I wonder what I would have done had I’d had a child who eschewed school, who wasn’t a student, who didn’t excel at the game, who was “only interested” in learning. I fear I wouldn’t have coped very well. Perhaps my more compassionate husband would have provided the ballast, the voice of reason. I am fairly certain that my son’s and my relationship would have suffered. It is often through books, in the academic, that we find our conversational plane, that we have always done so.
In our growing up together, one year particularly haunts me—for my dismal response to his blossoming independence.
When he was an eighth grader and I a teacher of the same, we struck sparks. Oh, the attitude! While I tactfully managed the shoals of adolescent rebellion, contrariness, vicissitudes of life as a teen in the classroom, I came home to regularly “lose it” with my son. Gone was the patience, the understanding, the compassion; I was tapped out. Now I wonder what exactly he did that was so aggravating, why my exasperation too-often triumphed.
Fortunately he and his father share music and those stoney silences between us disappeared as they practiced guitar and bass in the living room. I would lie upstairs listening as they let the music speak, a conversation that I couldn’t join, and be glad—a bit jealous perhaps—but glad.
We spent that year in a tentative space. Occasionally we would discuss something school-related. I do remember him mentioning Melba Patillo Beals’ memoir Warriors Don’t Cry at some point and being overly excited that he had returned to me for a moment, my boy, my reader.
When summer arrived, I planned our yearly visit to Oregon, not asking him about it, just assuming. The night I brought it up during dinner he said, “Mom, I want to stay here with dad.” Now I see it through a different lens; then I was crushed. Oregon summer visits had been magical, hadn’t they? Sometimes his dad got to join us for the second week. We had the Pacific spread before us.
I went alone and remembered one return flight many years before—Sam was about five—when I was crying on the tarmac before returning to New Jersey. “Mommy, why are you crying?”
“Because I’m leaving home.”
“Well, I’m happy! Oregon may be home to you, but New Jersey is home to me,” he chirped.
During this trip, my trip, I don’t remember us talking on the phone. His dad relayed messages: he’s busy with friends; he’s surfing; he’s skateboarding. But one night close to my return, Sam asked to speak to me. He opened with, “I read that book you recommended, The Contender…” The actual conversation? Who can say?
All I know is the truth of Camus’ words:
“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Within us and between us…