January 31, 1996 Gregory, 13, brought anxiety to my heart today by letting his mom and me know, all too late, that his grades in Algebra this semester “may have” dropped from A to D. May have? That’s called breaking the news gradually. He is preparing for a career in politics as a spin-doctor.
Why have they dropped? Because he hasn’t been turning in his homework assignments. “Why haven’t you been turning in your homework assignments?” I ask calmly, with a little tingle of dread forming somewhere in my solar plexus.
“Because I don’t care. I got behind a little and then a little more and then I just ignored it. If I had problems to do I just went out to play and didn’t turn it in so I got zeros.”
His honesty at this point was commendable and spoken with such simplicity and resignation that I felt my stomach begin to relax. I have always been much more concerned with our children’s character and the quality of their attention then their grades. The semester was over and he couldn’t ignore it anymore. That was clear. We got the background story now. It seems that whenever his mother had asked him if he had homework he would tell her “No”. He had lied. That hurts the most. Why had we believed him? Because he has always been so honest.
A colleague at work told me his kids lied to him. “All kids lie” he said. I thought to myself, “Mine don’t.” As if reading my mind he said out loud, “Yours do too, you just don’t know it.” I felt anger rise in me the moment he said it and I wanted to defend them. Nothing noble in that. I was just vaingloriously delusional that my kids were different. Why? There’s a story in the Gospels about a Pharisee who prayed saying, “Thank God I’m not like that tax collector over there…” and my kids aren’t like those other parent’s kids either… Lord forgive me!
The wound created by the denial and deceit Gregory allowed himself to indulge in concerned me, lest the passions responsible for this had gotten a foothold in him. That’s how the demons work. The more we give in to the narcotic alternatives they offer us to avoid reality and ignore our conscience, the weaker our spiritual immune system grows. The heart hardens just a little bit and it becomes easier and easier to ignore our conscience. When we do, these spiritual viruses multiply and take over until habit makes us their slaves.
Having a task or a difficult problem to solve and not asking for help is one thing. Not attempting to even tackle it suggests a touch of resignation and despair lurking about. Pretending you don’t care so as to avoid awareness of the pangs of conscience and then adding a dose of revelry with friends completes the cocktail that begins to numb the lamb as it is separated from its family and led to the slaughter by the noetic wolves. We are saved together in community, but we fall alone. Jesus reminded his disciples, “Cut off from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5) Lying to yourself comes before lying to those you love, but the truth remains reality, no matter how long it is forgotten, hidden in a divided soul. That’s why confession is good for the soul. It restores community.
I had some fear that Gregory’s desire to avoid the pain of failure and the pangs of conscience, if not nipped in the bud, might open a window into other forms of evasion and isolation like an alcohol or drug problems at some point in the future. These fears were probably exaggerated, but since I work with kids who use drugs and have big denial problems in their lives, it seemed a reasonable thought. A gambler I knew lost everything because he could never convince himself that the losses he was incurring were not due to losing bets, but due to the compulsive hope that the next time…would be a win. Procrastination, avoidance and denial are all part of the gambit of using our imagination to substitute for reality.
As I’m listening to Gregory explain his decisions, my thoughts begin to escalate quickly to “what could be.” My stomach is in knots again. I have to watch this because it’s also a response to imagination, a presumption my mind rushes to that threatens to shut down the listening heart. Forecasting the future as if it has already happened interferes with love, however correct or justified it may seem as a possibility.
As I’m listening, I recall that Gregory was supposed to show me his work each week for the six weeks because of the C he made in one of his subjects last marking period. He didn’t do this except for one week. Why? He says he forgot. I can’t very well say anything, even though it disappoints me, because I forgot to ask him. He couldn’t count on me to honor my request. Could that be part of the picture? If what I ask of him is not important enough for me to remember to do why should he? What am I teaching him by my own actions of forgetting?
Maybe I am in denial too? I have been concerned that I have had to repeatedly remind him “Take your allergy shot. Feed Eli (the dog) and Brutus (his Iguana). Take out the garbage.” It doesn’t seem to me so much to ask, but he seems so pained by me reminding him that I hesitate to create conflict by confronting him about it. It’s a catch-22 that frustrates me.
He doesn’t do these things unless I remind him. But if I have to remind him he gets mad and is less likely the next time to remember to do them. When he forgets, I take it as a passive-aggressive way to make me angry so that when I remind him he can defeat me by reacting to my irritation with him. My helplessness to find a way to break this cycle and instill a love for responsibility in him is painful enough for me that I forget to remind him!
Gregory washes his own clothes by himself without our help and he generally washes the dishes when it’s his turn. We operate the household as a community and each one has chores. I want him to be alert and responsible for himself, to be someone you can count on to contribute, like a man should be. Maybe I’m too demanding. It’s not easy to find the right fit.
When his teacher called to let us know he wasn’t turning in his homework, he and his younger sister heard it on the answering machine when they got home from school and he played it back and erased it. Christi told Claudia about it and Gregory admitted doing it.
Caught red-handed and only then does he tell me his grades this marking period “aren’t going to be so good.” He says, “Seventy-five percent of the kids in the school don’t like me.” What’s that got to do with it? I hear this complaint as pure camouflage to avoid the issue and turn away the father’s wrath by making me feel sorry for him. He’s been out roving in the neighborhood happy as a lark with several new and old friends for weeks now, even getting along at school with his two proverbial nemeses. Now all of a sudden when he’s about to get in trouble for not turning his homework and getting a D in his class, he turns on the “Woe is me, nobody likes me!” stuff which in the past has got our attention because we were sympathetic to his status as the new kid in town.
We had moved from Pennsylvania to Georgia more than three years earlier. It had been a difficult transition for them. There was no Orthodox presence in Columbus. The closest thing to the word Orthodox that his classmates knew was Orthodontics, so that got some laughs for a while. Raised vegetarian, our children were now living in barbecue country. They had attended an International Montessori School all their lives and now had to sit still in desks in rows and not talk with the other students. Raised without television, they couldn’t relate to the characters in the TV shows kids talked about. Their northern accents only served to confirm that they were outsiders and keep them on the radar.
But this time I wasn’t buying it. In my mind Gregory’s attempt to use this ploy only added another stone to the scales tipping toward the direction of ways I thought he was learning to avoid being direct and owning responsibility for his actions. He was, to my mind, in danger of losing the character and life we had tried so carefully to help him develop.
For the next marking period the decision is that Gregory must show me each of his assignments and demonstrate that he has completed them each day. I tell him this is because I cannot take his word for it since he lied to us. He cannot go out to play with his friends until all the work is completed. This means that he will not be able to have the Valentine’s party he and Christi were planning because he has been lying to his mother and because as we learned, his preoccupation with a fickle girl’s feelings about him that he’s had a mighty crush on, has left him so scattered and distracted inwardly that he hasn’t been able to keep his mind on anything else. He was not happy about that!
After the end of the next marking period if his grades are back up and he’s been honest in every other way, we will begin again on trust to let him be in charge of going out and coming in and his school work, because ultimately that is what this is all about – him being responsible for himself.
I told him that in the past I’ve been more concerned with his feelings of exclusion, but he is reaching an age when he must grow something in himself that is stronger than feelings – the ability to do the right thing, even when he feels otherwise. A man and a Christian must be able to tell the truth and act responsibly even in the face of rejection and persecution just as Jesus did. He must be able to do the good thing when he doesn’t want to and to keep his mouth shut when he wants to open it and say the wrong thing.
Later I talked with Christi alone in the prayer closet about her awareness of other people. Her teacher noted on her report card, “excessive talking” and her mother and I had noticed lately how when she gets excited she loses her awareness of other people and repeatedly intrudes on them in conversation without realizing it, as if what she has to say is the only thing that matters.
She listened carefully with attention and considered what I was saying. The tears brimming in her eyes went away as soon as I patted her on the leg and assured her she wasn’t in trouble or bad, just something to learn. We all struggle with it and I’m glad we can talk about it. It was one of those conversations where I felt especially close to her, able to share something important with her and no extra static or emotional detours present – just heart to heart father and daughter with love and affection.
Looking back at the struggles of those years, having lived another twenty years since then, affords a different perspective. Gregory finished his landscape architecture masters degree with a 3.99 GPA, winning awards and graduating at the top of his class. He is as honest as the day is long, generous, hard working and kind. We have preserved and deepened a friendship that allows us talk easily about things and get to know our differences without there having to be a winner and a loser. On those occasions when there is a spark of the old battles of the teen years, we both recognize our parts more quickly and try not to inflict them on each other.
I read to him some from my journal recently when he was visiting. I was in tears from a grateful heart at places as I read my description of these events we lived twenty years earlier and how I was thinking and feeling about it at the time. The man he has turned out to be in spite of my own defects in helping him get here, serves to remind me that God is at work in our lives constantly helping us, though we tend to think only of our own efforts which may seem futile at the time.
Listening to stories about himself as a boy now that he is near the age his father was at the time I was writing about them. It’s also a kind of confession to my adult son who can empathize with the difficulties we both had at the time. Making myself visible to him in this way re-members both of us as he gains a greater understanding of the boy he once was from the perspective of the man and beloved son of his father that he is now. The liturgy at the altar of the heart of one another continues.
At one point as I am reading aloud, Gregory starts laughing. I stop and ask what it is. “So that was the reason! I had forgotten why I couldn’t have that Valentine’s party…”
Forgotten huh? I’m glad I wrote it down. We all need to be re-membered.