I’m sitting at the airport in Detroit, after returning from a quick, 14 hour visit to Toledo, where I spoke to a room full of sixth- and seventh-graders at a book festival, and then signed copies of Ray Reflected.
The handlers and organizers who drove me around, settled me in the room where I spoke, and even fed me, were all parents. Actually, they were all Jewish mothers of kids and young adults, and they all asked me about Simone — what was she like, did she enjoy the book, what kinds of books did she read. I found myself talking about her even more than usual, and even mentioning her a few times in my chat with the kids.
What I happened to mention more than once was that, these days, Simone calls me “Dude” just as often as she calls me “Dad.”
I got a taste of what’s just around the corner last week, when she and I went to a middle school “visitation.” Simone wants to audition for a local school of the arts next year, and this was our opportunity to get in there and check it out.
So last Friday morning, I battled the snooze on my iPhone alarm just a couple of times, and dragged myself out of bed at 5:30 in the morning. Even with the reprieve that the recent end of daylight saving brought, it was still nighttime dark, without even a hint of dawn sneaking through the spaces between my blinds. After a shower and some swipes with the razor, I was in Simone’s room, gently pulling back the covers, and coaxing her awake.
Simone’s never had a typical little girl’s room, what with the dinosaur art on the wall (posters and her own illustrations), tubs overflowing with plush toys (predominantly reptiles and other non-furry creatures), and bookshelves packed with novels, picture books, and non-fiction tomes on prehistoric life. You’d still find a pile of sillybandz on her desk, but you’d also notice Bagel, the fire-bellied toad she’s had in a tank since she was three years old.
So it’s not a girly room, but the experience of it has changed a bit in the last few months — undergarments that didn’t make it into her hamper no longer have cute animated figures on them, and now she’s wearing two pieces under her clothes; she’s always been an advanced reader, but now her fiction and fantasy is veering into the young adult, rather than middle grade; and then there’s the sleeping girl herself — long legs flung out of the covers at bottom of the bed and messy, dyed hair sticking out from under her comforter; with a sleep perfume that has changed, too — it’s still the unique, warm, and familiar smell that accompanies my sleeping girl, but there’s another tone, now — a pre-adolescent funk that wasn’t there last spring.
Simone rolled out of bed without complaint, the excitement of the day providing enough impetus to get her up and into the shower. There’s a quiet magic in our weekday mornings together; a companionable, low-level cheerfulness that is noticeably absent when it’s just me getting up and out. I take great pleasure in making Simone’s lunch, so while she’s in the shower I’ll fill her lunchbox with a well-balanced meal (and a snack. And a note). And then she’ll sip at her chai and talk to me while I do up breakfast. Most mornings, we’ll sit together at the table and eat, though sometimes she’ll perch on a barstool at the counter while I putter around the kitchen. If we think about it, we’ll put on some music that gets our blood pumping a little faster, and before we know it, it’s time for shoes and coats.
Our super-early morning went smoothly, and I was surprised when we arrived across town at the combo middle/high school with plenty of time to park and take in the tall, slump-shouldered teens slinking their way into the building. The school is a special one, with very motivated, artistic students, but they still seemed to walk with teenager attitude from where I was sitting. It gave me a shiver.
We wandered through halls filled with the most amazing artwork I’d seen in any building in recent memory — a whole display case filled with tableaux created using wooden spoons; a board propped on an easel showing the design elements for the play “Twelve Angry Jurors,” (yeah, I know. I laughed out loud) complete with a top-down view of the stage setup and costume mockups with swatches of fabric; foot-tall imp-like creatures cavorting along the vaulted, skylighted ceiling of the hallway; and an installation of a six-foot tall fantastical creature messing with a remote control and an old-fashioned TV on a stand. Four or five kids sat on the floor next to their lockers while one of them fiddled with a guitar.
Simone was thrilled…she’d found her tribe.
As we filed into the auditorium to be welcomed by the principal, I ran my eyes over the other kids and their parents (no eligible single moms, as far as I could tell). Everyone had that air of tense excitement flecked with nervousness, and you could tell all of the parents had very pointed questions about the audition and selection process, about the educational philosophy and standards, about graduation rates, etc. Simone wanted to sit up front, which surprised me, so we found our way to a couple of seats on the aisle in the second row (our compromise).
As the principal and other staff members spoke, and as the parents asked their inevitable questions, I noticed two things. First, that I didn’t have any questions. I could tell from the ambiance of the school, from the art on display, and from the way the students and staff interacted in the hallways, that this place would deliver on its promise, if Simone was able to impress her way in. As a former teacher, I can assess the temperature of a school within moments of walking through the door.
Second, I noticed that Simone had the teen chair slump down to a science.
Damn it, I thought. My kid is a tween. Somehow, I’d hoped I’d have more time.
After the speeches, a parent volunteer in Simone’s preferred major (stagecraft – she wants to design and build sets, to prepare her for her dream of creating paleontological museum displays, and she wants to design costumes to get better at her own fashion design work), led us from classroom to classroom, so we could see what the actual students were up to.
If I felt a shiver when we walked into the school, standing at the back of classrooms and watching post-pubescent teenagers banter and pick at their faces and whisper to each other nearly gave me heart palpitations.
Last month, I wrote about the pop culture celebration of the clueless father and how I refuse to be painted with that brush. But what that means is I’m not going to be allowed to be the know-nothing dad as Simone approaches her teen years. If I want to be the father that she needs, I won’t be able to cover my ears and go la-la-la when she talks about dating or women’s issues. I’ll have to force myself to listen without judgment and respond carefully. I won’t be allowed to roll my eyes or shake my head or run away.
And, most days, I think I’m prepared to handle this new stage in her life. We have an easy, comfortable way of talking to each other, and Simone doesn’t keep secrets from me. Last time my youngest sister was in town, I asked her to take Simone for…you know…products, just in case the red rider came around while she was with me. I’ve provided her with deodorant and special face soap, and I know better than to put her training bras in the dryer.
But, damn, it would be nice to have a woman in the house as she grows into her tall, lanky body. There’s stuff about being a teenage girl I just don’t know. Put me in a room with a 15-year-old boy, and I’ll teach him all the secret tricks to being a man — the best way to shave each day, how to polish a pair of shoes or sew on a button, how to knot a tie (bow and standard), the highlights of the debate between briefs and boxers (go with boxers). But even as a formerly married guy, women’s feminine regimens are mysterious to me. There are details I’m not equipped to understand.
I know Simone’s mom will handle the majority of the details, but stuff will come up when she’s with me, and, unless something really good and really special happens in the near future, I’m going to be sans backup. I’m fortunate to have plenty of single mom friends who could advise me if I ask for help, but it’s still a daunting prospect overall.
Simone was yawning as we drifted toward the exit from the school, the morning’s activities catching up with her. There was something languid about the way she walked down the hallway, almost as if she’d already begun to absorb the mores and manners of this exotic new place. My brain and heart were tangled and fraught, feeling so proud of and excited for my little girl, but knowing she wouldn’t be little much longer. How can you celebrate and dread something in equal measure, and still manage to stay sane and reasonable?
Shit… guess I’ll just do my best.
Eric Elkins’ company WideFoc.us (http://widefoc.us) specializes in using social media and ePR strategies to develop constellations of brand experiences, delivering focused messages to targeted segments. He’s also the author of the young adult novel, Ray,Reflected. Read more of his Dating Dad chronicles at DatingDad.com , or tell him why he’s all wrong by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.