At first, the street looks perfectly normal., even fine. People are walking to and from reasonably neat cars with packages from various stores and take-outs, past gardens and lawns that witness the regular rhythms of sun and rain, night and day. One or two FOR SALE signs stand out, but nothing to suggest a block that’s being deserted.
But suddenly, your eye starts at the sight of a five-year-old, sitting on one of the porches with a backpack. Who is he waiting for? Why is there no adult preparing a car for their outing? The garage door isn’t even open. Lights in the kitchen window suggest a homemaker at work. She opens the door after a minute, and says he has an invitation to play with a friend across the street. The child declines. The door closes.
He’s next to one of the houses with a FOR SALE sign. Does that matter? On your way home, now carrying your light load of groceries, he’s still there.
A few days later, your daughter comes home from school with the news that Jessica’s parents have split up. One of them has left town, for a new partner and job, while one has stayed behind. Jessica will only see the one who’s gone for a couple of school vacations and maybe a month in the summer. Depends on how she gets along with the new spouse who’s popped into the picture.
“Which house does Jessica live in, honey?” you ask.
“That red one with the FOR SALE sign. She has to move into an apartment.”
“Will she still be in your class next year?”
“We don’t know yet. It depends where they get their apartment. But they’re trying to stay here.”
The next day you walk along the sidewalk again. The milk sure seems to vanish when your breakfast is always granola! But it’s a nice day., and you need the exercise.
And then you see the red house. It’s next to the one with the child with the backpack. And there he is again, waiting.
“Who lives next door to Jessica, honey? Sometimes I see him sitting on the front porch with a backpack. Where is he going that late on a Friday?”
“Oh, that’s NB. On Fridays he waits for his dad.”
“Why does he wait so long? Is his dad nice?”
“Sometimes his dad doesn’t come. Lately he hasn’t come at all.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Well, last year his dad always showed up, but now he almost never does. NB is really upset about it.”
“Does his dad live far away?”
“He didn’t used to, but now I think he moved.”
Poor NB. You see him again, week after week. You introduce yourself and invite him to play with your child. But he wants to wait for his dad. Every week, he has made something special to show his dad. You chaperone a field trip and meet NB’s mom. You find out that NB works harder in school than anyone else. He makes her send all his good report cards to his dad, with a note about when there are ceremonies for his awards. Dad came to one of them once, but that was the first one in the fall. This winter and spring, not a peep.
You chaperone another field trip and notice that Jessica isn’t there. She can’t do so many of these special things since she moved farther away and has to be picked up by a babysitter on a tight schedule. You ask your child if she wants to invite Jessica over, but she really prefers someone like NB, who is more reliable. Although, to tell the truth, he’s not that much fun. Still, he behaves appropriately and there are things they can do together.
And then one day your child wants to know, “Are you and Papi getting a divorce?”
“Why no, honey, Papi and Daddy are very happy. We’ve had some disagreements lately, especially about whether to redo the kitchen, but that’s not going to split us up. We fought hard to get married, and we were together a long time before that, and we have learned how to deal with these little problems.”
“NB’s father and mother started fighting over little things. Jessica’s did, too. So why are you two fighting about the kitchen?”
“Well, we want to get a new kind of stove, that would be easier for Papi to take care of, but he says we should think about doing some other jobs, too. I just want to get a stove. Papi says he would rather not have a vacation this year, but I really need to get away.”
“I could give up my allowance. Then could we get the kitchen and have a vacation?”
“No, honey, your allowance is not a problem for our budget.”
But it goes on. One day your child is crying when she comes home from school. You brace yourself. She’s a good student, a leader, gets along with everybody. Never a bad mark. What could have happened?
“My reading test was horrible! Look at all these check marks! I’m horrible!”
Two answers are wrong and another eight are correct. A solid B. You’re not gonna throw out the college fund over this.
But over the next few weeks, she becomes more and more distraught. She works on her homework obsessively — even though you and Papi believe a first-grader should really not have more than a bit of review, provided they have educational toys and activities at home.
The kitchen situation isn’t clearing up as smoothly as you thought it would. Things are a little tense. Maybe that’s what’s bothering her. It’s been ages since she spent her allowance on any of her favorite things, and you and Papi encourage her to do more playing and less studying. She’s smart.
Her next reading test is a 100 per cent. She and NB have the only perfect grades. You invite them for a day of hiking and ice cream.
No, they both tell you, studying is what got them this far, and studying is very important for your future. When you get a quiet moment, you ask NB’s mom if his dad has been around lately.
“Well, it’s worse than if he were totally gone,” she says. “He calls now, and tells NB he’s so proud of his schoolwork. He keeps promising that at some point he’s going to show up for one of these ceremonies, and NB just lives for those report cards. But every time the ceremony day arrives, his dad doesn’t. It’s been like this on and on. And the more dad says he’s proud, he’s coming for the next one, the more NB refuses to do anything but study. If he didn’t have your daughter, frankly, I’d say he has no life at all.”
“But I would say the same thing about her. She’s terrified that her Papi and I are going to get divorced, because we’ve been arguing about whether to redo the kitchen or take a vacation. She squirrels away her allowance, and says we can have it for whichever project we choose. We’ve always tried to teach her to save and spend in balance, but now she won’t spend for even the tiniest thing. We even offered to take her to the movies, and she would only go if we would let her buy her own ticket. And then she said we should wait for the downloads and watch at home.”
“Count your blessings — NB won’t even do that. He’s paranoid that two hours of creative film will ruin his chances of seeing his dad at the next awards ceremony.”
And then one day, NB’s mother phones Papi. She’s in tears. She had mailed the report card –as always — and it has come back with a notice that the addressee has moved. NB is alternating between rage and isolation. Even so young, he’s saying that life is not worth living.
When our daughter comes home from school, something has changed. She gets right to her homework and spends an extra hour getting a head start on a story that her teacher says they will be reading soon. At dinner, she eats nothing, and after dinner, she goes right back to this book that isn’t even assigned yet. She says she isn’t so much trying to keep up with NB as just avoid becoming like Jessica, whose grades are so bad that she’s going to have to do summer school and even then, might have to repeat.
Papi and I make a decision. We have to make a decision about the kitchen-vacation dilemma, and show her that our family is more important. Each of us comes up with a smaller version of the things we most want. I look at some vacations near home — no airfare — and he says he can live with the refrigerator for another few years, so long as we do the stove and dishwasher.
At breakfast, we tell our daughter. She feels better, but she still won’t spend her allowance. NB has gotten frantic in his studying and she has to work harder to keep up. He doesn’t sit on his porch with his backpack anymore, but he still sends out his report cards. His father gave him a new address and has said that this will be important all NB’s life — these grades, these habits, this capacity to sacrifice himself.
And then one day, NB’s father comes to the awards ceremony. NB’s joy cannot be contained. He introduces his father to everyone, beams as his father sits down with his mother for the ceremony. As you and Papi sit down next to them, NB tells you that when it’s over, they are going out to dinner.
Class after class is called forward, to assemble, receive their awards, and return to their parents and friends. Finally your daughter and NB move up the aisle. As soon as they are out of earshot, NB’s father leans over and tells NB’s mother that he isn’t able to take them out for dinner after all. His new partner needs him to pick up their baby at day-care before they can possibly finish eating. The partner has a meeting that can’t be rescheduled or avoided, and this is how it has to be.
NB is angry, of course, when he gets this news. Papi and I invite NB’s mom to join our dinner instead, and he can even name the restaurant. But NB has already quieted down, not so much ending his anger as moving inside himself. He talks for a moment with our daughter. Together they return, faces serious, bodies already a bit stiff.
“We think it would be better to save our restaurant money and just go back to do homework,” says our daughter. “Can NB come over with his backpack?”
His mother looks at us in despair. Papi and I look at each other. What can be done with these children?
The ceremony ends at about the same time as after-school tutoring. We see Jessica racing to her babysitter’s car. No backpack for her. Our daughter says Jessica’s mom is too tired to help with homework and her babysitter doesn’t understand it. I ask again if our daughter and NB want to bring Jessica into their study group. I can help the kids while Papi gets dinner, and then I can take her home.
“There’s so much more to it than studying, Daddy,” she says. “We have to make plans for what we’re doing next, and we have to remember everyone who got a right answer during class, so we know the answers, too. It’s very complicated.”
“Isn’t that all the more reason to help Jessica?”
“Papi, she is never going to understand all of this stuff. She’s already too far behind. If we spent time trying to catch her up, we might not get our awards, and then when will NB see his father?”
Ceremony after ceremony goes by. NB’s father shows up just often enough to keep the kids convinced that relentless study helps their relationship.
One day, NB’s mother calls Papi and me with a new development.
“NB’s father has been asking for permission to schedule more visits. But I have told him that he is not a healthy parent for my son, based on his unreliability about the report cards and ceremonies. He says that he is learning to be a better father, now that his daughter is talking, but I don’t see that love for NB. I have told NB that we will no longer speak of his father as someone we expect to see at ceremonies or other visits, and instructed my lawyers to see what they can do to put this into effect. Needless to say, my son is frantic about this. I have told him that if his dad has really learned to love both his children, he will start showing up at the ceremonies. If he does that for a year, we’ll talk then about something more. I would really appreciate your family’s support for this decision.”
Papi and I tell our daughter we expect her to cooperate. NB has to learn to live without his father. But the two of them sink into a cycle of rage, despair and depression. We tell her she will no longer to see NB if this continues, and we will put her in another class.
“You can separate us if you want, but I will still know what has happened to him and Jessica. They lost their fathers, and she never sees hers at all, because she’s such a bad student. At least I think she doesn’t — I never talk to her any more, so I’m not sure. But HE can only see his father if he keeps getting into awards ceremonies, because one day his father might come to one of them. He says he will next year, when his daughter is old enough for her own school.”
Hmm. that’s a puzzler. His partner has had that girl in daycare since she was six months old.
But Papi stays on topic. “Honey, what does this have to do with you?”
Her answer shocks us both.
“You can put me in any class you want, and I will always work just as hard. Because all I have is two fathers, and I know why fathers leave. Jessica’s father helps with her homework, and you always come to my awards ceremonies and help with my homework. That’s when fathers like their kids — when they do well in school.”
All the air comes out of you and Papi; automatically, after all these years, you reach for each other’s hands. All those times you asked her to come out with you to movies, to go out for a Saturday — what did she think you were talking about? When you offered to take her out shopping with her saved allowance, what did she think you really wanted?
“Honey,” you finally say, “Grades have nothing to do with how much a man loves his children. Look at Jessica’s dad — he helps her all he can, and he’s proud when she gets a B. NB gets straight A’s and we haven’t seen his dad in years. Papi and I love you. We love doing lots of different things with you. We want to take you shopping, go on vacation, take hikes and ride bikes. The only reason we want you to get good grades is so you can have your choice, if you want to go to college after high school. That’s all.”
Your daughter says nothing. She picks up her computer and opens the screen in front of her.
A few days later, she says, “Can we invite NB to go bowling?” You are thrilled, and the text goes out immediately.
But NB wants to study. His dad has apologized for missing graduation, and fully expects to be out of his daughter’s play in time for a celebration if NB makes the next honor roll.
Your daughter sits quietly when she gets this message. Finally she says, “I guess he’ll just never get it. That dad has no intention of showing up when NB needs him. I think I have to invite somebody else.”
She texts to NB and in a minute, shows his answer to Papi: : “U’ll b sorry when ur dads leave like mine.”
It goes on like that for another few years. NB gets angrier and angrier as his dad makes more and more excuses. Satisfied with his grades, he keeps pestering your daughter for more study time. He avoids Jessica, mocking her father as “a loser whose only skill is showing up.” By the time they are writing college applications, NB’s mother worries that he has no extracurricular activities to write about. But he’s satisfied he’ll get into a good school. “After all,” he says, “My father taught me: it’s all about the grades.”