricksen entered my English class. He was small and shy. A sweet boy who wanted to please. He sat in the back of the class and often worked alone. And he worked hard. His writing was sparse, but passionate. For a 7th grade poetry assignment all the students had to recite their poem in front of the class. Public speaking is a difficult but necessary skill to learn. For some kids, taking the stage and moving the crowd comes easy. But not for a shy boy, coming right out of ESL classes with self-esteem and confidence issues.
I loved what he had written and I told him as much. His message was deep and inspiring. It was, of course, a poem about the power of love. All he had to do was read it.
Ricksen got up in front of the class, his big eyes, wide with fear. He looked out over the sea of his classmates, all eager to hear what he had to say. It was daunting and he was petrified. Ricksen started to cry out of nervousness. So, I did something I almost never do. I got up, stood beside him, and let him know he was cared for and it would be okay. Ricksen was crying. I was crying. And when he was done, the class gave him a standing ovation. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my teaching career.
“There will always be a time when you are afraid,” Ricksen says, “but it teaches you that you can overcome those times and become a stronger person.”
The confidence that grew from that experience led Ricksen to make a bold and brave move. For his 11th grade English class, Ricksen signed up for honors, a more demanding class with a heavier course load.. After the first semester of procrastinating and underestimating the course expectations, Ricksen was failing. His teacher suggested that he downgrade to a less challenging class.
Ricksen said, “No.” To leave was to quit, and Ricksen knew he “could not quit on himself.” He told his teacher that he knew honors would be hard, but he wanted the push, and he was willing to do whatever it took.
For every assignment, every essay, he went to his teacher for help. He asked the questions he needed to ask and he attacked each task. It was just a matter of effort and desire.
Still, some texts were too challenging. So with the teacher’s assistance, Ricksen used audiobooks to listen and read. That’s how this Haitian born young man conquered Grapes of Wrath.
Perhaps most influential in Ricksen’s growth is his coach and mentor, Jose St. Victor, better known as St. Vic. St. Vic cultivated in Ricksen the mind of a champion. They were always together in high school and often, when asked if Ricksen was his son, “he would say yes,” Ricksen recalls.
St. Vic developed Ricksen into work-out fiend. He lifted weights for track, where he threw shot-put, javelin and discuss, among other sports. Ricksen excelled and continues to compete at the college level.
Today, Ricksen wants to help other kids find their passion and their inner strength. After finding his own path through the help of others he seeks to pass on his positive outlook to kids who need it. He regularly posts inspirational messages on his social media accounts. He said, if he can do it, anyone can. It’s a great life, you just have to go out and get after it. It’s a choice. And I choose to succeed.
Whichever direction I drive in when I leave my home I invariably drive past a cemetery. That is to say, there is a number of cemeteries around and whichever direction I drive in I will pass one of them. It’s not as if there is only one cemetery that I go out of my way to pass no matter the direction. Neither is there a ‘floating’ cemetery that plants itself by the side of whichever road I travel.
That would be weird.
There’s a fairly large cemetery off of Oregon road, near Peekskill, NY. We pass it often. Usually we pass it slowly. We pass it slowly because Oregon is a two lane route from our small town to the bigger town nearby. It has a 30 mph speed limit that many people take very seriously. More than a few drivers err on the side of extra caution and stay below 30mph – like 25 or 20. These drivers annoy me to death… pun intended.
Some of the graves in the cemetery have glow-in-the-dark crosses. Yes, that’s right, I said that some of the gravestones in the cemetery have glow-in-the-dark crosses on them. When we drive past the cemetery at night, those glow-n-the dark crosses seem to be hovering over the graves they are marking.
Some kids get creeped out by them. I am one of those kids. So is my son.
At the time of this story, my son was 5 or 6.
The idea of the grave and the gravestone piqued his magical curiosity. We did not talk about cemeteries much. He had not yet needed to attend any funerals. He was not acquainted with death, not up close. And on this day, a very slow driver in a rage-red, rusting Honda Accord was causing a long line of very annoyed drivers cars to have to stare longer than they wished to at the cemetery and the gravestones.
Everything about a cemetery is quiet. Nothing speaks. Flowers that are planted grow silently. The markings and dates on each gravestone says everything that the stone has to say. The graves age is represented in the fragility and thinness of each stone, the way they lean, or don’t, and in which direction. It’s easy to get sucked into its solemn serenity.
A woman was kneeling by a grave. She wore a hat and was patting the ground. I was staring at the red Honda up ahead, wondering when its driver would discover the gas pedal and speed the hell up.
My 6 year old son spoke to me without looking away from the cemetery.
“Why do they have those stones there?” he asked as we trolled past.
“Those stones are markers for where people are buried,” I explained. I wasn’t sure if t for my six year old. Was there a right way to field that question from a curious, sensitive boy?
And by right, I mean, was I doing a good job as a dad? Or was I going to fail?
This seemed like one of those key ‘daddy’ moments. A pre-‘Father-Son’ talk about death. Like a warm up talk before we had to have a more serious talk, like if somebody we knew actually died.
I wasn’t ready for the warm up. I could have used a warm up talk for the warm up talk.
“Are they buried in the ground?”
“Yes. They are,” I said. I explained that people can be buried in the ground, but that there were other ways of sending someone off into the next world or the next , but in a way, we all end up returning to the ground somehow. That was too much information for his young mind. They take in so much. So much.
I wanted the red Honda to move. I wanted to get to where I was going.
“What’s heaven?” he asked, throwing me a typical curve ball.
Our family does not do religion. I was raised a Jew but stopped practicing the religion due to issues with hypocrisy between the behavior and beliefs that were preached and the behavior and beliefs that were actually practiced. And it has occurred to me since that the practice of religion - any religion - is regarded as something to be attained in time. It seemed to me that ost people- in fact just about everybody - was content to take a really long time on that one. So for me, and for my family, being Jewish is about lox and bagels, and spending time with those we love.
My wife had no religious foundation as a child. Her father rejected religion while her mother practiced quietly, almost secretly, on her own. It was not passed on as a practice to my wife or perhaps she just chose to leave it behind. Consequently, we did not raise our children under any religious faith or guidelines. We taught them to be good people and to treat others with respect and kindness. We never spoke about a heaven or a hell. So my son had no clue what heaven was, but he had heard the term. He knew that Heaven and death were related.
“Heaven is a place that some people believe we go after we die.”
He got quiet. He watched the cemetery, watched the woman pat the ground, her head bowed, her body shaking. He watched the woman rise and stand. Birds flew over the cemetery, circled around a group of tombs, and settled in. We had moved less than a mile in this conversation so far. Worst drivers, ever!!
He remained quiet; pensive, actually. My son has a look, it’s a long stare, when he’s pensive.
“Daddy… is heaven underground?”
Was it? I thought Hell was underground. But then if I told him that Hell was below and Heaven was above, how much sense would it make to a little boy that they put people under the ground so that they could rise above it?
At this point, I had given up on the traffic and my desired arrival time to 'there'. I listened to what my little boy was asking me. I came up with an answer I thought I and he could both live with.
“Heaven is wherever you want it to be, Son.”
My son nodded, still pensive. he got it.
At that moment, Heaven, for me, was being in that car with my son, stuck on a two-lane road. That red Honda that I was silently cursing had provided me with a great Daddy moment.
We never know what kinds of questions monopolize our children’s minds. As they grow older, beyond the elementary school years, their thoughts and curiosities don’t diminish. They change, for sure, But, they do not weaken in scope or depth. We must be ready to have those Daddy (or Mommy) Moments no matter how old or young they are.
To do that we must be present, and have our minds and hearts open.
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Hi. My name is Stephen Tesher. I am a writer and an educator. Most importantly, I am a father. I've authored three books, staged numerous plays and written screenplays, articles, and this blog.