I’ve never played the game, “Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon.” All I know is that when I follow the causal chains of my high school misfortunes back, and back, and back, eventually they lead to the original source of my troubles: Robert Redford. Let me explain. Like other women of her generation, it was an open secret that my mom had a crush on Jack Kennedy. With his four-fold gifts-young, handsome, Catholic, and smart-for women of her generation, he truly was the full-meal deal. When President Kennedy died, some version of a vacant lot formed within my mother’s soul, and remained unoccupied until someone similarly gifted could come along and place a down payment on that vacated property. In the 1974 movie, “The Great Gatsby,” Robert Redford made purchase on a hidden corner of my mom’s heart. That was the beginning of my bad year.
The period wardrobe for Redford’s, Jay Gatsby, included pants with wide cuffs on the bottom, atop ridiculous saddle shoes with elevated heals. When it came time to trade in my Catholic elementary school uniform for a new high school wardrobe, my mom decided that I should begin that career looking as dashing as Robert Redford.
On my very first day, I purchased two arm-loads of books representing more than half of my body weight. My facial muscles strained to maintain a relaxed pose while my rubber-band arms tensed to hold up and balance my precarious load. Like a street performer standing on a ball, balancing a pole on his head, and announcing, “And now I shall attempt to juggle these swords”…I approached a long flight of stairs.
Until Janet Jackson, the world had never seen a more dramatic wardrobe malfunction. The high heel of my Robert Redford shoe became lodged within the cuff of my Robert Redford pants. With no arms to break my fall, I tumbled headfirst down those steps, brand new books splayed out in front of me. Immediately, several hundred boys began a guttural chant, “Hey!” “Hey!” “Hey!” “Hey!” The chorus swelled as my books were kicked a city block down hallways. Like a mouse scurrying between hostile feet, I gathered what books I could see. Several minutes later, after the halls had cleared, I collected up the remaining tattered, dirty, brand new books. A tone was set on that day. The rest of my Freshman year would follow a similar script. Thank you Robert.
One of the cruelest ironies in our human lives is the way in which some developmental transitions occur when we are least prepared to deal with them. That truth is self-evident in old age. In the last chapter of our lives, just when energy levels and capacities are waning, life’s challenges are waxing. “Old age,” my grandfather used to say, “is not for sissies.”
It seems to me that the shift from grade to high school represents a similar mismatch between the tasks of one’s developmental stage, and the inherent deficits embedded within that phase. All those years ago, it wasn’t just my Robert Redford wardrobe that made me feel silly in my new environment. My new quirky body succeeded in growing fuss and zits, but not height. In grade school, when it was desirable to look and sound like Justin Beiber, I had sports, and beautiful/charming Cindy Vose to keep me occupied. Freshman year, sports and girls migrated to those boys blessed with a precocious infusion of testosterone and the consequent developmental benefits therein. Insecurity, rather than Cindy or sports became both my companion and occupation. Nature, herself, set the stage for a choppy transition.
This Thursday, my son graduated from his beloved school of eleven years (three pre-school years plus First through Eighth). During that time, his peers regarded him as a leader. Younger children looked up to him for his sports exploits and kindly attitude toward them. For eleven years, John Harry found a home where he thrived, and helped others thrive as well. Within ninety short days, my son will be transplanted from this small, warm pond into a much larger environment where his colleagues have had two middle school years to bond and form an identity together.
These days, when I look over at my fourteen-year-old son, who will be making this huge shift, I see that nature is up to her old tricks again. Within the span of less than a year, my boy has gained two shoe sizes. As if balancing oneself atop two kayaks all day long weren’t bad enough, JH’s limbs and height have stretched to Ichabod Crane-like lengths. Like a foal attempting to operate new wobbly legs, my previously compact point guard is struggling to relearn the skills he had once mastered: dribbling a basketball, walking on an uneven sidewalk, and speaking without yodeling. Last Friday, I observed at a distance, the awkward, heartbreaking aftermath of a girl, whom he has courted for two years, turning him down.
At transitions like these, I find myself looking back to simpler times, at younger versions of my son. It is not hard to recall the stout, baby belly laughs, the boy playing boats in the sink, the fleeting MLB/NBA/FIFA aspirations. Throughout all the phases of his life, my bedtime ritual for JH has included a lullaby followed by a blessing:
“God, bless John Harry’s eyes that he might see your beauty in the world. Bless his ears, that he can hear your word. Bless his mouth that he will always speak the truth. Bless his mind that he may know you. Bless his heart that he will know your wisdom, courage and peace. Bless his arms and hands that he might always do your play and work. Bless his legs and feet that he will always go where you will lead him.”
At his graduation, my son gave a speech. In it, he said that his childhood lullabies did so much more than make him sleepy. He said that it caused a “title wave of good feelings to rush over him.” Those feelings, he said, included a sense of being rooted in his family, and his faith. He went on to say, that as he makes this transition, it will be up to him to find his own song, a song that harmonizes with, and takes up those old melodies into the new melody he will put together.
As I listened, something shifted. Suddenly I could see past the floppy haired, gangly boy standing in shoes two sizes too big. On that stage, I could see something emerging from the temporary period costume that my son was wearing. What I began to glimpse was something of the man that John Harry is becoming. That’s when it occurred to me. God was there at each and every bedtime. God has heard every one of those bedtime prayers, and has been busy bringing them to fruition. And in that knowledge, I hold fast to a conviction that brings a dad the kind of peace that the world cannot give…”My boy’s gonna be all right.”…”My boy’s gonna be all right.”