I’ve never tried to be the son I thought my father wanted me to be. I’ve never tried to anticipate the kind of person he was when he was my age, at my stages in life. In fact, if anything, most times I’ve intentionally rebelled against what I thought he would have done. As I’ve gotten older and my own personality came into focus, I found that, sometimes despite my own efforts, I am very much my father’s son. I’m proud of that now. He gave me the space when I was younger to fuck up. He trusted that I would find my own way. He let me know that, when I need it, he would be there to boost me up, my foundation. He was the type of father who resisted the urge to point out the mistakes I might make. He let me make them, expected me to learn from them, and would be there if and when I needed.
My second year in high school was one of my most frustrating. I had boulder sized chip on my shoulder, I rebelled in little ways. Constantly tardy for class, always questioning the rules, talking back to teachers; I was aggressive with other students.
Although I was something of a brat, my teachers loved me. I was an engaged student. I read always, was curious, asked questions, wrote my papers, and did well. I was the kind of student schools should have a stake in, and while most of my teachers did—I formed close, personal relationship with them and they encouraged and helped me along—the administration did not. The Dean of Students would check in on me, bend his head around the doors of my classrooms. “Jarret here?” He almost looked disappointed when I was. In the quad between classes he would come up to me, “you going to make your next class, McNeill? Only 5 more minutes to get there, better get on it. Don’t want to get kicked out, do you?” I hated his ass. Over 2 years he built a thick file of transgressions. The final straw came when I helped a friend cheat on a test. I had been grading her paper; instead of giving her an F, which she had earned, I marked an A. The teacher I was assisting looked over my work and I was busted. I was called into the Dean's office on a weekend morning with my father, the Dean was going to expel me.
My dad is a PhD. I was born in Gainesville, Florida while he was getting his degree, but over the years, since he left teaching, I never heard him use his doctorate. Just once.
We walked into the Dean’s office; the folder with my name on top sat on his desk, 6 inches thick. “Thank you for coming in Jarret. Nice to see you, Mr. McNeill. Please sit down.” My dad stood there with his arms crossed. “It’s Dr. McNeill to you, Ralph.” And that’s when I knew I wasn’t getting kicked out. No matter what it said in the file on the Dean’s desk, the kind of person the tiny discressions spelled out in black and white, my dad knew different. He was about to set the record straight. “I don’t care what’s in the file, Ralph. My son may very well have done those things. We will deal with them at home, and I appreciate your bringing them to my attention, but you are not kicking my son out of this school. He’s a good kid, he’s a bright kid. He may be a little lost right now, but I used to be a college professor, and none of us in the profession are in the business of giving up on kids with talent. I’m sure we can work something out.” I’m paraphrasing, I don’t remember verbatim, buy that is the gist.
I’ve said that I tried hard not to be my father, and that isn’t entirely true. On Father’s Day you always hear testimonials of love, dedication, honor and everything else that exists between fathers and sons. Sure, in the best of these relationships those attributes are there. But dads and sons share complicated ties. One is fully formed, very powerful when looked on from below. The other is malleable, scared a lot, and not very sure. I saw a lot friends seemingly follow their father's lead without thinking. This didn't interest me. It would have been easy to comp off his sense of self, to adapt his views as my own. I wanted my own personality, an identity separate from his. I wanted to know who I was. Of course, now, when people tell me how much I remind them of my dad, I take it as an enormous point of pride. Perhaps I stumbled into that, maybe it was genetic and inevitable, but I might have earned the compliment, too.
I know that he is not entirely comfortable with this blog. I know he fears that I will write something here that he considers sacred, between the two of us, or something he owns that isn’t mine to give away. I don’t want to take the risk that I would ever put something down here that he, or anyone in my family, would take the wrong way. But today is Father’s Day, and this is the exception to that rule.
A few years ago, over coffee, just the two of us, my dad told me something I will always remember. “You know,” he said, “since you and your sister were born, I’ve judged my life based on you guys. I really only wanted to be defined by one thing: how I was as a father.” I asked him, “And, what do you think?” He smiled at me. “I think I’ve been a success.” Damn skippy.
My dad is my friend. I laugh with him as much as I do anything else in his presence. We are remarkably close. I’ve frequently said, as I’ve gotten older and realized what’s at stake in life that if I can somehow be 1/3 the man that he is, I will consider myself a success. In truth, I consider myself more than 1/3; I’m not more, nor less, of a man than him, but what I am and who I am is due in no large part to what he is. My father. Happy Father’s Day, dad.