Friday, December 18, 2020

Yes! But Who's Doing the Dishes?

Thread One:

When we had our first child, 12 years ago, I remember reading every parenting book I could get my hands on. Research article exploring the most effective way to raise kind, happy, confident kids? I'm on it! Newest studies, profoundly thought-provoking columns, how-to guides? Check, check, and check. 

Now, shoulder-deep in kids--four boys whose energy never seems to calibrate at anything lower than ZENITH POINT THRESHHOLD--a thought that began percolating back when I read all those books and articles comes circling back: why does it seem like a lot of white men are writing these volumes on parenting and general hot-to advice regarding children and their development? 

And furthermore, I began to wonder--12 years ago, and the question forms a through-line to today--about a second question: how are they finding so much time to write, travel, speak, lecture, attend so many conferences, give so many interviews and podcasts and so on?

Essentially, the overarching question my mind and heart couldn't square with everything I was seeing and reading was--and is!--essentially this: who's actually raising the kids? 

Thread Two:

I remember reading a fascinating interview with Ruth Graham about her famed evangelist husband, Billy, and how he came home from one of his marathon speaking tours. one of their kids asked Mom, "Who's that?" and the reply--given in a sense of humor but recalled by me with a strain of fascinating sadness--was, "That's your father." 

His speaking and traveling had caused crowds to surge and his fame to skyrocket, but had also caused him to become somewhat of a stranger in his own home. 

Thread Three:

And now, as I consider so many well-meaning men making a name for themselves in this world--seeking to bridge farther gaps, reach bigger audiences, share inspiring speeches, and striving to grow their influences, the question emerges: Yes! But Who's doing the dishes?

The Rope:

As a father of four sons, I want my kids to strive to pursue their dreams. I want them to chase their deepest passions, especially in the hopes that those passions can meet a need in the world, to paraphrase Frederick Buechner. 

However, what I desperately do not want to teach them is to pursue their own goals and dreams while assuming that someone else will change the diapers, or do the dishes, or fold the laundry, or vacuum the carpet, or shovel the driveway. 

And now, having just turned 40, I can scan the last twenty years of my own life and see a somewhat slow shift towards this place where I now stand. At twenty, I craved to write a bestselling book, give a speech that would move mountains, craft a new educational theory that would shake the public education system, be everywhere. I wanted to give a keynote at a major conference, be invited to Ted, and write another bestselling book (and then another and another and another). 

At 32, the best job I could obtain while living abroad was to be a paperboy. That dose of humility was much-needed, and in a beautiful sense of irony, it is the job that has most profoundly helped me become who I now am. 

At 40, I no longer crave major significance, nor for recognition or to be on the stage or the subject of any viral podcast--but rather I do crave to, yes, do the dishes. Give baths to the kids. Change the diapers. Teach a great class for the students whom I deeply care for and want to see become inspiring educators. Help fold a load of laundry. Shovel the driveway. 

At the risk of boiling down the deeply complex waters of pursuing one's passions and chasing dreams, I am in no way suggesting that wanting to give a crowd-roaring speech or writing a bestselling book is wrong. I am in no way claiming, here, that the pursuit of significance inevitably unfolds on shaky ground. 

However, I do want to ask the question of myself, consistently, in the face of any dreams that involves me under the lights: Yes! But who's doing the dishes?

And I want to ask my sons the same thing. I want them to strive not for any sense of deserving praise, but rather to curtail entitlement and instead help them see the beauty of service. I want to help them see the profound joy in being fully present to the people around them, rather than always seeking to impact strangers whom they can't see--especially when that impact might masquerade as beneficent service but really involves the enlargement of the male ego. 

To return to those parenting and childhood books written by the experts, or the many speakers who travel countless circuits to talk about issues that may displace them from the places in which they might actually face those very issues--the lingering question is not about denying oneself, but rather about noticing whose work gets, well, noticed

Whose work--and what work--gets valued? 

I do want to change the world. I want to make it better. I want to contribute something of meaning to the people with whom I interact. But I do not want to do so through the mechanism of an entitled expectation that others will do the dishes, the laundry, the diapers, the driveway. I want to make an impact not by enlarging my own ego, but by learning to do the meaningful work that lies, waiting, right in front of my face. Not because it gets applauded, but because it, too, matters. And because it helps to curtail my own need for applause. It helps to situate my own soul in a place of service and love, and perhaps--too--enables others to shine. Especially others who may have been prevented from doing so because of unjust structures, or status quo expectations that encouraged me, as a white male, to chase my dreams, while simultaneously discouraged others from chasing theirs. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Graduation Address, The Bromfield School, 2020 (7/31/20)

Below is the transcript of the commencement address I gave at The Bromfield School, to graduating seniors whom I had taught years before in 7th grade. 

Five years ago, I welcomed you to 7th grade English with a picture of an iceberg on our wall and told you that it was super cool to be PERSPICACIOUS. I challenged you to be kind, bold, and honest.

Today, I want to remind you of those same principles—but with one additional caveat: each is a lifelong process, and we can only triumph in their pursuit if we are willing to trust the process of our own journeys, especially when life doesn’t proceed as we had once hoped it would. 

Like now. 

If you are confused, you are not alone. 

If you are afraid, you are not alone. 

If you are angry or worried or uncertain, you are not alone.

The good news is that by being honest about where you’re at, and how you’re struggling, you allow kindness to blossom. You allow other people in, instead of pretending that all is well. 

I have four sons now, ages 11 years through 7 months, and it is fascinating to watch how each handles their emotions. My two-year old, Joshua, has no qualms about being precisely honest about how he feels—especially to a variety of older women who live in our neighborhood and whom he sees when we go for early morning walks. 

He loves calling out the names of the various older women as we pass by their houses. 

“Daddy, that’s Linda’s house! HI LINDA!” 

When Linda does not immediately emerge, he’ll ask, “Where’s Linda?”

“She’s sleeping Joshua. It’s still super early, only five-thrity in the morning,” I will sagely reply, thinking we’ve settled that. 


And he repeats the process for Gladys, and Carol, and Annie, and Florence, whose houses we pass as we venture forth.

In return, these kind older women shower Joshua and our other boys with animal crackers and veggies sticks and chocolate and Twizzlers and old toys. 

But honesty isn’t always so easy as we get older. Talking about how we really, deeply feel and what we really, deeply need, we fear, won’t commandeer us animal crackers and cool toys. It’s harder. We fear more, share less. The emotions get complex, their roots webbed, and their resolutions obscured. 

But by refraining from honesty we deprive others of the ability to show us kindness. We convince ourselves that we are the only ones who think or feel a certain way. We are not. 

And by sharing who we really are, we give other people the chance to see, accept, and love us. As you go from here, please be willing to share that you are sad, or hopeful, or excited, or scared, or giddy, or grateful. It’s the only way you’ll find the Lindas in your life, willing to come to their doors at 6am, groggy and half-asleep, but ready to see you for who you are. 

So: be honest, and when others take that leap to be honest with you, be kind.

But there’s one more challenge I have to give you—and it’s a hard one: be bold. It’s hard because we so often believe a lot of lies about courage and what it really is.

Maya Angelou said that “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can't practice any other virtue consistently.” This means that courage, or being bold, is never a single act, but rather a practice. It embodies the way we live—the thousand seemingly mundane decisions we make every day, that actually forge who we become. 

When that same Linda-loving son, Joshua, was born, he died. He came out blue with no heartbeat. And instead of letting my wife and I hold him, we heard intercom shouts of emergency codes, and saw dozens of medical staff rush our hospital room.

I held my wife’s hand and wept. 

I was thinking the worst as every second slugged past with no hope and no sound from our third son.

After forever, I heard the most beautiful noise I think I ever will: a shrill cry which made me laugh with joy. The doctor who shocked our son back to life, though, bewildered me. I will never forget our conversation after all had calmed down. 

It was clear to me that what I saw as incredible courage and heroism in that doctor was another small action he and the other nurses had taken. The doctor was decidedly calm and matter of fact about the whole thing. Mundane.

What if the actions you deem normal and mundane could actually save someone’s life? The small smile you give, the kind text, the picked up piece of trash, the band aid you offer, the song you sing, the catch you have with a kid, the lunch you buy for someone, the hello wave, the goodbye hug, the sign you hold, the words you use, the way your eyes light up when someone walks into a room or your life. 

It matters. It all matters. And when we give and receive enough of these small moments—-these tiny acts of courage and boldness—we build a life. 

Today, I challenge and encourage you to build a life that is kind, bold, and honest. It will not be perfect. It will be, like me and all of us, a work in progress. But while it will never be perfect, you will also never be truly alone. 

You will indeed find those with animal crackers or electromagnetic shocks, ready to meet you exactly where you’re at. And what’s more, you’ll do the same for others. Thank you, and congratulations.


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

To a New Teacher

This week, a graduating senior of mine wrote with a lot of vulnerability, asking for any final advice before he began his first year as a new teacher. Here is how I replied:

Dear [...],

I'm so glad you reached out! I hear you, and it's a crazy and surreal feeling to start your first year of teaching. The biggest thing I can share is to know that everything you are feeling--the nervousness, the worry, the doubt, and sense of uncertainty--is all very normal! This is what every new teacher feels, and on the first day, even most veteran teachers feel it. 

Once the students arrive, and you get a few weeks under your belt, a rhythm starts. But during your first year, it will still feel hard. You'll make mistakes, and you'll feel uncertain often. This is okay. This is part of the process of learning to teach. 

As far as preparing curriculum and strategies for the classroom, I would say to try to plan activities that don't make you the center for the whole duration of class. If you plan a lot where you have to be constantly talking and leading, you will get exhausted, and also the kids will start to struggle with behavior. They won't be able to sit and focus on you for long periods on and on, so be sure to plan in ways for them to connect with each other and to move around the room. Remember things like CHALK TALK from Assessment class, where students can get up, record ideas and responses on large posters or white boards around the room. Use that! Use activities that help students get in small groups and think through problems. I would suggest picking groups, so that students don't always just go right to friends, and so that the same kids aren't always left out. 

Come up with some fun challenges for students to work on. Things like: "If you were a group of senators in the US Senate, which 10 laws would you add to our country right now? And why? In the groups of four that I give you, talk about your ideas, then come up with your list and with one solid reason why for each law you create." You can then give students 45 minutes to talk, create their laws, maybe a second 45 minutes the next day, and then they can hang their posters with their laws around the room. Students can then do a GALLERY WALK to explore each other's posters, and then you can lead a discussion afterwards about what everyone noticed--prompting deep analysis and reflection. 

You might do an activity like this after you briefly explore some real laws--or a discussion of unjust laws in our country's past, and how to create new laws that ARE just. 

A strategy like this allows students to learn, but also doesn't put you in the spotlight for long, long periods of time, allowing you to connect with kids in small groups, and also allowing kids to do the thinking and learning!

The more you can utilize strategies like this, the more fun you and the kids will have, and the more energized you will feel!

Also remember that the words you say to students matter, and you have the power to encourage them, inspire them, and let them know that you SEE them and you CARE about them. You'll show them this by all the little things you do every day--making eye contact, responding to their joy about a movie they saw, a soccer practice they had, or a picture they drew. 

What students remember--long after they will have had you as a teacher--are these things. They'll remember whether your eyes opened wide when they told you a story. They'll remember whether you delighted in them, and whether you allowed yourself to be childlike enough to be amazed at what they'll say and do. 

Be delighted. 

Be amazed. 

This matters far more than anything else you'll ever do in the classroom. 

And one last thing: remember that they are going to try their best. On the surface, it might not look like that, but they'll also be hiding a lot of fears, a lot of worries about not being cool enough, smart enough, loved enough. Don't always take their surface-level reactions as core-level judgments of you or what you do. See deeper. Explore farther. 

Keep reaching out, and know that I'm here for you, and others are too. Never hesitate to ask away--you are not alone!

Peace, and rock on,

Professor R

Monday, April 8, 2019

Why It's Crucial that My Sons and I Watched the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament

Last night, in an epic, edge-of-your-seat basketball game, Baylor and Notre Dame went head-to-head in 40 minutes of some of the best basketball I've ever seen.

Scattered around our living room were my three sons, ages 10, 5, and 1, my wife, and I. It was deeply important to me that my sons watched the game. It was also deeply troubling to me that the championship game of the women's NCAA basketball tournament was aired only on ESPN, and not on CBS, as equivalent men's games are (and as the men's championship will be tonight). Not to mention, even more troubling that the other games of the women's tournament were aired only on ESPN2, while the men's games were on channels with far easier access.

I want my sons to be a part of stopping this kind of unequal and unjust reception.

I want my sons to get used to seeing women as powerful, poised, bold, brave, and amazingly engage to watch as they compete at the highest levels of athletic skill.

However, because the culture of inequality is so immensely pervasive, it can sometimes feel overwhelming to change.

Case in point: in earlier games, as I tried to get my oldest son to be interested in the NCAA women's tournament, his reply came honestly and quickly, "I think the men are more fun to watch. It just doesn't sound super fun to watch the women play."

Resisting the huge to respond with incredulity and shock, I stayed calm, and started to ask that key questions for parents and educators: "Why?"

As it turns out, it wasn't because he had actually seen them play and thought they weren't as exciting or interesting. Instead, it was because he had heard that the men were the most engaging to watch. He had drunk the Kool-Aid of our cultural norms, evident everywhere and ready to be received as totally legit, that the real drama and excitement in sports was in watching the men play.

All my logic didn't really get through to him, but we watched the preliminary games, and he slowly started to get a little more interested.

Then, last night, we started watching the early coverage, hearing the truly remarkable stories about players like Arike Ogunbowale and her epic buzzer-beaters from the previous season to win the semifinal and final for Notre Dame.

We heard about Chloe Jackson and her courageous decision to transfer from LSU to Baylor for her last shot at a title, having to learn an entirely new position (point guard) on the job to make the move work.

We learned about Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw's powerful words on equality in the workforce for women, and we heard about Baylor coach Kim Mulkey's battle back from the darkness of losing a grandchild during her daughter's stillbirth in the past two years.

And then it was game time.

Baylor came out fighting, taking a commanding lead from the get-go. But over the course of the game, Notre Dame never gave up. In the second half, led by guards Arike Ogunbowale and Carolyn Mabrey, Notre Dame went on run after run, eventually taking their first lead in the game since they led 3-2 in the first minute.

I looked over at my 10-year old: mesmerized. Literally on the edge of his seat. Hands raising in hope or fear or shock and, yes, most definitely in awe.

He was loving every minute of this tense, talent-filled and effort-fueled battle for the 2019 NCAA Women's Basketball Championship.

And as his dad, I loved watching him watch these women play.

I want him and my other two sons to learn early and often that women are leaders, game-changers, powerful and poised and worth watching, worth learning from, worth admiring, worth following.

This belief in no way diminishes my sons' own abilities or trajectories. Such a lie is far too often peddled by those fearful of change and equality.

No. Supporting, rooting for, and encouraging women to be their powerful selves does not diminish boys and men. Instead, it frees us to be fully human, too. It frees us to encourage, celebrate, and grow. It frees us to embrace equality and justice rather than harbor power and fear.

The definition of masculinity lies not in a forged and false notion of dominance, but rather in the embrace of authentic equality and progress for all people, not just those with certain attributes or labels.

That's what I want to try hard to practice. That's what I want my sons to learn from me.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

To the Lighthouse

After a three week period in which we had a baby, moved to a new state, changed schools for the boys, and changed jobs for dad, we lately stopped to take stock of what's happened over the last nine months.

The simple answer: a lot.

Watching the national and international news has been deeply discouraging, bordering on suffocating. As a public school teacher for many years, I've lately felt almost voiceless to know how to navigate the bullying that now emanates from the highest office of leadership in America. I would tell my students at the start of every year that I have a very, very calm demeanor, and that I almost never get angry.

I am a big believer that everything is a learning opportunity. Middle school students, I find, seldom make decisions on the pure basis of trying to deliberately hurt and demean others. Instead, they make decisions without thinking deeply first, without checking in with the empathy in their hearts and minds, without stopping to consider whether it's mob mentality and false reality that drives their choices. Thus, as a teacher, my job is to challenge them to stop and think. To consider their actions from other angles.

BUT, I would tell my 7th graders, there is one thing that does make me deeply angry. And it's the only time you'll ever see Mr. Reynolds raise his voice. That thing? Bullying. When one student (or a group of students) attacks others because they are different, because they are scared, because they don't toe the line of false and insecure machismo or bravado or a certain look or style...that does get me heated. But how can we combat the attacks by those with more power on those with less when such attacks are modeled by the highest office holder in our country?

One possible way: lunch duty.

Many teachers would complain about having lunch duty--a task where we were asked to monitor the lunch waves as high school and middle school students rushed in, ate as if with timers, and gesticulated with gusto.

I loved lunch duty. I cringed seeing how my students interacted when I wasn't at the front of the class, directing our words and actions in a more structured way. So, then, why did I love having that particular duty assigned to me? It gave me a chance to connect with my students in a plethora of teachable moments. I could sit beside the students who happened to eat at tables alone, hear about their hopes and dreams, the books they loved, the poetry they wrote, and the journey they've been on so far.

I could also sit at the tables chock full of rowdy boys and ask them questions, share stories about my own love of poetry or about the movies that made me cry, or literally anything that might force them to stop the marching mentality of mob thinking.

See, lunch was always the most terrifying part of my middle school day when I was growing up. I hated the sheer volume of the massive cafeteria in Windsor, Connecticut. I hated the sense that I didn't belong anywhere. As a kid who loved poetry, basketball, but was terrified to talk in class or take a jumper on my team, I felt like I lived in no man's land. No rarefied struggle at that age, to be sure, but it seemed like everyone else did belong. They found their place. They were cool.

When I got to high school, I searched out the other people who sat alone, and together we forged our own table--a motley crew, to be sure, but one in which I looked forward to sitting every day. There were students who were labeled "learning disabled" and students who were in Special Olympics and students who were intensely shy, and students who just didn't have anywhere else to go. I loved that lunch table.

And when I became a teacher, I saw the same lunch room scene: some tables full of vociferous tweens and teens presenting as though they knew their place in the world--had it all figured out and completely belonged. And then there were the scattered lonely souls--often the same students who had endured years of abuse, mocking, and bullying.

I consistently viewed all of this first as a student, myself, and then as a teacher. But now, due to our own oldest son's experiences, I view it as a dad. This vantage point raises the game to a whole new level--a kind of emotional angst I have never before experienced.

When we are in the public eye--whether in a massive way, as the leader of a country, or a microcosmic way, as the leader of a class--we have an obligation to those who see us. Our obligation is simple, but profound: be better. As Nelson Mandela more beautifully asked, how can we get people to be better than they think they can be? 

Instead of asking, How can I get back at someone? we need to ask, How can I learn to model something better?

We can be sure of one thing in life: we all fail. We all make many mistakes and we all struggle to make our inner worlds align with our outer performances. But that fact does not necessitate any subsequent obligation to stop trying to be better.

When we have students looking up to us, or citizens watching us, the need to respond with kindness is severe and profound. It is our most lacking resource right now. Modeling basic human dignity and decency are desperate needs, and in the absence of genuine leadership, we must strive to show it more to one another, not less.

For the past nine months, I've grappled with the deep divisions I see springing up everywhere. People seem more at odds with one another than I can ever remember in my brief life thus far. There is more animosity, more hatred, more disgust towards one another. But behind all of that, there is also a reverberating dignity that is emerging. I see people who have often been silenced--those relegated to sitting at their proverbial lunch tables all alone--speaking up, and doing so with passion and unwavering commitment.

I see status quo cultural trends beginning to crack. The guise of the macho bravado is being questioned more and more, making way for sensitive boys and men to be who they really are, and show the emotions and inclinations they long to share.

I see an astounding array or books being published by writers who have been underrepresented for far too long. And when I stroll through bookstores and libraries and see these volumes on display, my heart flutters. Books like American Street by Ibi Zoboi, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, and The Serpent's Secret by Sayantani DasGupta make me feel a sense of human dignity and hope that seems unquashable, inextinguishable.

Nine months of a strange malaise is coming to a close. There has been beauty over the past nine months, to be sure. There has been possibility. There has been insight and recognition and hope. Yes., But it has also been a very long winter. In search of genuine leadership based on dignity rather than fear, love rather than vitriol, I have had to search not at the highest pinnacles of power, but rather as the rising up of new leaders--those who perhaps haven't yet peaked, but who are surely en route, and refuse to back down.

There is a lighthouse in York, Maine, where we rent. Called Nubble Light, it still shines brightly every night as a beacon to ships at sea, wondering, perhaps, where they are meant to be. We had driven there a few times to climb, as a family, along the rocky coast nearby.

But it was only this past week, when our oldest son wanted to go for a run, that we learned how close we really were to this beacon. After running a while, Tyler turned to me and asked, "Hey Dad, you think we could run to the lighthouse?" Initially, I resisted, thinking the journey would overwhelm us. And even if we made it there, we'd be unable to make it back.

But that part of me that holds onto hope, that holds onto the possible, said, "Let's do it."

Two miles later, we climbed atop the rocky coast as the sun set. I glanced up from my sons's face to see the bright light of Nubble awake for the night ahead. That beacon of clarity and hope wasn't nearly as far away as it had felt throughout our nine months living here.

The rising of dignity, hope, and empowerment often feel far away because of what gets the most airtime. But I see students who have often been scattered around the lunchroom, lonely, coming together. I see voices rising up to speak stories that have been silent too long. I see boats, searching long, who have found a place to dock.

That place is dignity.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Facing History with Courage and Hope

When I first started teaching high school students in Connecticut, back in 2003, I remember discussing the realities of racism in America with my students, and the horrific--and lasting--legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era. My students were shocked to learn that the KKK was still active in 2003, and I recall many of them saying that they had thought racism was long gone.


Today, I doubt any high school student in America would dare to believe that there is no such thing as the KKK. Because of the repulsive acts of cowardice among white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, students today are realizing a harrowing truth: racism was never defeated nor dead--it was merely in hiding.

I grew up in the town of Windsor, CT--a town just north of Hartford, where there is still a beautiful diversity of people. In all of my public school years, I had friends of many races, and I recall listening to the speeches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. on my Sony Walkman as I did my paper route. The speeches riveted me--their clarion calls for justice and equality, their evocation of America's ugly past towards African-Americans, and their hope for a more just future.

Listening to those speeches, though, and going to school every day where my classes always seemed to be 50% white and 50% black, I thought America had come a long way.

But when my best friend in high school, an African-American, and I created a dream to hike the Appalachian Trail together, I was somewhat shocked when he confided in me that he wasn't sure it was the smartest idea anymore. "Why not?" I recall asking--noting that we had trained with great discipline already. "Because there have been some racist attacks on the Trail lately," he said.

He was worried for his safety. As a young black man, he had to deal with a reality that I never did.

In more recent years, in my teaching in the 7th grade classroom, I saw a glaring ignorance. On the walls of my classroom were such notable figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, and Toni Morrison. Students could only recognize King, and even then, many of them inquired, "Didn't he end slavery?"

However, I think my own initial ignorance, and that displayed by so many students, is evidence of America's hiding of its past. So many want to pretend that racism is over and done with--dealt with by passing a few laws and some slip-shod apology for slavery.

It is not.

So, my 7th grade students read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. In conjunction with these books, my students explored the racist voting literacy test Louisiana gave in the 1960's after the Voting Rights Act was passed. We read and discussed Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations" and we watched footage from Eyes on the Prize.

Just last week, my wife and I welcomed out third child into the world: Joshua William Reynolds. We have both long believed in raising our sons to be kind, compassionate, gentle, and loving. Ever since we watched Jackson Katz's powerful documentary about the horror of male bravado and cowardice that masquerades as courage, Tough Guise, we have tried to create a family that aims for honesty, emotional-openness, and facing our hopes and our fears.

We grow as a family when we talk openly and vulnerably. We grow as a society when we reveal our wrongs, not when we hide and disguise them, pretending that they were not really all that bad. We heal when we make amends, not when we make false moral equivalencies.

The high schoolers and the 7th graders I taught evidenced something beautiful as they learned more fully about America's past: action. They wanted to know what they could do, how they could help change our country for the better. They didn't become America-haters, as so many seem to fear. Instead, my students became America-changers. They wanted to try to work to fulfill America's promises to all people--to the many, not just the few.

I am a highly imperfect man: imperfect as a father, as a teacher, and as a writer. But I long to try my hardest to live compassionately, to love deeply, and to stand witness to injustice and do whatever small part I can to try and stop it.

The middle school kid who heard powerful words on his Sony Walkman is now a Daddy. I want to make those words real to my sons. I want to help them see that courage is about making amends for wrongs, about facing history honestly and trying hard to do whatever we can to create a more just society.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

27 Books? 27 Acts of Faith, Hope, and Love

A confession: I really loved the movie 27 Dresses. Jen and I have watched it twice. (Okay, three times.) I'm a sucker for romantic comedies--so much so that once, my four brothers and I all wanted to hang out together and catch up on life in our different worlds. So, what did we do? We went to see The Wedding Planner when it was in theaters.

Five guys saying, "Excuse me" as they walked around a variety of couples out on their first or second dates.

(And we loved the movie.)

But tonight, Jen and I witnessed something far more spectacular than a solid romantic comedy. We told our two sons, Tyler and Ben, that they could have a little extra Brother to Brother Reading Time tonight. They responded with giddiness and proceeded to their bedroom to choose their books.

Jen and I proceeded to ours to sit and talk together after a day's journey hike at the Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Area in Worcester, MA, and a spontaneous stop at an incredible local bookstore, Enchanted Passage, in Sutton. (Keep active and busy as we wait for baby number 3 to arrive is our mantra each day).

Brother to Brother Reading Time began, and continued, and continued, and...

After an hour, Jen and I realized that it was almost 10 pm, and bedtime had long since passed. As we entered they room, we saw a massive stack of books, and Tyler was delighted to show us the mountain.

Ben said, "We read A LOT of books!"

Tyler proceeded to count every single volume, and the tally? 27 books.

There's a lot said about books being sources of hope in dark times--about books being acts of resistance against fear and cruelty, and books serving to light the way for our feet when the path ahead seems treacherous and unknown.

And I believe in all of it.

I believe in the power of books to change lives because it has happened in my life over and over again--at every stage of my growth. The most recent volume to grab make my heart swell and my mind focus is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson--a nonfiction account of one lawyer's quest to seek justice for the wrongfully accused and for children serving life sentences for unequal crimes, sentencing when they were young and locked away because of a society that values wealth more than it values love.

Back when I was in the third grade, I remember reading a book called Luke Was There by Eleanor Clymer, and I clutched that book to my chest and took it to bed with me at night and cried with it and believed in it and loved it. It's the story of a young boy, Julius, struggling as his stepdad leaves home and his mom becomes seriously ill. Julius is put into a group home, and he believes that no one cares for him; life is completely hopeless. Enter a Big Brother of sorts--an African-American volunteer named Luke--who helps Julius see that love is possible, and that some people can be trusted.

Man. When I see the cover of that book, my heart still beats fast.

So, yes: I believe that books can change lives, help us see and feel and believe and hope things we might otherwise never have known.

And tonight, when Jen and I walked into our sons' bedroom and saw that stack of 27 books, my heart swelled. That's 27 acts of faith; 27 chances for connection, and compassion, and laughter, and hope.

And love.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Surprised by Joy

All parents of young children come to understand that the word "early" takes on a new meaning when crossing the threshold into parenthood. Whereas, before kids, 7:00 felt early, waking up, now, anytime when the clock reads 7-something is easily considered sleeping in.

Anything before 6-something is early, anything before 5-something is very early, and anything before 4-something elicits a GOD PLEASE HELP ME prayer that runs on repeat until the sad realization dawns that--yes, the day is truly starting.

So when, earlier this week, our sons came into our bedroom and the clock read 9-something, my first thought was, what phantasmal force has refrained our kids from doing that which they have been programmed to do every single morning of their little lives until this particular morning?

The more honest rendition of that thought was something like, HUH!? followed closely by, WOW! and then subsequently by, OH NO!

Jen and I waited, listening as the trained spies that we have so expertly become (all parents double as secret agents, complete with their own repertoire of skills and shenanigans), and heard whispers. Tyler, age eight, was instructing Ben, age three, as to where to put certain household objects.

"Spray" could be heard.  

"Glass" could be heard.

"Basement" could be heard.

At which point my legs flew off the bed and I scrambled as close to the top of the stairs as I could to ensure that neither of my kids was about to perish.

We could charge admission to our basement, since it could easily double as a thrill ride for any kid under the age of six. Come one, come all, to the terrifying tyranny of concrete floors awaiting your descent on thin wooden steps that bend with your every footstep and which have no rails to protect you as you make your perilous way downwards!

(Full disclosure: I have a slightly unnecessary and exaggerated sense of fear about stairs. But still.)

I waited, however, at the top of our stairs, and Jen and I continued to listen to our two boys, attempting to discern what they were engaged in so thoroughly as to let us sleep in until the afternoon (as anything after 9-something qualifies as, essentially, the afternoon.)

Our boys emerged, alive, from the basement and then proceeded to discuss how to wake us up for the big surprise.

"We can jump on Daddy and Mommy real big in the stomach, like this!" Benjamin brainstormed, then proceeding to--I assume--show is older brother kind of jump with which he conjectured it would be wise to awake his full-term pregnant mom and his stair-anxious dad.

Thankfully, Tyler gently declined that idea, and suggested instead that they jump into our bedroom and loudly announce they had a surprise awaiting us.

"Okay!" Ben replied, ever the little brother ready to follow his big brother into anything.

"Let's go really, really quietly until we get to the top, okay?" Tyler announced.

"Okay!" Ben shouted as loudly as he could.

They began their ascent to our bedroom, and I raced back to the bed, leapt on top, and tried to look as though I was a hibernating bear who had not been awake since Fall.

"SURPRISE!"the boys roared.

Jen and I, wielding our ever sharp skills in the crafty arts of astonishment, sat up in shock and wondered to one another what could possible be happening.

Benjamin, forgetting his older brother's sage counsel regarding jumping-on-people's-stomachs promptly jumped on m stomach and almost let the soon-to-be-baby feel his leap, too, but Tyler announced, "Come downstairs!" before he could.

We all peddled down the stairs and Jen and I utilized our we-really-are-astonished astonishment.

Celebrated author C.S. Lewis once wrote a potent autobiography of his journey to faith over a lifetime of reading, study, friendship, and deep thinking, entitled Surprised by Joy. Soon after the book was published, he also met and married an American poet named Joy Davidman--a surprise for an Oxford professor who had come to believe that he might never have what people called romantic love, or a partner in marriage.

These two surprises for Lewis are much deeper than mine--much longer and much more meaningful--and yet on this particular morning, as the clock reads 9:36, and I have just arisen, my joy swells.

As I look around, I see that our boys have spent the morning, as we slept in, cleaning.



Jen and I looked at one another with that mix of surprise and delight that neatly evades definition but can be expressed by any one of a number of monosyllabic expressions.





We said them each, repeatedly, as our boys walked us through all of their morning work.

I was probably a bit to effusive in my praise and gratitude, considering the erudite or terrifying (depending on your natural proclivities as a parent) book, Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, in which they demonstrate that traditional praise can be debilitating to kids. (Aaaah! What about SO MUCH OF EVERYTHING I SAY TO MY KIDS!?). 

But the sheer level of the joy--and the extreme nature of the surprise--have me forgetting my need to focus on the hard work and I go all-out in my effusive gratitude and praise.

Because I remember too many mornings waking up when the clock said 4-something.

Because I remember too many nights staying up long after the kids were asleep and the house was clean, and the clock said 10-something, and I have 43 essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God  to grade before report cards were due tomorrow, or to make a writing deadline, and I all I wanted to do was cry and shout loudly I CANNOT DO IT. I DO NOT HAVE WHAT IT TAKES.

Because I remember that parenting is a job where, even when you feel like you're making some solid, wise decisions, that just meas you about to get slapped with a surprising bad--how could I have made THAT decision?

Because no matter what our struggles, when we are truly and deeply surprised by the kindness of another, it runs deep with us and we remember it and it strips away our fears and foibles--if only for a little while.

Years ago, my wife began a small challenge to us as a family: to become RAKATEERS: or, Random Acts of Kindess (-ateers).

It was very cool. And as I watched her concoct fun schemes like buying neat local jewelry and then stopping by a McDonald's to ask if those behind the counter would be interested in it as a gift, it made me smile. I loved seeing the precise moment when someone received a small bit of a joyful surprise.

This past winter, I felt as though there were many of us who could have used a little more sense of being surprised by joy. Instead, the major headlines seemed to hold forth with surprises of despair, pain, intolerance, and fear. Indeed, fear, protectionism, and lack of compassion seemed to win at the polls and that defeat trickled to many other areas.

But the small moments of joy were still present in the ever-resistant acts of kindness that I saw in my own 7th graders, in our greater society, and in the voices of friends and fighters who stood up for one another with compassion and courage.

And, yes, I even was grateful to receive some small moments of being surprised by joy myself, this late wake-up being not the only one, but one of which I am particularly fond.