Friday, October 9, 2015

A Father's Influence Goes Well Beyond Childhood

As October 12th is our school event to celebrate the fathers in our community, I offer the following exercise and reflection for our Princeton Montessori School fathers. Thank you for your dedication to your role as fathers, your contributions to our community, and taking the time on Monday to be with your child in the classroom. What a joy it will be for them to share their school day world with you! I hope you will also take time to stay for our luncheon and musical performances.

An Exercise in Remembering
Recently I performed the following exercise in reflecting on my own father, inspired by a poem I had read.  “It doesn’t matter who my father was," Anne Sexton once wrote, “it matters who I remember he was.” That memory—of the enormous, often mythic man—looms large in poems and writings about fathers. If you take a moment to complete this exercise, as fathers of school-aged children, I think it will be a gift to both you and your child. The exercise is as follows:

1. For a moment, reflect on one value your own father instilled in you, that you can directly link back to his influence.  Write this down.

2. If you can, think of a saying your father was known for in your household related to a moral lesson or outlook on life.  Write this down.

3. Lastly, tap into the feeling most prominently felt by you when spending time with your father. Write this down.

4. Look at your piece of paper and see if you are looking into a mirror. Do you value this same attribute? Do you find yourself saying the same thought about life to your children? Do you think your children feel the same way around you as you did around your own father? What would you want to be the same and what would you hope to be different?

Regardless of your answer, for most of you, this exercise was probably quite easy to do; the memory of our fathers, whether they are still with us or not, is ever-present and so are the lessons they taught, through language, modeling, and the feeling we got in their presence. For example, when I did this exercise myself, I realized that despite my father being a career military man, where uniformity, discipline, and compliance are a way of life,  the value I felt was most important to him was the importance of being a free thinker.  He was an avid reader and loved a good discussion or debate. He steered away from extremes and tried to see both sides of an issue.

The saying I most remember him for had to do with his high regard for and value of education.  He would often say, “The luckiest people in the world are those who get to be full time students.” Of course, this one I didn’t appreciate until adulthood!   Yet, here I am a former teacher and Head of School. The feeling I got when I was with him?  That I could handle anything that came my way.  This was because  he exuded confidence and instilled it in my sisters and me by reacting calmly and logically to any crises, and talking us through our own thinking process when the crises was in our own laps.  In my twenties, my first week moving from suburban Colorado to the Big Apple I was violently mugged on the subway.  It terrified me and I wanted to quit my job and move home. It was my dad who talked me into getting back on the subway the next week and not giving up the dream job I had landed.  “But I’ll be terrified to get back on; that fear of it happening again isn’t going to leave me.” I told him.  “That may be”, he replied, “You can’t control your feelings but you can decide if they are going to control your actions.” He used sound reason and charged me with following a few simple rules that would lower my chance of being singled out for such a crime.  I did, and didn’t let fear control me.

As I spent last weekend with my own son for his college's Parent Visit Day, I looked for signs that these values had been transferred to him.  I can see by my son’s focus on doing well in school that he values education; he knows how lucky he is to be able to focus solely on his studies. The calm in a crisis? I am still waiting to see that in him as he reacts to the pressures of a test-craved and social media hyped culture!  We will see. Hopefully, that will come.

We have an opportunity, as parents, mother or father, to use our own upbringing to the benefit of our children. Whether it is ensuring we pass on what we received or purposefully avoiding some elements of our own parents' influence, generational traits are likely as we are so impacted by the experiences, words, and behavior related to our families.  I wish you a wonderful Monday with your child on our Father's Day celebration and hope you found this exercise as enlightening and heart-warming as I did. The poem that influenced it? It is shared below.

The Gift

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand today.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.