Friday, October 25, 2013

Stealing Hubcaps with Dad

Before it became fashionable, my Dad did something not many parents did:  he took each of his children to work with him.  As a college professor, Dad could choose to include his children in his working life more than, say, a sergeant in the army or a member of the S.W.A.T. team.  Although it took a little effort, keeping track of us and entertaining us, Dad thought it was important to show his kids—individually—what he did for a living. 

Each time he brought me to his work, he would introduce me and say to the class, “I bring my kids to work so they don’t think I steal hubcaps for a living.”  That statement, while succinct, reveals much more than my Dad’s anathema to stealing—plus, I don’t know if my Dad would be good at stealing hub caps.

Dad’s effort to include us into his work life produced in us the curiosity that kids who did not visit their parent’s work have.  Those days at the school gave us a hint of his world, introducing us to the passion in his life.  I grew up with some kids whose father was the silent monolith who came home and weighed down the couch for a few hours before he passed out. They “knew” their father, but they didn’t really understand what made him tick.  I’m not saying that a few visits to the school where he taught revealed the inner secrets of his soul, but I could see why he spent many of his waking hours there at the college.

I never lived through one of those days with Dad without seeing a different side of him.  At the college, he wasn’t the authoritarian parent, but the tour guide to the rest of his life.  I got to see him as a professor, a person in charge of teaching all these cool kids, and he was able to teach me a little about his world.  Those days showed me more about my Dad than weeks of living in our home with him.  He was excited about what he did, and his interactions with students showed us that he was capable of something else other than hauling in groceries from the car or mowing the lawn.   They respected him and he loved teaching them.

As with most boys, school itself was a jagged little pill we had to swallow daily.  Aside from recess and lunch, school wasn’t the best place in the world for a Towles boy.  Yet Dad’s excursion to school allowed us to see a different part of school that most kids couldn’t see until they started shopping for colleges to attend. 

To a 10-year-old kid, a college campus is like Disney World.  It’s familiar, but nothing like I’d ever seen.  College was school, but it didn’t seem like anyone did any studying.  These students were adults, but they looked like kids.  And every college student was cool.  Every single one.  And my Dad was the person who introduced me to all these cool college kids.

Taking us to school with him was an individual time, where each one of us got to spend the entire day with Dad, beginning with the drive in to work.   With a boiling cauldron of pre-adolescent humanity greeting him at the house whenever he came home, you would think that one-on-one time would be an added tour of duty.  Yet Dad made it special.  On the way to school, he would put me to work.  Since I made him get there later than usual, he would let me help him on the drive to the college.  Dad would give me the list of students and make me call out their names while he prayed for each one.  I wasn’t there, flipping with the radio channels or asking ten thousand questions.  By the time we got through praying for the students, we were there on campus, ready for the day.  He would tell me which class we were visiting and what we were learning that day.  He would tell me where to sit and what page of the book the class was learning.  (I got to carry college books.  I was the man.) 

I was introduced to almost every student he had in the class.  Meeting all those people was terrific, but it wasn’t the best part.  The classes were great, but they weren’t the best part.  Missing school was a terrific idea, but that wasn’t what I looked forward to the most.  You know what I loved the most?  The food.  Yep, the cafeteria at the college where my Dad taught was awesome.  I could eat all I wanted to eat, and I actually wanted to eat all I could.  Unlike the food at my school, college food tasted good, and Dad and I would fill up on what college students actually ate:  waffles, cookies, and Pepsi.   

I am sure that those visits to the college were a great break for my teachers, but that wasn’t why my Dad brought me to school.  After those visits to the school, I not only knew more about my Dad’s work, I knew more about my Dad.  We spent one-on-one time and we found out about each other. 

As I am a parent now, I want those days with Jonah, where he can see what I’m doing at work and why I’m doing it.  I don’t want my son to go through life wondering where I go when I leave in the morning, and, more importantly, why I’m leaving to go to work.  I learned a lot about my Dad during those days at work.  I learned that my Dad is a shameless teacher, willing to be goofy to make a point.  I learned that he walks really fast from his office to the classroom, and he drinks coffee constantly.  I learned that he will eat almost anything.  Doesn’t sound like much, but to a ten-year-old boy, it was the Rosetta Stone of my Dad’s life. 

Most of the stuff I learned during those visits didn’t even involve conversation, but when we talked, it was important.  It was important for me as a boy to learn that men need to talk to each other … that Dads need alone time with sons … that men are not born, they’re raised.  He taught me that Dads talk to their kids because Dads care.   Those trips to the college taught me that Dads weren’t big silent monoliths who ignored their family.  He taught me that Dads were active.  Dads aren’t mysterious demi-gods who raise kids from on high.  My father is many things to me, but mysterious and aloof are not a part of those things.  I know Dad because he chose to hang out with me—a tough thing to do with a ten-year-old boy—and he talked to me.

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