What will your children write about you when they’re grown?
If you have little ones, it is likely that they will enter college in less than two decades. And, if you are anything like me, you consider that milestone to be light years away. (I hear that it all moves too quickly, so I am trying to prepare myself for the blitz of adolescence.)
But I teach first-year writing, and I am offered a glimpse into new life beyond the nest. And I can tell you with confidence that nothing, and I mean nothing, emerges more often in my students’ personal writing than their relationships with their fathers.
Give a young adult a pencil, paper, and time, and you will be given a window into the father-child dynamic in their lives. In my classroom, two patterns have emerged among the majority of my students:
Scenario 1: Father remained in the home. Student has relationship with father and strongly desires his approval. There is usually a significant conflict in the secondary years, and the student is likely still in the process of reconciliation.
Scenario 2: Father was largely or entirely absent. Unresolved feelings linger, and the student hopes to, one day, bring closure or healing to the relationship.
So what exactly are the millennials writing? Short, dystopic domestic narratives.
Burned wedding dresses.
Shattered athletic dreams.
Abused children at the hands of a wrathful stepfather.
I once met a young man who shared with me what had been the greatest longing of his heart: to speak, for the very first time, with his biological father. For 18 years – literally his lifetime – he had sought any and all information that may lead to his father. In the first week of his second semester of college, his reward was within reach: a phone number.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
This is how the man of his dreams answered the phone and unraveled his hope. In less than two minutes, his father emptied his excitement in the potent way only familial apathy can. Before his father abruptly ended the call, the young man reassured him that he would not be “another mouth to feed”.
Four weeks later, the student withdrew from his classes.
One of the hardest aspects of teaching is that you can’t fix a student’s history, including the heartbreak that too often prevents them from success. As a parent, however, I am shaping the story my children will one day tell.
And the young people that I teach remind me that children don’t care about what their parents do for a living; how much money their parents make; or how perfect their outfits were when they were five-years-old. What remains valued is time. How present were my parents, and how did they show me they loved me?
If we are parents, our homework doesn’t end. And the next generation is waiting at the end of the pencil we hold.