Sunday, May 27, 2012

Fathers and Sons

One of the things I'm most proud of with my YA novel PULL is the way it brings different generations together.

At a recent meeting with a Mt. Prospect United Methodist Mens' Club, one of the listeners bought a copy and had me autograph it to give to his grandson for his eighteenth birthday. A week later I met him and he told me he had started the book, and almost didn't give it to the boy. Fortunately, the young man got his present, but the grandfather checked the book out of the library (The YA section!!) to read himself, saying he'd been hooked by those first pages.  It's not the first time I've heard of fathers reading PULL with their sons, but it is the first grandfather.

But that also made me remember an incident that happened about a month ago. I was in my local library. It was almost closing time, but I wanted to pick up a quick read. I went to the back area, where they keep the paperback romances (you know, the books they want to keep away from the real "literary" works)  I admit I haunt those books too, along with YA. As I approached the racks I heard a man talking. Okay arguing. Then yelling. They have tables in the back, and sometimes people go there to study. I looked around the stacks and saw an older man and a teen aged boy with books and papers spread out in front of them.

Mind Your Own Business

I really tried to mind my own business. But the older man kept yelling. They were working on Algebra, and he kept after the kid about one problem. It went on and one. There were just the three of us back there, and I don't know if either of them were aware of my presence. I don't remember the exact words, but they were insulting and degrading. The teen said nothing. He stared at the wall, then down at the table. It was embarrassing to hear these things said to the boy who was obviously the older man's son. I stood frozen for several minutes, doing the deer in headlights thing as I looked around the book rack at the poor boy.

I even turned and began walking away. I wanted to get back to the front of the library, away from that train wreck and the poor boy who had to go home with that man. I was halfway down the corridor, still hearing the man behind me, when I stopped.

It wasn't a WWJD (what would Jesus do) moment, but I swear I heard a voice inside me calling me a coward. I was scared. I wanted to stop what was going on behind me, but I felt too cowardly to intervene. But I am a parent. And helping teens is my platform. I spent a moment thanking God I had the sense to hire a tutor for my own child instead of doing it myself and risking destroying our relationship the way this father was destroying his. Then another moment to tell myself that if this really matters I need to be willing to stand up and do something.

Mostly I remembered the sullen, shell-chocked look on the teen's face when I saw him staring at the wall.

I Went Back.  

I couldn't just ignore this and live withmyself.

I lied a little bit -- okay, exaggerated, claiming I was a tutor (I have helped some kids with their schoolwork) and that maybe the boy was having some issues with more basic concepts. If the father was willing to go back to those, maybe his son could get this problem.

The older man remained belligerent, but his volume lowered. I explained that sometimes when I worked with kids it helped to go go over the basics without resorting to shear volume. At least the man did not look like he wanted to hit me, an impression I got when he was dealing with his son. But he did let me know I was an idiot. Those concepts had been covered months ago, if his son didn't get them by now he was an idiot.

The kid continued to stare at the table. So help me, he was almost as big as me, no relationship, but I wanted to put my arms around him and protect him.

I tried again and was told the boy was simply being stubborn. "Look at how he's turned himself off, he just doesn't care," the man said, his voice thick with anger. I realized he saw his son's problem as a personal reflection on himself. Nothing I could say in the final minutes before the library closed would change that.

I did try one last time. "If someone yelled at me the way you yelled at him, I'd turn myself off too," I said.

This time I did leave. I heard only silence behind me.

I'm glad I did something, even though it probably made no long-term difference.  I hope their relationship is not irreparably damaged.

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