A man reflects on his father’s militant discipline and why he believes it made him a better man.
When I was in high school, I lived with my father in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the basement of a large Victorian home that had been converted into many apartments. The owner, Gus, was a friend of my father who had done my father a favor by letting him move in for cheap rent. One day, Gus and my father were in the parking lot overseeing a yard sale. Toward the end of the afternoon, my father called inside to request my help moving some furniture back into the apartment. I ignored him, ignored him again, and then protested. The fourth time he asked, he warned me with the words ‘handle short fuses gingerly,’ to which I replied, ‘shut up,’ thinking I could get away with it. It entirely escapes me now, more than twenty years later, why I believed he would let me slide, given that I knew very well my father’s proclivity for a stringent, sometimes violent, exercise of paternal authority and discipline. It was not without reason I used to call him an ‘irascible martinet.’
Sure enough, he blew up, wailing at me, ‘now get the fuck off the couch you lazy little bastard! Help me before I break this goddamn broom handle over your head.’ His fist was clenched tight, as if trying to squeeze blood out of a broomstick. That was all I had to hear. I promptly went outside and helped him move the furniture inside, though not without a mopey frown. I was not happy. Who likes being singled out for censure and shaming? Meanwhile, a woman among some late arrivals at the yard sale who had heard the standoff took it upon herself, when my father came back outside, to reprimand my father for the severity of his reproach. Gus turned to her and said: ‘but that’s why he’s a good boy.’
When my father recounted the exchange to me (I had remained inside and missed it), my teenage ego was still wounded, so I was reluctant to give him more than a grudging nod, but secretly I did not disagree with him when he expressed his contempt for the woman who had dared to question his ‘old-school’ boot camp approach to parenting. When emotions had cooled, I felt proud of my father, even chuckling when he lisped a thespian parody of her words (something like, ‘you shouldn’t talk to your son like that; you’ll hurt his feelings!’) and then dismissed her as a ‘bleeding heart liberal.’
My father was not a perfect man, and perhaps he would have done well to contain his bursts of anger a bit more frequently. This is not an essay about why he was so prone to angry outbursts, but suffice to say that I understood enough of his backstory to empathize with him and forgive him. Anger aside, I knew then, just as I do now, that I owed much to him, one reason being that I feared him. He thought that was a good thing. I do too.
As my father used to say, ‘fear is a great motivator.’
I lived with my father in high school due to a particular set of circumstances. My parents had struggled to maintain a financially stable household while persevering in an emotionally unstable relationship. Making ends meet was a day-to-day challenge. When I was halfway through eighth grade, my grandfather (my mother’s father, a child of the Depression who believed that one should be grateful if he received only an orange as a gift on Christmas morning) impulsively bought a house in Pawtucket, RI. The house had been resurrected after being condemned by municipal authorities. Given their financial difficulties, on the verge of being evicted from the apartment in Providence, RI that we lived in, my parents decided to move into the second and third-floor apartments of the formerly-condemned house in Pawtucket. My grandfather would charge cheap rent, and he would not evict them if they missed a month’s rent.
The house was a shabby, dilapidated, shake-shingled triple decker, crawling with spider webs and insect nests in a front hallway so littered with nails and two-by-fours that it was not passable. It had warped tiles on kitchen floors, squirrels burrowing in the walls, a bathroom door on the third floor so big one could only open it halfway before hitting the sink, and a host of other structural problems. But we made do (for example, by using the back hallway). The main significance of the change was having to reside in Pawtucket. With a residential address in Pawtucket (a city located just north of Providence), I would not be able to attend Classical High School, a college preparatory public high school in Providence to which I had been admitted by passing an entrance exam. One motive for wanting to go to the school was to continue to go to school with my friends from middle school, but another was the opportunity to attend a college prep school (without having to pay private school tuition).
We moved to the home in Pawtucket, but I was able to finish eighth grade at Greene middle school in Providence because my father convinced a fellow cab driver to allow me to use his address as a ‘front’ address. Thus, on paper, I still resided in Providence, even though in reality I took the bus home to Pawtucket every day. This ruse allowed me to continue with plans to attend Classical the following September. It may have been an illicit maneuver, but it ultimately allowed me to meet the teachers, coaches, and fellow students at Classical who would collectively change my life for the better. The schools in Pawtucket were inferior in the quality of the education provided in comparison to Classical, which was consistently ranked among the top high schools in the state, and I surely would not have met the track coach who persuaded me to take up the pole vault, which would lead to a state championship and college recruitment.
The future was the future, however; at the time I had merely convinced my father to let me continue going to school in Providence. The quality of the school probably factored into his thinking, but I’m inclined to believe he was also moved by guilt about having to ask me to move again because of his own financial failures. I was happy to not have to make new friends in a new, and inferior, school system.
When freshman year arrived, I started the year as a rambunctious teen-ager. I was interested primarily in chasing girls, going to parties, and having fun with my peers. My social life thrived, but my grades took a dive. I was not serious about my classes and schoolwork. In fact, I evinced publicly a kind of cool pride in the indifference I showed to classwork. Deep down I felt a vague discomfort about it, as if I knew this ‘bad boy’ façade was not serving me well. But I was a teen. I yearned for the approval of (a certain class of) peers. So in December of my freshman year, at lunch, in the school store, I partook in a scheme to steal Twizzlers from the school store while in a crowded line.
It was an impulsive act conducted with a giddy sense of adventure. Could I get away with it? Other kids were doing it. Other kids were getting away with it. Why not me? So I did it. But then I got caught.
The details of how I got caught are unimportant. The point is I got caught. And there I was, sitting in the vice principal’s office, watching the vice principal call my father at work. I will never forget the resignation and confusion I saw in my father’s eyes when he walked in to pick me up that day. The look of defeat. Of disappointment. I suppose I feared his wrath, but what I really felt was the disappointment. He was coming to pick me up because the vice principal had decided to suspend me for three days.
Being suspended from school turned out to be a significant watershed in my life. During the days spent at home, I spent a lot of time brooding. Having recently joined the track team, I thought about my alienation from coaches who would lose interest in me. I thought about the judgments of teammates, many of whom were dedicated upperclassmen who did not get themselves into this sort of trouble. I thought about how the truants and delinquents who did get into this sort of trouble weren’t calling me to see how I was making out. I felt a darkness, a shame, a sense of wanting to set things right.
In the darkness of isolation, I felt the light of epiphany.
I would set it right. When I returned to school, I was a new person. I stopped chasing girls, going to parties, and cavorting with troublemakers. I focused exclusively on schoolwork and excelling as an athlete in track and field. The long tradition of the school’s track and field program, which had sent many students to college on scholarships over the years, had sudden appeal to me. I saw academics and sports as the keys to success, and withdrew from participation in a slew of typical teen-age distractions. It was radical transformation not to be expected of many students. To this day, I am grateful I found it in me to embrace such a transformation, but I can’t quite say definitively what the deciding catalysts were, other than a profound sense of wounded dignity in having realized the extent of my foolishness, and a profound sense of not wanting to disappoint my father.
It would be dishonest of me to claim that my suspension was the sole catalyst of this sudden enlightenment. But it was definitely a main factor. Another factor is that, though I had been running around in certain social circles for some months, I was never quite at ease in them. Another factor is that I was susceptible to the influence of role models among the upperclassmen on the track team, as well as coaches whom I respected, one of whom was an old white-haired coach who, like my father, was a taskmaster steeped in old-school discipline, and another who was a young coach ready to take the torch of Classical’s tradition and who also took an interest in me as a freshman athlete. Yet another factor was that I was at a high school where, among many of the top-tier students, academic achievement conferred status (and so the competition motivated me). But if I had to single out one factor, I would have to say my father was the most profound influence in my transformation.
Immediately after being suspended, during a conversation in our kitchen, in the apartment in Pawtucket, after dinner, I said to my father I would quit track (which he had inspired me to join as a way to relive his own track days in high school) and wait to play baseball in the spring. As I watched him sink deeper into disappointment as I gave up on one of his dreams, it dawned on me that my words of sabotage were gratuitous. It just didn’t feel right. I felt sick and ugly. It had to change. And it did. Within a month, I was coming home telling my father I did well on all my tests. I was reading Shakespeare with gusto. I was training every day with the track team. I was animated by a powerful desire to improve myself.
There are some who may read this and argue that it is a manifestation of ‘restorative justice.’ This notion of ‘restorative justice’ seems to be a popular notion in educational discipline these days, focusing on de-escalation of conflict and recognizing and addressing emotional imbalances in troubled students. It argues against suspension and removal of students from classrooms for such infractions as insubordination. It believes that a softer approach that is more accommodating to student emotional sensitivities is a more effective approach. Advocates might argue that it was only when I was able to come to terms with my father’s disappointment, and thus ‘mature’ in my outlook, was I able to take responsibility and do away with whatever it was that compelled me to steal Twizzlers from the school store.
I profoundly disagree. Maybe I saw in my father’s fate an example of what I did not want to become. Maybe I vaguely understood that he was a man who fell in with truancy, indifference, and rebellion when he was my age, and never found a will or a way to set it right. Maybe I sensed how it had led him, after many years of mistakes, to his current state of extreme financial and emotional adversity. And maybe I intuitively sensed that it was a tragic disappointment of a life that I did not want for myself.
But I still had a teen-ager’s mind. My transformation was a decision that was all about me, about somehow being able to understand that a transformation worked to my benefit. It would take many years for me to develop the maturity of perspective to appreciate the depth of my father’s disappointment (and the depth of pride he would feel when I went about improving my lot). At this point, he made an impression on me, but what it meant I did not have the maturity to comprehend. I still needed guidance and direction. Fortunately, I was in an academic environment where achievement was honored, and that motivated me. I was also smart enough to recognize that truancy did me no good. If I had to identify the one primary catalyst to my transformation, it would be an inexplicable personal epiphany that awakened me to the pitfalls of adolescent delinquency and the rewards of academic and athletic achievement. In other words, it was all about me. But if anything laid the groundwork for such an introspective coming of age, it was the regimen of discipline instilled by my father over the years I came to fear him. I feared his authoritarian discipline, but I also respected it, and I respected it because I knew, with the intuition only a son can have, that it was born of a father’s wisdom, even if any particular outburst was the manifestation of an impetuous temper.
By the end of freshman year, I had established myself as a promising track athlete. I had significantly improved my grades.
In May, my father announced that he had secured an apartment on the East Side of Providence. He sought out an old friend and arranged to move into a small basement apartment in Providence. He and my mother would separate. I would live with my father in Providence, thus establishing a legitimate residence in Providence that could not be called into question if someone in the school department ever cared to investigate, and I would live there until the final months of my senior year.
I was now a bona-fide Providence resident, an A student at Classical, and a freshman state champion in the pole vault. Three years later, I would be admitted to an Ivy League university. The ensuing three years of high school were not without conflicts between father and son. My father still had a combustible temper. He still exerted his paternal authority and discipline, like on the day when he vociferously demanded I help him move a piece of furniture back into the apartment, or after a snowstorm when he cursed me out because I refused to go around the neighborhood shoveling snow to earn some money so we could eat. I did not appreciate that we really did not have enough cash to eat, and I watched my father go out for an hour and shovel ‘to teach me a lesson about survivin’!’
My father could be a self-righteous man too easily stirred to anger. He was a harsh disciplinarian who was not afraid to raise his hand and give me a shove or a slap. He ‘grounded’ me when I was younger, yelled at friends of mine he didn’t like, and basically made himself out as someone to fear, both physically and emotionally. But it was always out of love, and looking back these many years, I recognize how much I needed that discipline. When I challenged him and he replied ‘because I’m the father and you’re the son,’ I didn’t know at the time that I really didn’t know what was best for me. He had many years of experience in messing up his life. He knew better. I didn’t.
I was an obstreperous ego-centric teen-ager, I did not need a father who would attempt to sit down with me and act like an empathizing psychologist nodding his head trying to ‘understand’ where I was coming from. I needed a father who would hold me accountable when I didn’t like it. I needed a father who would not tolerate misbehavior. I needed a father who was not afraid to discipline me, raise his voice to me, and even raise his hand to me. If I had sensed a softer approach in him, I would have smelled blood and done what I could to exploit it. I would have continued to resist him. It would have been the wrong reaction, but a natural one for a teen-age boy susceptible to the arbitrary whims of unschooled, immature adolescence. I am eternally grateful my father took the harder approach.
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