There are plenty of times in life when your children can make you proud. They get a good grade on a test. They finish a puzzle you’d thought they’d struggle to complete. They share a toy with a friend without anyone having to suggest to them that they should. While these are pretty standard moments in the course of raising a child, they are still nice to have. But then there are the moments that really mean something, the moments when you learn something specific about who your child is and, just as important, what things really matter to you. We all want our kids to do well and be happy, but what does that look like in everyday practice? What skills, attitudes, or interests constitute at a fundamental level what it means to be good? These vary from family to family, from parent to parent, and it’s often not clear what they are until you see it in action.
One day before school finished up for winter break, I went to Polly’s class to help out with their holiday party. The party ran up to the end of the school day, and so we decided to stay after and help clean things up. Just before the dismissal bell, I stepped over to Pip’s classroom to let him know that he should come over to Polly’s class to meet me instead of going outside like he usually would. When I got there, Pip’s class was already lined up at the door. They had their backpacks on and three boys were jostling playfully with each other at the front of the line. One had his arms and legs spread across the door frame blocking the way. The other two were squirming all around him – sticking their hands through the gaps between his limbs and tugging back against his chest. They were laughing and giggling as they struggled, periodically knocking back against a pod of girls behind them. The girls regarded this jostling with a combination of amusement and disgust. When the dismissal bell rang, all three boys stumbled out into the hall and scurried off to their various points of departure. They were followed by the pod of girls, a second clutch of boys who were hopping up and down and jabbering excitedly, and a second collection of girls who filed passed me in a secretive huddle. Then came Pip.
In the last six months Pip has undergone a regular and consistent stretch of rapid growth. He has busted through shoes and outgrown pants in what feels like the blink of an eye. Fortunately, this growth seems to be occurring in an even way. His arms and legs haven’t gotten out of proportion to the rest of his body. His feet seem to be about the proper size. And since he’s slender and wiry, he just doesn’t look that big when he’s standing around on his own. As such I hadn’t realized how tall he’d become until that moment when, as he walked out in the line of kids, it was clear he could look out over every one of them. His eyes were about level with everyone else’s skull.
Seeing me standing on the other side of the doorway, he smiled. He’s been fighting off a cold for a while now and there was an extra touch of pink in his cheeks. His straw blond hair, still cut in a simple, neat-around the edges fashion by Ava, was brushed straight forward and down with no part. The tips of the hairs around his ears were darkened by a shadow of sweat leftover from playing tag on the playground.
As he made his way over, it struck me, not for the first time, that unlike everyone else that had passed before him, Pip didn’t seem attached to anyone. He wasn’t part of a group or palling around with a friend. Instead, he was moving in a kind of quiet bubble, his head up and those sparkling marbled blue eyes that everyone had said he’d lose as a newborn locked right in on me. I’ve wondered before at this distance he seems to have from the ruckus around him. I’ve worried that he doesn’t have a close friend or two in his class or that he doesn’t know exactly how to connect with the other kids. I’ve worried that he might be lonely. However, he doesn’t look it. The smile isn’t forced and his posture doesn’t reveal any unnatural rigidity. Instead, he looks like a person who isn’t fighting against things, isn’t hiding things, isn’t rushing to get away. He looks like a person easing through the chaos, an ocean tanker gliding steadily along regardless of the tide. He looks like someone who is exceedingly comfortable in his own skin.
And I really liked it.
I don’t think this quality would have made such an impression on me had I only seen it once that day. But later that evening, I saw it again. On Wednesday and Friday evenings, Pip goes down to the Episcopal cathedral downtown for choir practice. These rehearsals tend to run ten to fifteen minutes longer than scheduled and instead of hanging out in the car until he finishes, I usually park and go inside the vestibule to wait. It’s usually empty in there – just me and the stony-faced kid who works the front desk – but it’s a pleasant enough place to hang around. If there’s something going on in the sanctuary or one of the chapels you can listen in to the music and most of the time there is some small art exhibit displayed along the halls. As I wait I usually pace slowly around perusing the church message board to see what activities are coming up or examining this exquisite recreation of an image from a medieval illuminated manuscript called the Book of Kells which hangs on the wall. In the painting the gospel saints, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are depicted as an angel, a lion, an ox, and an eagle respectively and colored in vibrant waxy reds, blues, and greens. They have a cartoonish aspect that makes them appear almost satirical, like the work is some weird postmodern cross between an Andy Warhol print, a Looney Toones poster, and a sacramental banner. The quiet of the space is broken only by the periodic arrival of members of the men’s choir who begin their practice after Pip’s group is done. Some of them will say a muted “Hello” as they pass but most just give a quick nod and smile.
Then the boys choir finishes rehearsal. The choir practice room is down a hallway, around a corner, and up some steps so you can’t hear them singing from the vestibule. However, the moment they break out of the practice room door you can hear them coming. The first three or four of them are usually moving quickly, bouncing against one another and talking in loud voices. In their wake come the rest moving along in various states of hurry. It’s easy to think of all this racket as disrespectful or careless but mostly the boys are just oblivious. They spend enough time in the church hallways that the place doesn’t seem any different to them than their homes or schools.
Somewhere in the middle of this Pip comes around the corner. Once again, he’s not walking with anyone and once again this doesn’t seem to be a problem. His head is up and his eyes are wide. Sometimes he smiles. Sometimes he doesn’t. He isn’t rushed by the speed of the others around him. He doesn’t stare after one kid or try to talk to another. He’s aloof in a happy, floating way, a way that seems absent of longing or jealousy, a way that feels comfortable.
And I love it. I love the steady calm. I love the happy distance, the sense of peace. I know this isn’t a constant state for him. I know he worries about things and gets hurt by people and feels uncertain about where he is and what he is doing. But the fact that in these bustling moments he’s capable of catching an air of peaceful self-assurance, even of delusional ignorance, that is something I love. He doesn’t need to fill the place with his noise. He doesn’t need to be cool. He doesn’t need someone else to give him confidence. He walks along. He smiles. He takes my hand and we walk out the door together. It is a moment of quiet strength that I didn’t realize was so important to me until I saw it firsthand.
I hope he can hold on to forever.