Monday, June 6, 2011
Some time ago, I wrote about every father’s responsibility to teach his son how to throw and catch a ball. I still believe it. But at this stage of my life, I better understand the residual sexism in that sentiment. It was woven into my cultural worldview in those early years, a spillover from the patriarchal theology of my tradition, rarely spoken but clearly assumed. That this fatherly role would be restricted to my son would be “Exhibit A.” More simply stated, could I do it all over again, which I cannot, I would spend as much time with my daughters in the game of catch as I did with my son.
One of the great awakenings in this seventh decade of life is the onset of such regrets for which there is little recourse, other than to admit one’s shortcomings and hope for mercy mixed with grace.
But alas, our two girls managed to learn the fine art of throwing and catching in spite of my indefensible neglect. We are living in a whole new world where most women would much rather compete than cheer. We once got away with the phrase, “You throw like a girl!” Maybe we should be thankful for the political correctness movement. Mercifully, that pejorative line has disappeared from the scene, gone the way of beauty pageants.
All that said, I have no regrets about the time spent with my boy tossing a ball back and forth. These memories stay with me, and offset some of that guilt over regrets. Early on, we used a harmless Wiffle Ball. Kevin progressed as he learned the hand-eye coordination, and overcame the fear of being struck in the face by an incoming fly ball. In a few years’ time, we were firing a hardball at each other with all our might, raising bruises on our catching hand through the leather glove, building up strength, accuracy and speed. When Kevin advanced to the pitcher’s mound, baseball no longer bored me. From the sidelines, I measured every pitch.
Another responsibility that falls to the father is to teach his children to ride a bike. Like throwing a ball, this too is delicate. It challenges a dad’s capacity for patience. There is a biblical injunction warning fathers not to exasperate their children, and bike training is a poignant opportunity for just that. Coaxing a frightened child on a two wheeler along the concrete or asphalt requires superior parenting skill; knowing when to hang on and when to let go; catching them just before disaster strikes; then sending them off to learn how to balance, lean into a turn, peddle for acceleration and gently apply the brakes for a clean dismount. The first successful run is cause for an explosion of joy, a wild celebration. A milestone is passed. A ritual filled with mystery and wonder. It is a metaphor as father and child will surely progress through many more passages to come. A failure here can spell trouble ahead.
One dad caught that memorable moment on video and then posted it to YouTube. Last I checked there were well over a million hits. The little boy in helmet and riding gloves pauses over his bike lying on its side at the curb. It was a clean dismount. The training wheels are gone. The boy, like Wilbur and Orville Wright after their first flight, emerges from his first solo run. He’s managed a turn. Under his father’s watch and careful tutelage, he basks in his moment of triumph. His heart taps into something primal, the inner warrior, a taste of manhood, liberating independence, a glimpse of the power of self-reliance, the confirmation that his father’s prophecies ring true. “I did it! I did it!”
And as the camera rolls, the proud dad asks how his five-year-old feels. The boy exclaims, “I feel happy of myself!”
“Do you have any words of wisdom?” Dad asks. “What about the other kids who want to ride a bike? Can you say anything to them?”
He pauses for a moment to gather his thoughts, and then he launches into a motivational speech that would inspire Zig Ziglar, Norman Vincent Peale, Oprah and Dr. Phil.
“Everybody!” He catches a breath. “I know you can believe in yourself! If you believe in yourself,” (here you’ll detect a light lisp) “you will know you can ride a bike! If you don’t, you just keep practicing. You will get the hang of it – I know it! And then, when you get the hang of it, you will get better and better at it. And you can! You can do it! I know you can!”
“Give me some thumbs up,” the amazed dad says from behind the camera.
“Thumbs up everybody!” and with that, both thumbs go straight into the air. “Let’s rock and roll!”
Today, this Monday morning, let’s rock and roll.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011
 Disclaimer: This is certainly not to suggest that a mother should not be a part of the bike training, nor the ball throwing for that matter.