Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Backpedaling

When our telephone rings, our kids, if they're nearby, will sprint to pick it up. The lucky caller then gets to engage Colm or Tess in a little ritual chit chat before the phone gets handed over. Ironically, both kids get tongue-tied pretty quickly on the phone. Listening from my side, what ensues is a series of "uh huh's" and "yea" and "no".








Having taught in the classroom as long as I have, I recognize the trap that people on the other end typically fall into - the all too familiar pattern of yes/no questions turning a promising opening not into a conversation but something more like a hostile interrogation.
Needless to say, the kids are usually more than willing to turn over the phone once I ask for it, and the person on the other end is usually on the verge of forgetting why they called in the first place.
Last week, a new development. First there was a message for Tess from one of her classmates. Apparently in preparation for the end of the school year, the kids had exchanged phone numbers. The next day the phone rang. Tess picked it up. I listened, wondering who might be calling me or Beth.
"Who is it?" said Tess. Then she said. "Nothing. What are you doing?...I'm sitting on the couch. What are you doing?...Nothing."
I didn't need to imagine the other half of the conversation as it was no doubt the mirror image of the one I was hearing.
"Who is it?" I said.
"It's Tommy."
I almost said, "Who's Tommy?" But as I listened to yet another reprise of "What are you doing?" I shifted to, "What does he want?"
Tess shrugged and ignored me. She seemed very pleased by the direction things were going.
"I told you. I'm sitting on the couch, silly." She laughed.
I imagined this phone call going on ad infinitum; worse I imagined it being repeated several times a week, several times a day even.
I said to Tess, "Tell Tommy you can't talk for very long. Someone else might be trying to call us."
"My dad says I can't talk for a long time." She put the receiver down. Just like that it was over.
"You didn't say goodbye."
"He hung up." Tess said it as if it were a perfectly normal occurrence.
The phone etiquette of seven year olds.
Tommy called a couple more times over the weekend, once he left a message, once Colm picked up when Tess wasn't there.
"Tell him Tess isn't here," I hollered across the room.
Colm looked at the phone, then at me. "He hung up."
Privately I began musing about what the future portended. Was I ready for the phone to be appropriated by kids lounging on the sofa, twirling the cord mindlessly around their fingers while idly chatting away the morning or afternoon or evening.
Then the voice of my father came to me. It intoned how the telephone was not a toy, that it was for business or emergencies, that to tie it up frivolously was to risk preventing someone from reaching us with urgent news.
Could I make that pitch to my daughter?...could I even make it to my wife? I knew the answer, still....
Then about 9:45 Saturday night the phone rang. I picked up. It was Tommy.
"Is Tess there?" The voice on the other end was as sweet and guileless.
"Tommy? Is this you?"
"Uh huh."
"Tommy, it's too late to be calling Tess. She's ...."
He hung up.
I held the phone in my hand as if not sure what to do with it next. I had not meant to scare the little guy...well, maybe part of me had in fact wanted to nip this calling thing in the bud, but now I felt conflicted about how it had gone. I checked the phone memory and saw Tommy's number and his mother's name listed. Impulsively I dialed it. The phone rang, and I wondered if Tommy or his mom would pick up.
"Hello."
It was his mom. In what I fancied to be my friendly phone voice, I introduced myself and explained that I was Tess's father, and that Tommy had just called.
"Yeah, I just saw him on the phone, and I wondered what the heck he was doin'."
"I told Tommy it was too late to be calling Tess."
"I'm sorry..."
"No. It's not a big deal. I just wanted to give you a heads up."
"He got some phone numbers at school, and he's real excited."
I should have concluded things there, but my that other parental voice inside me took over. "I just don't want to encourage Tess to talk on the phone for no good reason. I don't want her just chit chatting."
Tommy's mother didn't say anything.
"I mean if he wants to call to set up a play date or something, that's great..."
"Yeah, okay...like I said, I just saw him on the phone..."
"No, it's no big deal. I just don't Tess wasting too much time on the phone."
A tiny, too tiny, voice inside my head had begun whispering, "Shut up, Kevin!"
By the time I did listen and had hung up the phone, I felt quite sure that I had mishandled this phone thing about as thoroughly as I possibly could have.
The next morning, I met Beth and Tess in her first grade classroom. It was her end of year student-led parent conference where she would show Beth and I her portfolio of work for the entire year.
I sat there with Beth and found myself both impressed and enchanted by this little girl who had grown in so many ways and who stood before us now. She seemed somehow to personify both the timid, fearful little thing who first crossed the threshold of that classroom and unwillingly let go of my hand, knowing only her letters and colors (and of course the French language - a secret she kept locked away from everyone outside her family) and the squirmy, smiling, ebullient, long legged girl who now read with aplomb and took great pride in interpreting for us her many drawings. It had been a miraculous first grade year. I felt grateful to her teacher, and my parental pride was in full bloom.
Then in walked a little boy much shorter than Tess. He was with his mother and another older boy, maybe his big brother. I looked at Beth for confirmation. She nodded. It was Tommy. As he passed our table I ventured a greeting.
"Is that you, Tommy?"
The boy leaned into his mother's leg and seemed to shut down; rather, he narrowed his focus on the table in front of him and me and made straight for it. He looked uncertain and even fearful. He sat down with his back to me. His mother followed suit.
Tess, who had barely registered Tommy's arrival herself, was still busy presenting material to us so I didn't linger over whatever unpleasantness there might be. To make a long story short. Tess's presentation went on for some time whereas Tommy's wrapped up in short order. So when he and his mother left, it was the same scene as when he entered.
"Bye Tommy." Beth looked at me as if to ask, why are still doing this? I shrugged. Then I said to her. "Maybe we should invite him over for a play day. What do you think?"
"You want me to go out there and talk to them?"
I nodded lamely.
When Beth came back she told me that Tommy had indeed taken our night time conversation pretty hard but that she had managed to revive his spirits before he and his mother left. Then she said, "He's leaving this weekend for the whole summer. His mother gave me his phone number. I told her Tess would call him."
Again, I nodded. I was grateful to her and to Tommy's mother. I felt bad for the little boy.
That afternoon, I came home from work. Beth had to run some errands. Before she left she showed where Tommy's phone number lay on the table. I went into Tess's room, and saw her doodling in her journal at her desk.
"Hi sweetie."
"Hi dad."
"How would you like to call Tommy now?"
"OK. But I don't know his number."
"I have it. You dial, and I'll tell it to you."
She went to the phone and picked it up. I told her the number. She dialed. "Don't forget to wish him a good trip and a happy summer."
Almost immediately I heard her say, "Hello?"
That was fast, I thought.
"I'm sitting on the couch....what are you doing." Tess had already settled into the couch and begun twirling the cord around her fingers. She looked suddenly like a teenager to me. She seemed ready for a long comfortable time. Her eyes seemed fixed on some point in the air in front of her, her mouth turned up at the corners in an impish smile.
Something Tommy said made her laugh.

It was time for me to subtract myself. Before leaving however, I waved at Tess to catch her eye. She looked up.
"Tell Tommy I said hello," I whispered.
She did it.
I heard giggling as I backpedaled into the kitchen.
K

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