The last autumn that I entered a school to teach young children was in 2006. Sixteen years ago I rebooted the computers, put the chalk along the ledge, arranged the desks, tacked up some motivational posters, checked my lesson plans and put a new bulb in the overhead projector. I was teaching special needs students, elementary level, when I retired my career to pursue other interests. I am many things and I’m still a teacher.
As all serious parents do, I enjoyed quizzing my sons on how their school day went. I was curious to be at a certain distance from their experience even though in some cases I worked at the same school they attended. I would guard myself not to uncover their private feelings of being in so and so’s class, while knowing their teacher from another perspective. One teacher that I once worked with, a Mr.Novotny, had all three of my children in his grade five classroom. I felt this was worthy of celebration so I made a pair of bookends and asked my boys to pick their favourite book. I purchased them, along with a copy of Old Man and the Sea (the only book I’ve read multiple times). We four arranged to meet Mr.N. after my youngest had graduated from his class. Together we presented the gift. In his amazement he couldn’t stop saying he was flabbergasted. My sons still talk about this event. As a parent I was happy to use this teachable moment to build on what my lads had already been taught.
Parents are their children’s first teachers. Kids can learn negative and positive aspects of life from these dominant adults. I have always believed that it is a good thing that there is no manual for parenting. I like the idea that everyone in a family learns as they go along. That way everyone gets a chance to contribute in their own special way. Read several biographies and you’ll discover that adults have survived or thrived through all sorts of family drama, dysfunction or inspiration. My first memorable lessons outside of my family were provided by my baseball coach. He taught me that tasks are rarely DIY and not to fret about losing. Which we did do. A lot. In that same year I was influenced by my Akela in Boy Scouts. In one long memorable canoe trip I learned how to take things one step at a time.
All told, I have spent most of my life either learning or teaching. 18 years of formal education plus 31 years of working in schools is a significant amount of time being affiliated with a single institution. In my last year of teaching I made parents and colleagues laugh by telling them that I was finally being allowed to graduate from school. After retirement, folks would ask me, “Do you miss teaching?” I would answer that I missed the kids, but not the job.
These days I look for lessons from life, from art, from books. I’m still learning.
As the train approached the station I felt the familiar rush of wind being pushed by the plunger of the lead car through the tubular underground channel. My hair blew back, I stepped further back from the platform, the brakes squealed and the announcer advised, “Please step back from the doors.” I was excited to be riding the subway of my childhood for the first time in fifty some odd years. The TTC (The Toronto Transit Commission) was once disparagingly referred to as Take The Car. In my opinion it stands up to other cities, at least in terms of efficient subways. It’s a modern mass transportation system that works.
My earliest memory of the Toronto subway was taking the bus from my childhood home in Scarborough to the nearest subway stop then navigating my way to dance lessons, stamp stores or to the C.N.E. My parents would take my sister and me downtown on special occasions like birthdays or when we won a trophy for something. It was extra special when I could get to sit in the very first car so I could get a visual sense of our forward momentum. It was scary and thrilling at the same time as the car pierced the darkness and then came the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel as we pulled into the tiled terminal. Some subways I have been in have more than tile at their station stops. In Stockholm for example, their Metro is worth riding even if you have no destination in mind. Each cavernous terminal point is beautifully lit with fascinating art and historical references to the city and Sweden’s culture. This experience might be called the Caves of Lascaux 2.0 for its modern nod to the famed prehistoric ochre paintings.
I don’t work in Toronto, nor do I use the city transit system on a regular basis so my opinion is based on fondness for the transport mode, happy childhood memories and fun touristy sorts of thought. This is not very scientific, hardly objective, yet riding the rails is fun. And for me it’s a sentimental trip. My first free range solo adventures hinged on my confidence in taking public transit. When I went to the Canadian National Exhibition my wallet contained change totalling no more than five dollars and a return TTC paper ticket. My first time alone there was when I was nine. My mom checked my wallet and combed back my hair with her palm. My dad asked if I had my handkerchief and quizzed me on bus stops. They both said to have fun, watch out for pickpockets and be home by eight.
I counselled myself the same way as my parents did, for my most recent trip. I researched the route by computer but eschewed taking a cell phone. I felt alert with self responsibility, didn’t get lost, consulted with a bus driver, was amused when a traveller bared his bum and some riders gasped. I didn’t scale Mt.Everest but my trips have created stories to tell.
Learning how to relate to another person is tough. We can be advised to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ or be asked the question; “How would you feel if they were you?” We have to be open to the idea that we are not the only person in the world. We must learn that others may have a different view yet still require our respect.
This learning about relationships takes time and can be distorted by conflicting messages or misguided influence. In my growing up time I learned early to question my mother and follow my father. These two dominant relatives were responsible for helping me decide the kind of person I wanted to be. I would often avoid my mom because of her inconsistencies. Her standard instruction to me was, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Whereas my father, man of few words, would lead by quiet example. I learned by watching his response to the world’s pressures.
It was easy to relate to my father. I watched what he stood for in life. He was good at relating aspects of his life journey through story. I adopted some of his philosophies of life into the pattern that was to become me. Relatively speaking I have found it easier to relate to one of my sons over the other two. It’s not a question of picking favourites. It has more to do with recognizing life style and the behavioural choices that go along with daily living. It’s also not about judgement, since my relationships with my sons requires a recognition of time and place factors. It may be easier to relate when a son is doing it my way (the familiar way) yet I’ve come to enjoy being introduced to other, equally satisfying, solutions to problems. I enjoy opportunities to update our relationship within current contexts so I can rediscover my sons. I hope I continue to be relatable to them.
My first wife instituted a bedtime prayer with our wee sons that ended with, “God Bless Mommy, Daddy and all our friends and relatives near and far away.” She was a fan of A.A. Milne and may have formed her opinions of the value of honouring friends and relatives from one of his books. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkr4E1Q1Dds
Relating to relatives isn’t easy. In-laws get the brunt of relationship jokes mainly because they lack history with us. Gatherings can quickly become shouting matches because, without a sufficiently long context, we have fewer ways to counter thoughts of ‘How can you think like that?’ or ‘You just don’t get me.’
There are ways we can make ourselves more relatable. Being consistent in our behaviour can be a start for people to recognize the patterns within us. Allowing someone else to know through our words that we have experienced some of the same life adventures can help open the door to a relationship. Until you hear the multitude of life stories you can’t really grasp the reality of all things being relative.
This word can be used in various places in a sentence and in public. Everyone has an opinion, whether they are a parent or not, about what constitutes good parenting. I have seen a lot of changes in people’s views of parenting during my lifetime. The proverbial pendulum has swung from letting your kids go free range to hovering and now there is a return to a more loosely guided parental approach based on reasoning that includes plenty of dialogue between the elder and the growing child.
Most people my age can tell tales of being out in the world at an early age. I lived my formative years in Scarborough, Ontario. From grade three onward I was what some have called a latch-key kid: Apartment door key tied to a shoelace around my neck, I left before eight in the morning to walk the two miles to school, making it safely back home in time for dinner. No, the journey wasn’t uphill both ways. On weekends I would play outside all day at a nearby urban creek until my dad would come calling for me. When I was nine I was allowed to go to the annual end of summer Toronto Exhibition for the first time on my own. Mom checked my wallet for bus tickets, free entry pass and a two dollar bill and some coins. She gave me a pat on the bum and told me the usual, “Be back before dark.”
In today’s culture, I wonder if my parents would be put on charges. I can say I felt they were both good parents. I can’t say my mom was a stellar role model (especially for my sister) but both she and my dad gave me the essentials. My mom had a ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ style of parenting and I generally obeyed whereas my sister used my mom’s contradictions and absences to full benefit. Both my parents worked (my dad had three jobs for a stretch) so I was often expected to be the guardian older brother to my only sibling. That role gave me parental insight, but mostly I felt saddled by unwanted responsibility at too young an age.
It’s commonly said there is no such thing as a ‘parental handbook’ and there is no sure way to predict if your particular parental approach is going to deliver the perfectly well adjusted child. Yet everyone seems to be watching and providing a critique on how you are doing.
I used to lead a series of parenting workshops with my late wife. First we were asked by other folk in our church congregation to play host to circle discussions on child rearing. Word spread of our apparent success as facilitators and soon we got a gig with the city to run a series of night classes. Our qualifications? Parenting three sons and having a willingness to learn with others.
Two of my sons now have babies. Time for me to watch and learn some more.