This past weekend, I got the text message we all dread from our parents. We know it’s coming someday, and we think we’ll be ready when the bad news arrives. But how can anyone prepare for something so heavy and grim? Are we ever truly ready for it?
I would like to talk to you about snapchat for school. ARe you available?
GOD, NO. WHYYYYYYY.
I stared at my phone and this wave of imminent frustration fell over me like I was on a capsizing ship. Snapchat? Is this dude serious?
First of all, my dad has a burner phone from before Barack Obama was inaugurated. There is no email. There is no GPS. There is no Snapchat. There is no world in which this man is going to lead the charge on integrating mobile technology into the classroom. So why, suddenly, did he have this burning question for me?
Second of all, I was damn near out the door on my way to brunch. I was already hungry, irritable, and pretentious when he hit me with this conundrum. To call, or not to call? I could feel my heart rate climbing, tapping on my rib cage like a pestering little cousin. OK, fine. I’ll do it.
I could hear the excitement in his voice as he answered with his signature, “Yeah, hi, Kelaine?” I counted backwards from ten, breathed deeply, and closed my eyes, picturing my happy place.
“Hi Dad. I got your text. What’s up?” And as I listened to his response, this other wave crashed over me. It wasn’t frustration. It was pride. This guy had an incredible, original idea. And he just needed some help before rolling it out.
So let’s take a step back. My dad does something that most of us would find unthinkable. After retiring, he decided to become a middle school math teacher, teaching Pre-Algebra to students at the most awkward and hormonal time of their lives. This is by choice, mind you. Mostly for fun.
This was not always his career. For my entire childhood, he worked in business, managing the medical device and engineering divisions of a multinational corporation.
I can’t even read that sentence without getting bored, overwhelmed, and exhausted, so it’s no surprise that he wanted out. Whether the corporate climate changed or just the years of a gridlock commute got to him, the job seemed increasingly soul sucking.
So, when I went off to college, my dad started on his path to retirement by enrolling in a Master of Education program. I can’t say it surprised me.
As the unwilling recipient of many of his annoying lectures, I can tell you that teaching is The Thing my father was born to do. I distinctly remember doing my homework at the kitchen table, a needy sycophant wanting to be less than a shout away from my parents.
My mom would bustle around the kitchen, fixing everything from my and my sister’s lunches to the plumbing or mechanics of our dishwasher. My dad would stand (not sit!) in front of his reclining chair in our family room, drinking a beer from a pint glass while watching PBS.
“How do you spell sycophant?” I’d ask the room.
“Sound it out!” my dad would respond, a little too eagerly. After I stumbled on the second letter – I vs. Y – I’d plow successfully through the word, not even knowing I was learning how to learn.
And if I asked a simple follow-up, like, “Dad, what is a sycophant?” he’d be even more eager.
“Look it up, dear!” he’d say, parroting the Encyclopedia Brittanica commercial we had seen a million times on Nickelodeon. With a deep, exasperated sigh, I’d sulk over to the red, beat up dictionary on our bookshelf, collapse into a pretzel on the floor, and drag my finger along the pages until I found it.
“A person who praises powerful people in order to get their approval,” reciting aloud to anyone who still cared.
Yes, my dad lived to teach. And not just on the core curriculum either. When I hit middle school, I endowed him with the nickname Moral Man, a futile attempt to squash his righteous soapboxing about Happy Meal toys (“More plastic junk to end up in the waste stream”), the joys of bare footedness (“Let your doggies breathe!”), and Sunday drivers (“floaters clogging up the left lane”). He never met a topic on which he didn’t have a principled stance. And though we all tried to interrupt him, to enjoy one goddamn second of silence – for those scoring at home – it never worked.
These days, he has found an entire new system of children to harass, torment, and yes, to teach Pythagorean theorem. And though not as much as I do, boy, do they love this guy.
This guy who joined Twitter at sixty because he wants to be clued in. This guy who comments on every one of my blog posts because he can’t help but encourage me in everything I do (Hi, Dad). This fucking guy, man!
He listens to Hot 97, New York City’s top hip-hop station, so he knows just enough of the latest Fetty Wap jam and can understand slang he has no business knowing as a fully gray-haired white dude.
He teaches his students how to calculate slope by measuring the axes of a hill, and then rolling each kid down it in a barrel.
He lets his students paint themselves into the outdated Norman Rockwell painting that classroom learning often is, inserting Spanish and Portuguese and Ukrainian and Arabic phrases into his lessons to make sure that his many international students have a chance to enjoy a moment of levity, to be special, to enjoy the spotlight.
And in a phenomenon I’m calling Berlin syndrome, they beg my dad to yell at them in German because they think it’s funny.
My dad, everyone. He is corny and annoying and tries too hard, but isn’t that the whole point of dads? And when you’re thirteen and too cool for school, isn’t that the same kind of person you want at the front of your classroom, bothering you about doing your homework and teaching you about systems of equations?
Goddammit. He’s annoying because he’s effective and he’s effective because he’s annoying. The whole thing is a trap. And I just figured it out right now.
On this particular Sunday, he called me about his latest ploy to make his students want to learn. He called it “Rams Leap Day,” named after his school’s horned mascot. In 2012, my dad figured out that his eighth graders were on a “Leap Cycle.” If they stayed on track, they would graduate middle school, high school, and college in a Leap Year. So, he had them forecast their lives, projecting what they’d do, where they’d be, and where they’d go in the next four years.
His students wrote letters to themselves, sealed them up, and then my dad buried them in a time capsule outside the middle school. A fucking time capsule, guys. Is your heart exploding all over your insides?
So on Monday, my dad planned to dig it up. He invited his former students, now on the verge of graduating high school, to come see how far they had come. After school. To the middle school playground. He wanted them to use Snapchat to chronicle the experience, to take pictures and share them with friends.
And so I suppose after thirty-three years of watching the sensei, it was only fair that I try to teach my dad about Snapchat, like he asked. After fifteen minutes of tech-splaining, I convinced my Dad that his decrepit phone would mean that he wouldn’t see a damn thing the students posted on Snapchat, and that most of it would vanish on sight. I told him to maybe use a Twitter hashtag, which I had to explain in great detail. We agreed that #RamsLeapDay was a solid choice, said our goodbyes, and got on with our respective Sundays.
I found myself more frustrated than I should have been. More impatient than I should have been. I cut him off, “Dad. Dad! DAD!” before he offered what I thought was a bad suggestion. I didn’t explain the why or the how. I skipped to the fastest solution. I didn’t show my work. I just pointed to the answer and hung up the phone so I could get to brunch. Cool daughter you got there, pops.
Now, if you’re like me, you’re worried that his former students would also be too cool, texting while driving around in their first cars, smoking their rebellious cigarettes, and Snapchatting with their little bastard besties. You’re worried that my dad put in all this time and thought and effort making something special, and that these kids would take the whole thing for granted.
You can see it happening, right? My dad standing there alone in his classroom, holding the capsule in his hands, still covered in dirt from the extraction. Waiting. Never losing hope.
Well. They didn’t use the hashtag. If you type #RamsLeapDay into your Twitter search, you’ll see just two lonely, mostly incoherent tweets from my dad. I’m not a very good teacher.
But they came. Forty students came. Forty high school seniors. Forty kids with a lot more cool shit to do than to go back and visit their middle school math teacher.
They came. And they laughed and they joked and they remembered. They guessed who wrote each letter. They shared memories. His students came, guys.
They came because they wanted to be there. In person. And you don’t need Snapchat for that. Funny how that works, right?