A Father Like That

It is a wise father that knows his own child.       William Shakespeare

I was at the library the other day, on the hunt for holiday-themed stories to use in my classroom, when I re-discovered a picture-book that someone recommended to me years ago. The book is entitled, “A Father Like That”, and it tells the story of a young boy, whose father “went away before he was born.” In it, the boy tells his mother of the ideal father he imagines may show up someday. The father he dreams of would help him with his homework, play games with him,  and read to him.  There is no resolution at the end, only a mother who– after patiently listening to her son’s narrative–gently tells her boy that he can “be a father like that” when he grows up, even if his own dad never plays that role. I purchased a copy of the book to keep in my classroom, as it is common for students to have fathers who are absent from their lives, be it by choice, incarceration, mental illness, addiction, or death. 
I have a student that I’ll call Isaiah, whose boisterous personality seems impossible to contain in one little four-year-old body. He exudes charisma, and his smile is nothing short of infectious. His older sister was in my class last year, and I know the family well. Last spring, I noticed that dad had stopped coming by the school, and after several uncharacteristic meltdowns from Isaiah’s sister I found out why. In between sobs, she reported that their daddy had gone “out of town”.  Having worked closely with families for the past decade, I’ve been around long enough to know that “out of town” is usually the reason given to explain the absence of a parent who has been incarcerated or jailed. Isaiah’s mom never offered any details, and I didn’t ask, though its now been over nine months and dad is still out of town, with no indication of returning. Recently, I noticed that Isaiah had taken a particular interest in the fathers of other students as they came into the classroom during drop-off or pick-up time. He’d engage them with a grin, a high-five, or a friendly wave. One day, as he watched a classmate leave with her father, he turned to me and said nonchalantly, “Teacher, my dad is coming to pick me up from school tomorrow!.” I smiled and hugged him, wondering if indeed dad would show up. Well, tomorrow came and went, and still no sign of Isaiah’s daddy. Every now and then, out of the blue, he’ll bring it up—“My daddy IS coming Teacher. He’s coming soon. To pick me up. And we’re going to go to the park, and he is taking me to get some lunch…”He’ll longingly glance toward the window, as if his dad might just materialize, swoop him up on his shoulders and carry him off to the outing that Isaiah has been dreaming of.
Father Gregory Boyle,  a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles who spends his life working with members of various street gangs, talks about the impact of father loss in his book, Tattoos on the HeartIn one section, Boyle describes what he has come to understand as the hole each young person he works with carries in their heart, a hole the shape of the child’s father. I have seen evidence of this hole both in the children I work with, and in my own family. My father grew up without his dad, after his mom immigrated to the U.S. in search of  a better opportunity for her children. My eldest son’s paternal grandfather was buried after years of estrangement from his family, including his own children. Every now and then the subject of their absence is touched upon, and it never fails to surprise me how the undercurrent of resentment & sadness is still present, even after all these years. The silver lining is that all of the men in my life went on to become dedicated, loving fathers to their own children, despite the lack of a father-figure in their household.
And that brings me back to Isaiah. I found him today, underneath our classroom Christmas tree. He was holding a baby doll, and tenderly trying to wrap a small blanket around its tiny shoulders. When he noticed that I was watching him, he flashed that beautiful smile of his and said, “Shhhh, Teacher. She’s almost asleep. If She’s awake when Santa comes, he can’t leave the presents.”
It’s funny how hope takes form…in the shape of a small child shushing a baby doll, in the gesture of a fatherless young man who protectively  cradles his newborn for the very first time, in the resilience of the thousands of children whose roots take hold despite the missing branch of their family tree.
Here’s to Isaiah, and his feisty little spirit. May he someday be a “father like that.” And may the future bring him a wealth of community to support and encourage him along the way…