the papa diaries part four – the tree trunk beside me

The back story:

A few weeks ago, 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 the following speech in 1994, just a month after I had graduated from college (having begun that particular journey in 1987). The wine bottle and assorted plastic fruit that I had whimsically affixed to my mortar board had undoubtedly contributed to my dad’s mood. Sorry, Pop.


{image is a photo of me with my friend, Carin on our graduation day, fruit and (empty) wine bottle on full display.}

I have recently been “subjected” to graduation ceremonies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College, and Smith College. Unfortunately, I felt that these events were marred by the outrageous behavior of the graduates.

(Editor’s note: Given that I only graduated from one of those institutions and my most outrageous offense was a wine bottle on my head, horrifying as that may have been, I’m not going to take the blame for the behavior of the entire Pioneer Valley. That’s all. Carry on.)

That behavior only heightened my conviction that the adults who teach and guide and love children must take greater responsibility for helping them to develop strong, positive values and a sense of comportment so that they grow up as we want them to.

We want them to be happy, well-mannered, successful people who will give rise to happy, well-mannered, successful progeny. Where does that start? It starts before conception and continues in some ways until long after we are gone.

I want to read to you a short poem written by a twelve year-old some time ago.

Walking barefoot in the sand.

Our jeans pushed up past our knees.

My head just brushed up

To the tree trunk beside me:

Daddy’s thigh.

My arm upstretched to the sky,

My tiny hand enveloped

By Daddy’s huge, warm one.

We stop to talk

About one grain of sand.

Tired little footprints break off,

But the huge craters continue.

In the warmth of daddy’s arms

I listen to his heartbeat

And am lulled to sleep.

It is the perspective of a tiny child who seeks the quiet shelter of her father’s arms. It speaks of another time, for she is grown now and perspectives change.

These young men and women before you, although still young, no longer see you as the tree trunks standing beside them. They no longer need you in the same ways they needed you just a short time ago – when they entered elementary school with lunch box in hand, needing help to get up to that first big step on the big yellow bus.

They no longer need you the way that they did just three short years ago, when they entered middle school as ten year-olds – not sure of changing classes and multiple teachers.

But need you they do, for the next part of the journey is both exciting and challenging and it is filled with both small and monumental decisions that will determine a great many things in their future lives and roles.

Although their need for you is sometimes seemingly more distant, it is just as intimate and just as important as it was when you held them when they were newborn with eyes that didn’t focus and a head too heavy for the tiny neck designed to support it. Now the need is more philosophical, emotional, and spiritual. Now the need speaks more of guidance and counsel. More of support and understanding, more conceptual than physical.

I know that principals and educators like to offer formulas for success, and I know you’ve been hearing them since you were youngsters yourselves. I thought perhaps I could capture your attention by doing the opposite. I have decided to give you information on how to encourage your children to fail. To make poor decisions. To be reckless.

There are many guidelines to encourage failure, of course. I will review just a few.

  1. Never eat together as a family.
  2. Never have regular family outings to which you can look forward as a family.
  3. Talk at your children, not with them; and never listen.
  4. Punish your children in public and never praise them or reinforce their positive behavior.
  5. Always solve their problems; make their decisions for them.
  6. Leave the responsibility of teaching morality and spiritual training to the schools and the church.
  7. Never let your children experience hardship.
  8. Threaten your children.
  9. Expect and demand all As in all subjects in school.
  10. Always pick up after them and don’t encourage them to accept responsibility for their own messes.
  11. Discourage your children from talking about their feelings.
  12. Be overprotective and don’t teach them the meaning of natural consequences.
  13. Make your child feel that mistakes are sins.
  14. Answer “Why?” with, “Because I said so.”
  15. Allow your child to believe that you are perfect and infallible.
  16. Never tell them how much you love them.
  17. Never hug them or display affection in front of them.
  18. Always expect the worst and never give them the benefit of the doubt.
  19. Don’t trust them.

There’s nothing new here is there? Nothing revolutionary. We all know that these things lead to failure but sometimes we fall into some of them because we are trapped by our own emotions, circumstances or the pressures of life and time.

We must remember however, that once our time to be together is gone, and it will be gone as quickly as our time with them as babies is gone,  there will be no way to travel backward and regain what was lost. In five years, just sixty months, many of them will be out in the world of colleges and universities – a world of possibility, and potential life and death decisions.

They need you in the next five years perhaps as they’ve never needed you before — your homes and your philosophy will begin to crystallize and be tested. It is the nature of adolescence to test the boundaries and depths of conviction. And it comes at a time when these young bodies and minds are under constant and powerful pressures from forces both external and within.

They need you as the little girl who wrote that poem, MY little girl, needed her father.

Remember, high school will pass in the blink of an eye and this opportunity to help will be gone. They are beautiful and lovely. They are a curious mix of you and their grandparents along with a good deal of their own spice.

Continue to love them as you have thus far for it has helped them to grow well with moral conviction and the flexibility to endure the winds that would cause them to bend and not break.

They will continue to need your strength as they themselves become ever stronger.

If you are to err, err on the side of loving them more, never less.

Thank you.

12 thoughts on “the papa diaries part four – the tree trunk beside me

  1. Did he remember how you had dressed under your graduation gown? I’ll never get that picture out of my head😏🎓! It was another really good speech though!

    Love you,

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