the papa diaries part three — in the wake of a changed world

The back story:

Last weekend, my dad gave me a binder full of the (perfectly organized and chronologically ordered) speeches he had written and delivered at the moving up ceremonies for his students over his forty-five year career as a middle school principal.

When I asked how he’d feel about me sharing the text of the speeches, he pointed to the binder. “It’s yours now,” he said. “Do whatever you’d like with it.”

While the timelines and specific milestones to which my dad refers in his speeches may not apply for many of our kids, I believe that much of what he says is universally applicable. And with that, I am honored to share my dad’s words (edited very slightly for length and format.)

Note: His school was grades 5-7, so when he refers to 60 months until high school graduation, it is because the kids started high school in the 8th grade. 

My dad delivered this speech in June of 1999,  just two months after students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire at their high school in Columbine, Colorado, killing twelve students and a teacher, injuring twenty-one others and forever changing all of us …

As difficult as this subject is, I feel it is incumbent upon me today to begin my remarks by speaking about the recent horrors we have been bombarded with through the media, bringing schoolyard carnage into our living rooms from all over our country.

Although I know this present audience is the exception, I would offer you some counsel so that you may pass it on to people you know who might profit from it.

I believe that for the past thirty years plus, we as a society, while stating that we value listening and talking with our children, have done neither in the manner that we should have. We have, rather, permitted them unbridled speech and license to do as they would without the balance of parent-imposed discipline and control. Control that comes without being held emotional hostage to a child who says, “If you loved me you would …” or, “I hate you,” to the parent who denies the prize.

Children need, seek, and hope for limits set by the adults around them, both by the words and deeds of those adults. The very best thing we can do as parents is to follow our viscera and say NO when NO should be said.

Say no when no should be said.

If I could gift you anything on this special day, I would give you the strength to follow your hearts when you deal with the issues you will surely have to face with these, your very own children. You and we have been blessed with wonderful children who sit before us today, ready to move on to high school. They arrived here partially because you have been willing to put forth the effort and skill necessary for their growth and success.

As I think about them, our children, I wonder about my own child, Jessica, as well. Is this all just a cruel hoax? Is this some master plan to give me unmatched joy only to snatch it away just when I finally begin to understand its meaning and relevance to what life is all about?

Why was I given this joy and awesome responsibility to take this tiny squab of an infant, only six pounds and all pink with eyes that stared but didn’t focus, into my hands? Why was I asked to hold her tiny body, just the size of my hand and forearm, and nurture her? Why did I hold that tiny, wonderful head, far too big for the slender neck on which it was rooted, and wonder at her magic? Why did I give myself, my emotions, my dreams to this beautiful creature? Why did she show me that big grin with only two little baby teeth right in the center of that dribbling pink mouth?

That little face is forever captured in my heart.

Why did that little hand grasp my single finger so tightly as she took her first tentative steps? That grasp that said, ‘I need you like this forever, Daddy.” Why was she with me – helpless and needy – for such a short time? Didn’t she know I needed her to need me for much longer?

She has all too quickly flown off into a world of business and finance and to her own life. I don’t think I’ll ever be ‘ready,’ but I guess neither she nor they will give us a choice.

The baby I described as mine was also yours just a few moments ago. The infant you held is now off to high school. The helpless baby of yesterday surfs the Internet today and is off to the world tomorrow and they give us little warning and absolutely no choice. As it should be. Because they are only on loan to us. They are part of a much greater plan than just us, but they consume all of us in our love for them.

In as much as we have no choice in their leaving, we must do what we can to give them the strength of our love and wisdom through our guidance. In the final analysis, there is nothing more important to their future than our love and whatever wisdom we can impart. How sad for us that they are on their way. How wonderful for them and the world that they are.

I must confess, I would much prefer to help her learn to tie her shoelace into a bow or run beside her again as she makes her first attempt to ride a bicycle than to help her plan her 401K or reallocate her investments or purchase an apartment, but perhaps those things will be just as fulfilling, just as necessary, just as nurturing.

When I first spoke to you thirty-six months ago, your babies were entering middle school. I told you then and over the years that the time for closeness, the time for nurturing were fleeting. I told you then that there were only ninety-six months until many of them would head out to college and into the world. A world of drugs, fast cars, perilous sex and a whole host of difficult decisions that they, your babies, would be making without you. Unless — unless you used those ninety-six months to imbed yourselves deeply into their hearts and minds so that you are part of who they become and what they decide.

Well, there are no longer ninety-six months left. We are down to sixty and counting. During the next sixty months they will be more independent, but they will continue to need your love and guidance. They need to make their own decisions throughout high school and yet you MUST be part of their thinking and their discussions around those decisions.

Although they are growing away from you, as they should, they are still children and, as such, they need both the guidance and the structure that will help them determine the best direction for their future.

Love them, guide them, and, if you are very, very lucky, you might even get the chance to hold another little hand and feel it wrap around one of your fingers and feel the warmth of a little baby once again, if only briefly. When tomorrow — only tomorrow — these very lovely now-high school students let you hold their progeny when they become adults and parents. But that will be for tomorrow. For now, love them and guide them. They need you as much as ever.


{image is a photo of my dad holding me as a newborn, 1970}


{image is a photo of my dad and Noelle holding Katie as a newborn, 2001}

2 thoughts on “the papa diaries part three — in the wake of a changed world

  1. Please tell your dad I say, “thank you”….when you have two different base lines for development in your house I feel that “how” we parent is split in half. Meaning the rules, expectations, etc. for my autistic son can be vastly different from my typically developing daughter. Your father’s words, “We must give them the strength of love and wisdom through our guidance”. His insight applies to parenting both of my children and I thank him for for putting it so beautifully. The baselines and the rules and expectatons is very different in our home…I am reminded that with strength, love. wisdom, and guidance is what I can give to both my children. Again, thank you to your dad for saving all of his speeches.

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