“Go, rock star, go!” How playing in rock bands prepared Robert Burke Warren for life with kids.
For the first four years of my son Jack’s life, I was a stay-at-home dad. While his mother, Holly, worked in midtown Manhattan, my boy and I hung out in a four-room tenement, and roamed our East Village neighborhood. I carried him first in a Baby Bjorn, then a backpack. Then he walked beside me, a fellow biped on filthy sidewalks. It was a happy time.
Prior to fatherhood, I’d spent years playing and living rock n’ roll. When Jack was born, I was thirty-two, my passport chock full of stamps, my ears still ringing. But it was time for a change, and I was gung-ho for parenthood. I took myself out of circulation, turned down touring opportunities, and focused on my infant son. I was ready. I didn’t immediately realize why I was ready, or why stay-at-home dad-hood felt somehow familiar.
When we moved to the Catskills after 9/11, we enrolled Jack in a hippie preschool, the School of the New Moon. As Fate would have it, at that precise moment, the school needed an assistant. With my son heading to school, I needed a job. Somewhat desperate, the School of the New Moon hired me. I stayed four years.
I had no degree or formal training, but it turned out I was really good with kids. Not just my own son, but with kids in general. How? Why?
At School of the New Moon, while I wrangled children aged two to five, it hit me: The bands! All those years in bands, I’d been rehearsing for life with children.
Among the proud misfits, the gender-fuzzy, the socially awkward, and the difficult drunks, I’d logged invaluable experience, which now served me as a childcare pro. I discovered – or was reminded – kids are, by definition, proud misfits, gender-fuzzy, and socially awkward; and while they are not difficult drunks, they often act like it.
And the rock and roll lifestyle? Remarkably similar to life among kids.
Nights spent sleeping rough, waking up every hour to soothe my son? Those reminded me of van rides through the wee hours to reach a gig, or staying awake all night in a studio and into the whole next day, cycling through energy, exhaustion. Rinse, repeat, perform.
Did that. More than once.
In my new life as childcare professional, I tried to help fellow parents. When new moms and dads worried their sleep debt might induce psychosis, I could assure them they wouldn’t go crazy, at least not permanently. I had been there.
Another epiphany dawned while I was guiding a tot away from a coffee table edge. I recalled holding up a drunken band member, steering him to safety. Like children, drunken people often would do better to crawl. Yet drunken people, without fail, are compelled to walk. And to fall down, go boom.
I studied up on early childhood development. Turns out, in the first five years of life, herd instincts coalesce, and the aforementioned behavioral quirks become less prevalent. We transition from the center of the universe, to satellite status. We learn to play well with others.
Well… most of us do.
Not the baby rock stars, the outliers 86’ed into time out.
About time out: Overall, I was an excellent caregiver, but I was not so good at putting kids in time out. With my son, and later in the preschool, it was my job to introduce non-innate concepts like manners, customs, volume control, and gratitude. Some kids caught on right away, some took awhile, and some never got it and never cared about repercussions. I was supposed to put them in time out. But I confess: bad behavior often made me misty-eyed. Expected to show the value of toeing the line, I occasionally got too sentimental to do much of anything.
Nostalgia pangs seized me during meltdowns, impudence, and the drama of toddler defiance. I recalled “difficult” musicians of yore, a couple of whom became stars. When I remembered the successes of misfits not bogged down by shame, the ones for whom a lack of social grace was an undeniable asset, ambivalence overtook me.
When I should have said, “No. We do not do that here,” I may have said, “Go, rock star, go.”
My son is now eighteen, soon to college. He’s a writer, musician, and actor. He has few memories of his tot tyranny. When reminded of his loud, rugrat persona, he usually cringes. And it’s been nine years since I worked at the preschool. Most of the kids I shepherded will be eligible to vote in the coming election. Like my son, their memories of tot-hood are scant. Although I vividly recall them, many have only fleeting recollections of me, and the memories they do possess fill them with a self-consciousness that did not exist in the hippie preschool. Some pretend not to know me.
Again, I am prepared.
Even the brush-offs remind me of the old days. With these teens, it’s like I was with them during a bender in which I was the designated driver. Now they’re not only sober, but hyper-aware, carefully constructed social selves in place. During the bender, they were not in their right minds. They did and said crazy stuff, yelled whatever they felt, slobbered, wet their pants, and raged fearlessly against injustice.
It was, for the most part, beautiful chaos of which my son and my former students are only dimly aware.
I want to share with them how entertainingly rude and brazen they were, how their boldness not only reawakened memories of charismatic characters from my past, but also reignited those aspects dormant in me. They made me brave.
In my fantasies, I linger like a sentinel in their memories, reminding them of unfettered days, when joy and free expression were just a crayon away, when deliverance was at their mud-crusted fingertips, when absolute release came through singing and dancing. As they move into society, I want them to recall when they were little dervishes, soothsayers, riveting storytellers, rock stars. When someone tells them, “No. We do not do that here,” I hope they will, on occasion, hear a voice within saying, “Go, rock star, go!”
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