Tuxedo

Carter and I were riding in the car this morning.

“They had a meeting with all of fifth grade this week as a reminder about how to act at lunch and in class and with friends,” he says, “this one kid got in trouble a few times for doing things, like real bad things he shouldn’t have.”

An unusually warm February sun shone in the window. I thought about what he said.

Do you know what a gentleman is? I asked.

Not really, he said. I took a breath.

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Open doors.

Say please and thank you, loud enough to be heard.

Pull her chair out. Push her chair in.

Ask to hold her hand.

When the time is right, ask to kiss her.

Be a friend. Stand up for the bullied and stand up to the bullies.

Be a leader. Make those around you better.

Talk. Listen. Respect.  Shake hands. Say goodbye. Look people in the eyes.

Stand at the table when people arrive or leave.

Make your word your bond. Tell the truth. Be honest. Mean it.

Be a good man. Be a good friend. Be a good husband. Be a good father.

Be confident.  Give confidence.

Celebrate wins. Learn from losses. Apologize for wrongs. Don’t gloat over rights.

Be humble. Be sympathetic and empathetic.

Does it make sense? I asked.  He nodded. I think, he said.

Me, your father, and your great grandfather were raised to be gentlemen, to be good men.  I expect you and your brother to be the same, I said.

I want both of you to be known as good men.

He smiled.

We drove on into the afternoon.

Let’s Talk- Identity Part 2

My son has a conversation problem.

Aiden is 5, Carter is 9.  Aiden can, and will, talk your ear off.  Carter didn’t happen to inherit his brother’s social abilities.  He likes to talk, don’t get me wrong, it can just be painful at times.  He tries, hard, to get approval from the ones around him.  We started enjoying some of the “older” Disney Channel shows that feature kids in school and, as we were watching yesterday, I was wondering about his future since he starts fourth grade and will be making his way to middle school soon enough.

Navigating social waters isn’t easy.

Some of my best memories were family dinners at my grandmother’s house.  We would eat the meal and desert, tables cleared, and cardtable top applied.  The games would commence.  I remember it took time before I had a seat at the table but, eventually, I was dealt in to some intense hands of Pinochle.

My grandfather and my dad were involved, my uncles and sometimes other family members.  I think it was there where I learned to talk.  My uncles, Lonnie and John, always had stories.  They always had a way to make you laugh and draw you into the conversation. It was these nights where I picked up the ebb and flow of what it meant to build social interaction.

Underlying anxiety speaks to a larger issue.

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Carter hasn’t had things easy the past few years.  He’s a great kid, athletic and active.  He’s also sensitive. We’ve dealt with bullying and that hasn’t helped anything. He wants to be liked. We all do.

We stand on the bridge of life pulled in two opposing directions:  I want others to like me.-I want to like myself.

For someone like Carter, those sides are often out of balance.

I believe it is that way for a lot of us.

Scroll through Facebook and you’ll find plenty of inspirational images about Capturing the Day! Hustling!  and You Be You! Even with these messages (and the people behind them making millions from seminars, books and podcasts) the drive is still there.  We still want to be liked, to be loved, to be accepted.

My goal for Carter this summer is to start helping navigate the social waters, to think about his attitude and mindset and be aware of what he’s doing when he’s doing it. To find security in himself.  For a kid that has dealt with anxiety, that is a steep mountain to climb.

Let’s take it down a deeper level and get real.  As parents, we want our kid to be liked.  I wasn’t the prom king or anything near that, but I had friends in a few different circles.  I didn’t have any deep friends and I dealt with bullying myself. I remember that feeling, like one of those cartoon black holes that opened under Wiley Coyote when he was chasing the Roadrunner, that space that felt like it would swallow me up.  Time slowed to a stop. It felt like being pinned against a wall by stares and comments, laughter and pointing. It felt like it would never end.

I don’t want that for Carter.

I don’t believe there is any surprise to the rise in teenage suicide rates.  The humiliation is easier to see and spread.  What was once material in the cafeteria or playground is shared to thousands on social media at the touch of a button. Kids don’t see a way out.

The company line, for those of us who profess a life of faith in following Jesus, is that we find our identity with him as a new creation. I believe this. I also know the hurt is real.  I’ve seen it in Carter’s eyes.

Security comes in impermanence, in knowing that it too shall pass.  In knowing that those hurting others were probably hurt themselves and only doing what they know.

Parenting is not easy.  Each day they get older.  Each day brings new highs and lows, challenges and success. The trick is to not miss a moment, to grasp and use it, to know that the moments will fade, the scars will heal. Life goes on.

I remember, as a kid, standing next to my dad at the beach.  We’d stand where the waves were just ending and watch as the sand was pulled back away and our feet were buried with the current.  Maybe that’s the point.

We are either moving towards the glorious turbulence of a fulfilled life or away from it, back on to the sand.  We must keep moving because, if we stand still, we’ll sink.

Lessons Learned

Next time you’re in a social gathering and the conversation lulls, start talking about school.  Just the word carries an interesting association for us.  Some people have good memories of school, others not so good with things like bullying or struggle.  School meant proving yourself against the standards of your friends, parents, and society.

It was a metaphor for life.

A story stuck with me this week out of Pakistan. A terrorist group had broken into a military school and killed more than 150 people including more than 100 children. This was done in retaliation to military activities in the region.  A hundred children lost their lives in a war they had nothing to do with.

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Photo Credit: Nicolas P. Tschopp via Compfight cc

I was a student in high school myself when Columbine happened and I remember our teachers turning it on to watch on televisions in the classrooms.  This kind of thing was so foreign at the time.  Schools were safe, our 9-5 jobs while the real world happened outside the walls.  Suddenly, when kids could get guns and bring them into a school building to kill people, life was not the same.

Last week, I wrote about why we write. There is something else to add.

As writers we have a responsibility to the world. We are called to be voices in the darkness, to stand up for those who cannot speak, to let our words capture outrage against violence, fury for those who suffer, and hope against discrimination.

Our pages should be fiery sermons delivered digitally and in print calling the world to attention.   We should be Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, lone figures shining bright for peace and refusing to go quietly into the night.

We should be matches that light the fires of change.

Yesterday I was talking with a friend from Reading, Pennsylvania, the city that is the topic of my next book-in-progress.  She has resided there twenty years now and seen the true depths of poverty and redemption.  We were talking about what it meant for her to call the poorest city in the country home.

She looked at me and said:

“You need to tell the story, to tell what’s happening in this city with these people who are struggling.”

She’s my inspiration and her advice applies to you too.

You need to tell your story, so what are you waiting for?

~Matt

A Post for My Son’s Bully

Carter is doing kindergarten this year for a second time.  He’s a mid-August birthday and we started him too young last year for his first shot at elementary school.  He’s asked us, more than once, why he isn’t in first grade with his friends.  This morning he was really upset when Val dropped him off at school.  I called and talked to his guidance counselor.  She talked to him and he seemed to feel better.

Then we had baseball practice.

A kid he was in class with last year is on the team and this kid does not let up with the questions as to why Carter isn’t in first grade.  Today it escalated to insults. “Carter can’t hit. Carter can’t throw.  Carter’s a failure (yes, he actually said it.) He’s a big crybaby, etc.”

I was pitching when this was going on and I can’t tell you what it was like throwing to Carter while he was standing there trying his hardest not to cry. As a dad, saying it breaks your heart is an understatement and this is why:

I was picked on in school and, to this day, I can remember every moment of it.

Carter and I stopped and got dinner after practice.  I asked Carter if he likes this kid and he said yes, they are friends, but he doesn’t like when he is mean.

He has his mother’s heart and a soul that cares about the world, even one who hurts him.

So, for this kid, this bully, I have a message.

You will not win.

You will be overcome by the gracious heart of a child willing to look past your antics and be your friend.

You will plant a seed in Carter that grows his heart even wider and deeper, allowing him to love others and stand up when he sees someone being bullied because of empathy, because he was there once when you put him there.

You will be a catalyst that makes my son a better man, father, and husband.

You will not break his soul, deaden his passion, or make him feel like lesser of a person.

You will be a teaching point, a moment in his past that he can learn from and use to build himself into a stronger person.

The hardest thing, as a parent, is to find a balance.  My gut is to grab control and stamp it out immediately. I also know I can’t always be with him, that he’s on his own at school five days a week and will need to navigate his social situation.  This is new territory.

Before bed, I knelt before him and promised him that I would always be there. I told him I would look out for him and that he was the more important than he would ever know.  He hugged me and said, “I love you daddy” and that is all the fuel I need to wake up in the morning and do it all again tomorrow.

~Matt

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