Lessons learned, in the classroom and out

I can still remember how the last day of school felt. Watching the second hand slowly sweep around the classroom clock. Would it ever be 3 p.m.? Finally, it was time to go. The school year was done, and ahead was nothing but fun.

When I think about the last day of class, the Alice Cooper song “School’s Out” still plays in my head. I tried singing a few lines to our 5-year-old son, Otis, at the dinner table a few days ago: “No more teachers, no more books …” but stopped before “no more teacher’s dirty looks,” and that part about the school exploding.

Turns out it’s not a very appropriate song for a boy who just finished his first year of school, and loved it. Now that the year’s over, we wonder at how quickly it passed. That’s the prime parental cliché — “enjoy every moment; it passes so quickly” — so far be it from me not to use it.

But it’s true. How the heck did we get here so fast? And can we slow down, please?

Just yesterday, it seems, we were dropping him off for his first day of transitional kindergarten (TK). We joined his TK classmates and their parents for orientation that first day. The teacher called roll, and I remember parental pride as Otis stood and responded with energy, and then turned around to give us a thumbs up. That such simple things can make us happy — that’s one of the joys of being a parent.

When some behavior issues came up a few weeks in we had second thoughts, something I’m now sorry to admit. Would our kid, who could already read and write, really learn anything in this class?

Would he ever.

He was inspired every day by his classmates and his teachers. He learned to draw, follow directions, play, hold his pencil properly, line up, check out a library book, flirt, hold his own and defend a friend. He inspired us with the smile on his face, and we were thrilled when his teachers said his enthusiasm for learning was an example for others.

Now, he’s going back to school. This year we’ll wonder if the kids in kindergarten for the first time will hold the TK-veteran boys and girls back (they won’t). We’ll worry if Otis will find his sweet nature challenged by more rambunctious boys (he will), and I’ll worry if I’ve done my fatherly duty in preparing him for a world of kids who can be cruel to peers perceived as teachers’ favorites.

It’s something I struggle with, to be candid. A single mom raised me, and I had only sisters. So I learned some manly lessons the hard way, by making mistakes and being teased and bullied about it. Everything from how I carried my books to my early lack of skill at sports to the rat-tail comb I carried in my back pocket were subject to schoolyard scrutiny.

I want to be a modern father and avoid ever saying, “Boys don’t do that.” But I also feel like I owe it to my son to help him avoid painful situations. But by imparting my hard-earned insider knowledge do I risk making him self-conscious and self-editing?

Part of the answer is in team sports. He played flag football this spring, and loved it. The coaches made him quarterback most games, I suspect mainly because he pays attention and follows directions a bit better than some kids his age.

Otis would skip with happiness between plays, but I bit my tongue and didn’t tell him, “There’s no skipping in football.” One day a kid who hadn’t been playing center previously hiked the ball unexpectedly, and the ball hit Otis hard in the face. He cried for a second, but he gathered himself with the help of his coach and continued playing. I was proud of him for that, and told him so later.

“Way to take it like a … person,” I said, being careful to use gender-neutral phrasing.

“It’s OK for boys to cry, Dada,” he replied. “You do it all the time.”

Well, he’s got me there. What kind of role model am I, welling up at Pixar films and pop songs, and when my kids give me art? Well, whatever. The kids are stuck with me, but perhaps it’s time I person up and get that crying under control.