Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Monday, June 25, 2012

Shaping, Being Shaped

A few years ago, writer Ted Gup spoke in the Chapel at his old high school, Western Reserve Academy.  I don't remember the precise occasion, but there were numerous parents in the audience.  At one point, he told the parents (I'm paraphrasing--with quotation marks!): "You can't make your children be what you want them to be.  If you want a living thing to behave the way you want, get a bonsai tree."

The Chapel was silent--but I felt the lid of the pressure cooker straining with the emotions of the students, many of whom no doubt felt like erupting into cheers.  But didn't.  (Sometimes it's just plain better to turn down the heat than to let everything erupt all over the kitchen.)

As children, many of us felt parental pressure in all of its guises--from direct, explicit instruction (command?) to more subtle hints, suggestions, disdainful sniffs, enthusiasms for our slightest indication that we might, you know, become what they wished.  Coming-of-age novels and films are full of such moments (indeed, the entire genre thrives on them).  Clueless adults try to force their offspring into muffin tins when, really, the kids would rather be scones.  (Can you tell I baked scones this morning?)

The moments can be amusing and inspiring (the kid tells his folks that they just don't get it and soars off into his or her awesome  future).  Or tragic.  Remember the kid (Robert Sean Leonard) in Dead Poets Society whose intransigent father would not accept his wish to be an actor?  A suicide ensued.

My own parents had somewhat limited ambitions for me--not that I blame them.  I earned all.  Beginning in seventh grade and continuing through much of college, I just didn't--in the locution of the day--"apply myself."  I didn't work too hard--at least on the stuff I was "supposed" to.  In high school, I threw myself into sports and drama and every other extra-curricular activity I could, thereby generally being too busy to, you know, study.  My grades were all right (a B average for high school) but hardly in the same league with the records of my older and younger brothers, both of whom were valedictorians, both of whom would end up at Harvard.  My dad told me he would pay for one college application (to Hiram, where he taught--free tuition), and if I wanted to go anywhere else, it was all on me.  Jobless, penniless me.  So ... Hiram it was.

In college, I briefly flirted with the ministry (family history) but after a couple of terms as a religion and philosophy major, I shifted to English, where I could read novels and plays--sometimes "dirty" ones!--instead of dense treatises by Hegel and Locke and the boyz.  Seemed like a good deal.  My parents were really pushing me in those years to be an elementary school teacher, but I had standards; I had character.  No, I would not be an elementary school teacher; I would be a ... secondary school teacher!  (What a rebel!)  I actually applied to--and was accepted--the American Studies program at the University of Kansas (for a Ph.D.), but no financial aid was available, so I applied for some teaching jobs in the area, got one in Aurora, and in the fall of 1966 began teaching seventh grade English.  The next time I came up for air it was 1997, and I was retiring from Aurora ...  Go figure.

My parents gradually accepted the roles I was playing--though, later, when I was doing monthly op-ed pieces for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, my dad, retired out in Oregon, would introduce me to his friends as a journalist.  The middle school English teacher stuff just didn't come up ...  In a way, it was hard for them to believe that I was doing what I was doing, later--writing and reviewing books.  In some ways, I know, they still saw me as the fifteen-year-old doofus who never missed a basketball practice but missed quite a bit of homework.

And then in 1972, I became a father myself.  And I promptly--though unconsciously--began pruning and tending our own little human bonsai tree, Stephen.  And for quite a while, I had no doubt that he would be just like Joyce and me--only better.  He was a very good student; he loved theater and music; his childhood bed was always piled with books.  MiniMe.

But then ... off he went to college, where some of his previous interests atrophied, fell away; new ones emerged.  Although, after graduation, he went into journalism for ten years (writing for a living! The Return of MiniMe!), I don't think his heart was ever in it, and soon he was going to law school at night, getting into politics--a real surprise for us.  He'd never shown any interest in politics earlier on--had never even run for student council in school or for any other office.  And there he was, years later, a two-term state legislator in Ohio.  When he was eleven, if anyone had predicted such a future, I would have scoffed at the notion.

And suddenly I had a different feeling about the whole bonsai tree thing.  I realized how profoundly difficult is is for parents to see their children exit the family track (to mix tree-and-train metaphors here), first, perhaps, to a siding, then maybe onto an entirely different track leading to entirely different destinations.  You think you know your children.  And you do.  Sort of.  But you also don't know them, for as they grow, they are becoming something that they don't even understand, not at first.  They know they want ... they want ... to be ... ?  To be.  (Yes, crazy Hamlet knew a few things.)  They want to be.  And sometimes that being is something that would have been incomprehensible to them in childhood. And to you.  And it's an emotionally wrenching experience for all involved.

A combination of death and birth--the death of something you thought you understood, the birth of something you patently don't.

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