There is a game my sister and I used to play with our dad called ‘can’t get up’. We would lie down in his lap as he tickled us and then – when we couldn’t breathe from laughing – he would pretend to release us. As soon as we were about to jump off his lap he would pull us back down and say, ‘Oh no I’m just kidding you can’t get up!’ We would play for hours, never knowing whether it would only be a few seconds before he pulled us back down or if he would let us crawl all the way off his lap and try to run away before dragging us back to be tickled. Each time we knew we were never actually free, but it delighted and surprised us every single time. The kids have been back for a few weeks now, but some of the students stayed behind for the summer holidays for various reasons. So I spent most of my time during the day with Kiruba, a previoulsy-shy-but-now-won’t-stop-talking-first-grader. She hopped up onto my lap at the end of lunch one day and I decided to see if ‘can’t get up’ is a universally loved game. Turns out it is. At first she had no idea why I kept telling her she could get off my lap and then immediately pull her back, but she caught on quickly and soon would jump back into my lap and say ‘Again can’t get up!’.
I don’t always know how to describe my job to people. The easiest thing to say is that I teach at a school in India, but this is inadequate because a) I mostly do administrative things and actually really miss teaching and b) you are more than a teacher when you work at a boarding school. You are around the kids 24/7 and, especially if you have been there for a long time, they come to you for more than help with schoolwork. You become their role models, their mentors, and – essentially – their fill-in parents. You teach them math and conduct spelling bees, but you also bandage their wounds, dry their tears, and remind them to say please when they ask to borrow something. Today – on father’s day – I think about my parents and the things I’ve learned from my year with 300 children.
Things I’ve Observed About Parenting
You never get to pick music anymore. I remember dictating the radio stations and CDs we always listened to while driving in pre-license times and never thought much of it. But I know now – as soon as you put on a song YOU like (especially if it is from a previous decade), someone will ask to change it to something else within 20 seconds. And usually that something else is One Direction. Also, hunger doesn’t disappear – you just think that someone else’s hunger is more important. “No, I don’t want the last Oreo” is what you say but really all you want is another Oreo. And when you go out for the day you immediately start asking yourself important logistical questions. Do I have band-aids? When will we stop for bathroom breaks? What snacks do I have in case anyone gets hungry? You must drop everything and come when called. And usually you get called as soon as you sit down. Or lie down to take a nap. Or in the early hours of the morning on Sunday when no one besides you thinks that you should be sleeping. Moodiness is a thing, but often it has nothing to do with you. Kids (and especially teenagers) have a lot of hormones and you can’t take grumpiness personally. That said, they will sometimes get mad at you and there is nothing you can do about it. They will also make fun of you and say that you are strange and old, but you will never be more unconditionally loved or admired. Every move you make is watched and modeled and your opinion means the world. One time after a reasonably lengthy ‘I’m disappointed in you’ speech, the kids came up to me a few hours later with crestfallen faces. They wanted to know if I thought they were bad kids and what they could do to make it up to me (side note: keeping a strict face is almost impossible when this happens). Also, you will get angry and it is ok. Shouting is almost never the answer, but it happens too sometimes so don’t beat yourself up. Handwritten notes mean more than any other gift. But you also learn to gasp in surprise when given a leaf. An old pen. A rock. A drawing that is supposed to be you but mostly looks like DNA. You take too many pictures of them and suddenly don’t care if you are in the pictures or not. We had a game day with flour, balloons, and more towards the end of spring semester and after an hour + of taking pictures of their fun, I realized I neither cared that I was not participating in the fun nor that I was not in any of the pictures. The only thing that mattered was capturing their happiness. It wasn’t until the kids insisted that I be in a few did I hand over my camera. Most of the pictures from childhood vacations are of my mom, my sister, and me. Dad always took the pictures and now I understand why. You also write down all of the funny things that they say – most recently, this color commentary on West Side Story by the 10th graders.
“Is this music?” – During the musical interlude at the beginning. She meant, “Is the whole thing just music?” but that’s not as funny.
“Where is this?” “Massachusetts.” – As New York City fades onto the screen.
“Oh they’re snapping.”
“I want to be the one in the stripes.”
“Now they’re skipping.”
“They’re snapping again.”
“Tony is so much taller than Maria.”
And when Tony and Maria kiss at the dance – “Wait, what about her boyfriend, Nicho?” “Its Chino, you idiot.”
Side note: you also scold them when they speak unkindly to one another.
As much as you need time alone, you miss them after just one day of not being with them. You want to protect them from everything – whether it is heartbreak, bad test scores, or the campus security dogs that decide to ambush you as you walk across campus (there was a lot of screaming, bruise-inducing grips, and being used a human shield). And when you can’t solve their problems or fix their sadness – your presence, your hand, your kind words and even your body become a source of comfort (and suddenly all those squishy parts you once wanted to turn into muscle don’t matter anymore because you realize your body is soft and warm and perfect for hugging and absorbing tears). Your fingers also seem to stretch as a result of being held by five little hands at once all the time. You learn to celebrate different levels of accomplishment with equal levels of enthusiasm. You learned the difference between a square and a rectangle!? Cheers! You graduated from high school and got into college!? Hooray! Speaking of which, suddenly seeing the twelfth graders dance their final waltz on stage and then drive away to college….I knew it would be emotional but I didn’t expect it to hit so hard because I never thought I could love 300 kids so much. Not only do you love them more than you thought possible – you LIKE them and love discovering what cool people they are. Their quirks, talents, acts of kindness. You beam when you see what awesome people they are becoming and hope that maybe, maybe you had a little bit to do with it. I have only been in their lives for one year so I can’t take credit, but they have certainly changed me forever.
As it is father’s day (and mother’s day was not too long ago), I want to say thank you to my parents. You have raised two level-headed, independent, and joyful women. And a special thanks to my dad for taking the time to play ‘can’t get up’ over and over and over again. I never knew how much patience and love went into such a simple game. We won’t really appreciate all that you have done for us until we have kids of our own, but I think I understand a little bit better now.