The first order of business at my son’s rural school was the Tooth Fairy, although this mythology was outside the official curriculum. When my son entered the third grade, his classmates commenced discussions about how much money the Tooth Fairy was supposed to bring. The boy had pulled out a loose tooth (looking into the bathroom mirror) and told me he expected to get two dollars for it.
I wondered how the rate had doubled so quickly. Previously, some kid from his class had set the rate at one dollar. When I questioned him about this, Jesse said, “The Tooth Fairy brings two dollars now. All the kids at school said it.”
I said, “Which kids?”
“Naomi, Kagan, Courtney…” He named others.
“I think some of them might be exaggerating a bit.”
“No, they were telling the truth.”
“I don’t think the Tooth Fairy brings everyone the same amount. That’s why it’s hard to believe that all the kids are getting two dollars from the Tooth Fairy.”
When he woke up the next morning, he shuffled downstairs with a hang-dog expression. He mumbled, “The Tooth Fairy only left a dollar.”
I felt like saying “tough,” but said as cheerily as possible, “See? The Tooth Fairy doesn’t leave everyone the same amount.”
“But I really wanted two dollars.”
Life is full of disappointments. About a week later, one of the Tooth Fairy experts was at our house and said, “I lost another tooth.” I knew Jesse would probably ask the question that was on my lips, so I waited. A couple minutes later, he said, “How much money did you get from the Tooth Fairy?”
The expert said, “Fifty dollars.”
We all said in unison, “FIFTY DOLLARS?”
The expert said, “No. No, I mean fifty cents. Fifty cents.”
My wife and I raced for the nearest tranquilizers.
The next year there was a TV news story about the legality of schools making condoms available to students. Jesse said, “Dad, what’s a condom?” “Act calm,” the experts say. As my explanation progressed, I said, “To prevent disease or to prevent a woman from becoming pregnant.” A slow nod from the boy. I said, “Kids in high school get interested in sex but are usually too young to get married.” A blank look from the boy. I said, “Don’t use that word at school though. It’s kind of a sensitive word.” Jesse nodded again, still watching the TV, and then said, “Dad, have you seen this commercial? It’s really funny.”
When Jesse entered fifth grade, his school became wired to use the Internet, and so the administration sent home a list of rules that students and parents had to read and sign. He and I read the rules together. He said, “What does pornographic mean?”
I said, “It might be a website showing people without clothes on.”
“What does obscene mean?”
“It’s similar to pornographic, although it could mean dirty language too.”
“What does chat room mean?”
I explained again. He nodded and signed his name. I nodded and signed my name.
Then the school sent home a notice that they’d be having a speaker and a video on sex education for fifth and sixth graders. If you didn’t want your child to participate, you signed a slip and sent it back. Shelley and I figured he was mature enough to participate. When the big day arrived, he came home and looked at his mother as if he’d seen a ghost instead of a video. He asked her, “Why would anyone…if they’re not going to have kids?”
Shelley asked about the video.
He said, “They were showing us things they shouldn’t have been showing us.” Apparently, the movie was about changing bodies: breast development in girls, pubic hair, and so forth.
When I arrived home, their discussion was still going. He said, “Why do we have to know all this now?”
Shelley said some kids were sexually active at twelve and some girls can have a baby at twelve.
In a joking way, I said, “Guess I should have signed that form allowing you to be excused from Sex Ed class.”
“Don’t I wish!” After a moment, he added, “Well, at least I got something out of it.” He held up two samples of Zest deodorant body wash and a pamphlet picturing a tough football player over the caption, Craig “Iron Head” Heyward asks, “Is Body Wash for men?” I suppose he smelled like a man after his shower that night.
Later that year he asked me what Mono Gamus meant. I thought he was reading Latin. Single game? But when I saw the printed word, I said that monogamous meant having one mate and was not pronounced Mono Gamus. When he saw a Viagra commercial about the cure for E.D., I had to explain what erectile dysfunction meant. Some weeks later, he shouted, “Dad, there’s something wrong with this commercial. This guy on TV is smiling and he’s got erectile dysfunction.”
On the chance he wasn’t joking, I called back from the kitchen, “Perhaps it’s an ad for a product that cures erectile dysfunction and that’s why he’s smiling. Remember, those are mostly actors who do the commercials. They get paid to do that stuff. The only real person I ever saw in an E.D. commercial was Bob Dole.”
He said, “No wonder he didn’t get elected President. I wouldn’t want a President with erectile dysfunction.”
That spring I left my job for an early retirement package that included nine months of pay, allowing me to stay home from March until November, when I would have to find another job. One of the indirect benefits of being home was that I got to watch Oprah’s talk show a few times. One day she was promoting a Toni Morrison book, The Bluest Eye, and discussing how parents felt about their children. She said, “Do your eyes light up when your child comes into the room?” I thought, not always — especially when he was banging something, or whining about something, or asking questions that made me squirm. But when he’d been at school all day, I always listened at three P.M. for the rumble of the school bus. I moved to a window where his friends on the bus couldn’t see me. My eyes lit up as he crossed the road in front of the bus and came up the driveway. When he came through the door, I hugged him for the one exhilarating moment that reminded me why loving this child was the most important thing I would ever do.
My mother and father had never hugged me, and I didn’t understand the value of hugging until Shelley came along. Her friends were always hugging one another, and then, Oh, God, they were hugging me too. At first, I thought all this hugging was a bit perverse, overdone perhaps, but after awhile I became more comfortable with it. And then, finally, I actually liked someone’s warm embrace, particularly Shelley’s. So I learned to break my family’s standoffish pattern and have hugged Jesse through the years for as much as he would allow.
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