There are few absolute constants in life. My dad has been mine. Through the inevitable disputes, misunderstandings, relationship breakdowns, fits of pique and full-blown tragedies, he’s been there. Through the joy, elation and periods of tranquility, he’s been there. I don’t mean this in Oprah or Steve Wright Sunday Love Songs speak – “He’s my rock” – or anything like that. I mean that in the time that I’ve been on the planet, been to school, college, university (eventually – I took the scenic route), worked in crap jobs, worked in better jobs, got married, had kids of my own, he’s always been around. Not geographically – it often takes a good eight hours of travel to visit – but as a presence. That probably sounds like faint praise. Litotes in action. It’s not. As a teacher and a father of two young boys, I spend a lot of time reflecting on the father/son relationship. I’ve come to realise, as I approach what Turgenev (in his wonderful Fathers and Sons – not really a novel about fathers and sons, but never mind) calls ‘that troubled twilight time, a time of regrets that resemble hopes, of hopes that resemble regrets, when youth is past but old age has not yet come’, that having a father as a constant throughout your life is something not to take for granted.
As it happens, my dad has done more for me than just stay around. He (let’s drop the anonymity of the pronoun and name him as Jim) has proved to be an incredible force for good in my life. God, he can (like me) be bloody annoying at times! But I cannot help but feel very lucky to have had his benign influence in my life.
Increasingly, when teaching, Jim finds his way into my anecdotes about education. If there’s one thing, above all else, that I’m grateful for it’s the barbarous, regular yet deserved punishment he meted out: copying out of a book. When I tell this story to pupils they are genuinely incredulous: ‘What?! Your dad made you copy out, line by line, words from a book?’ Yes, I tell them, for hours, but not just your average Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. No, it was always either some obscure 1950s textbook (The History of Transportation Systems in Edwardian England or Rain: A Study into the Effects of Precipitation on the Landscape of Lincolnshire) or more frequently, the dictionary or an atlas of the world. The weird books were pure torture yet the dictionary – a tattered and mauled Concise Oxford English Dictionary – was secret bliss. To this day I’m an avid reader of dictionaries and other works of reference (please check out Chambers Dictionary of Slang). My pupils always laugh and shake their heads pityingly when I mention this but I can tell that they’re impressed by my vocabulary and my dad’s ingenious sanctions.
So this morning, as I open my father’s day card, I ponder that influence again.
The painting by my three-year-old son (it’s a flower by the way; I’m not sure why but it’s a pretty good one) makes me consider my influence on my sons. I’m an imperfect father. Like most teachers I spend far too much time with other people’s children and not enough with my own. But I’ll keep on trying to be a role model and a positive influence on them. I’ll play sport with them. I’ll give them hugs. I’ll try and find time and put the bloody phone down. I’ll definitely teach them knowledge both arcane and esoteric. Whether they like it or not.
As I type these words they are sat at my feet, the five-year-old reading aloud a story about ninja turtles to his younger brother. Will I inflict the same savage punishments on my children? Hell yes! The dictionaries are on a nearby shelf, begging to be transcribed…