I did not wake up in stellar condition on Sunday morning, so it’s fair to say that I was less than excited to see what appeared to be two three- and four-year old brothers half in and half out of their chairs in the sandwich shop as I entered.
A long evening of bad decisions and over-imbibing on Saturday used most of Sunday to exact its toll, and I was in desperate search of relief. Slothful returns to bed, coffee, a small pile of advil, and two bananas had done little to aid me, so I’d thrown on some sunglasses to protect against a sunlight glare that wasn’t there, and I’d dragged myself two arduous blocks on a quest for some bread.
Aside from the couple in front of me at the counter, the two young boys and their father were the only other people in the shop. They appeared mostly done with their meals, but both boys still casually poked through the remnants. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to their happy chattering, as I was too busy silently and internally judging the couple in front of me for what and how much they ordered, as well as the young man behind the counter for working so slowly.
In reality, it was probably me who needed to be managed more properly. The guy behind the counter was doing a relatively impressive job simultaneously handling multiple tasks on his own, and I ended up making a poor sandwich selection.
The couple had just finished ordering when I heard the father patiently explaining to one or both sons that English was a comparatively difficult language to learn. I was immediately struck by how admirable this was. Although, I had no idea of the context of the larger conversation, I imagined that perhaps one of the boys had inquired about someone they knew or encountered for whom English was not their first language.
Giving their table a quick glance, I noticed that the father had a number of characteristics that fit my stereotype for academics. He looked older than average for a father with sons the age of his, suggesting that he perhaps spent years pursuing an education and career before starting a family.
He had kind of a “catalogue bohemian” look going on. His hair looked as if it probably wasn’t combed underneath his stocking cap, and his short but full beard was a little too shaggy to be called “neat”, but I had no doubt that his clothing bore an overpriced brand name.
He was tall and gangly, and he spoke in a soft, confident, controlled manner that was mature enough for a conversation with his peers, yet not too adult to seem appropriate for his sons. I see the extremes of parental communication often, especially outside of the city’s children’s museum that directly across the street from that sandwich shop, and from where I imagined this little group may have just come.
You can, of course, catch parents shouting angrily at their children anywhere, but the children’s museum seems to provide a venue that also attracts and encourages over-indulgent parents whose speech doesn’t seem to carry the proper authoritative distinction and overly stuffy parents whose speech doesn’t seem to contain the affection or understanding that children require.
Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t always communicate correctly with my two (now grown) children either. I’ve shouted at them in anger, and I’m sure there were days when my responses to their curious inquiries were inadequate and dismissive. That’s what made this man’s response so impressive to me. Not only had he given his sons a fantastic perspective that may foster compassion for others, he’d done so in a caring, effective, and responsible way.
As I was mulling all of this over, a woman who I assume was the mother walked in from outside. There seemed an obvious tension between the two adults. I try not to purposely eavesdrop, so I didn’t catch what she was supposed to have been doing, but there was noticeable disappointment and disapproval in his voice when he asked her, “You mean, you haven’t even gone yet?”
It appeared that she had left him and the boys to eat lunch while she set out solo on some errand or something. When he asked if they should all go with her at this point, she responding by asking if they boys were finished eating, to which they replied that they were not, even though it seemed clear that they really were. I imagine the father would have liked to have issued a hefty sigh at that response, but to his credit, he did not. He simply settled back in at the table while the woman told the boys goodbye and left.
And that’s how it happens, I thought. He’d been doing so well, but reality has a way of nudging you off track, even when you have the noblest of intentions. It’s okay, buddy, I mentally consoled him, we’re all human. Turning back to the mistaken choice I’d made for a sandwich, I considered again what a great thing it was to teach his kids compassion for those trying to learn English.
It wasn’t thirty seconds later than I heard him and his older son genuinely chuckling. “Yes,” he said, “‘Strange’ is kind of a strange-sounding word, isn’t it?”
“Does ‘unusual’ mean ‘strange’?” the boy asked.
“Well, they have very similar meanings,” the father began to explain. He went on to illustrate the nuanced idiomatic and connotative differences between ‘strange’ and ‘unusual’. In a flash, he produced a magnificent example the likes of which I couldn’t have rivaled that quickly if my life depended on it. He explained that while it might be “unusual” to see a large number of cars pass by on a normally quiet street, we might not necessarily describe it that same occurrence as “strange”.
The point, of course, isn’t the linguistic debate over whether or not that word is appropriate to use in that context. What really matters is what this man is doing for his sons. Not only is he satisfying their curiosity with thoughtful, useful answers, he’s encouraging them to think on a level on which many people never learn to think. This is an important and missing element in education and intellectual development today.
We can battle testing bias and write more inclusive curricula. We can hold “the system” accountable, and we can put programs into place to aid those who might otherwise slip through the cracks. What society and the education system can never completely do, though, is act as an entirely comprehensive substitute for parents invested in responsibly molding their children’s minds.
I’m sure this guy had some advantages. For all I know, he could have been a Linguistics professor at a local college, and this may have been the one area he enjoyed covering with his boys because it involved his own interests. Maybe he’s not struggling financially, he’s not exhausted from long hours of strenuous work, no one in his family is terminally ill, and he’s not plagued by any of the other limitless challenges in life that makes it difficult for us to always be the parents we want to and ought to be.
All that I know about him is what I saw. I know that he’s engaging with his sons in meaningful ways that can have a lasting impact. I know that while he wasn’t necessarily thrilled with the interaction he’d had with the woman, he didn’t allow that to stop him from continuing to positively interact with his kids. I know that I wish I had been the kind of father every minute of my kids’ childhoods that this guy was for those ten minutes of his. If that scene was any indicator of the life that family has together, he’s going to make those young men better people, and isn’t that really a parent’s number one job?