By Gregory Keer
“Guess who’s sitting in the school director’s office,” my wife says with irony and irritation that cut through the crackling cell phone connection.
“Jacob,” I say with a little guilt for assuming the worst of my improving but still impulsive 6-year-old.
“Guess again,” Wendy coaxes.
“Benjamin?” I respond with surprise, despite my 9-year-old’s recent visit to the principal for criminal chattiness.
“Nope,” she says.
For a moment, I search my memory banks. I’m sitting at work with an unfinished email, stacks of papers and two appointments waiting. Do I have to play daddy right now?
And then it dawns on me. I have a third child.
“What the heck did Ari do?” I blurt.
“One of the bigger kids in his class took away Ari’s toy,” Wendy explains. “Ari used his words first but when the other boy would not return it, Ari – sort of – bit him.”
I drop my head into my hands. “Did he draw blood?”
“No blood,” Wendy says, “but Beryl (the school director) doesn’t want us to pick him up because he seemed too happy at the prospect of one of us getting him like I did last week.”
I agree, hang up and try to sort this out in my mind. My 3-year-old had been having a marvelous first year of preschool. Teachers and kids found him gregarious and charming. But with two weeks left before winter break, Ari started throwing tantrums. One day he poured juice in everyone’s snack and blew angry “raspberry” sounds at his instructors, Debbie and Alee. On another day, he bit Alee for not giving him enough attention. For that incident, Wendy immediately left work to collect him from his classroom.
Today, I’m driving into the school parking lot at the normal pick-up hour, bracing for a difficult conversation about my child’s behavior and my parenting flaws. Beryl graciously receives me into her office while Ari stays on the yard.
“Before we get into everything, I want to tell you that Ari and I had lunch together,” Beryl says. “That boy is adorable.”
“He also has the adorable distinction of chomping on people,” I reply with nervous sarcasm.
Beryl laughs, then explains more about the lunch. “It was good that you and Wendy did not pick him up earlier. He really felt bad about having to stay in the office and not go home with you or play with his friends, here.”
“At one point,” Beryl continues, “Ari closed his eyes, waved his hands toward me, and said, ‘Abracadabra, Beryl go away.’ He actually tried that several times, and each time he was disappointed that I was still there.”
Oh, God, I think. My son is insulting his way toward expulsion.
Instead of chastising me, Beryl talks me through possible causes for Ari’s outbursts. Does Ari feel pushed around by his older brothers? Does he feel jealous that he’s still in school for another week while his siblings are on vacation? He has no idea how bored his brothers are because Wendy and I are working, so perhaps Ari is trying to get sent home to join the perceived family fun. Unfortunately, it all makes sense and I kick myself for not seeing signs that he was so upset.
As I drive home from the meeting, I wish I had an “abracadabra” that could make me do all the right things to parent Ari. Each of my sons requires unique approaches to his challenges. Have I run out of ideas on this third go-around?
Then I sit down with my boy on the couch to read The Escape of Marvin the Ape. He laughs and hugs me repeatedly saying, “You’re the best daddy in the whole world.”
Truly, most of the time, Ari is like this. He’s big on loving, generosity and glee. But he’s now gotten big with his temper. And I’ll need serious resolve to set him straight.
“You made your friends and teachers sad today, Ari,” I state gravely.
“I’m sorry,” he says. He holds my face with his hands as if to show me he believes in me. “No more biting.”
As hard as this job can be, there is no denying the magic that also comes from it.