We were half-way to the indoor soccer facility when my 7-year-old daughter started begging me to turn the car back. “A girl punched me,” Kate moaned from the back seat. “They say I’m not good enough.”
These travel soccer girls weren’t messing around. Their teddy bears wore soccer jerseys. As we drew closer, Kate’s pleas grew more desperate: “I’m not going. You can’t make me!”
I pulled into the parking lot and watched tears dampen her red, splotchy face in the rear view mirror.
“Please don’t force me,” she wailed.
“Katie,” I said, “All of us are scared sometimes.”
I myself had been near tears earlier in the morning. A career change to teaching had landed me at a public school in the Bronx, and I was not performing well according to my last two evaluations.
“What are you scared of, Daddy?”
“The same things you are,” I said. “People saying I’m not good enough.”
“At work?” Kate asked. She was a smart little girl.
I opened the door, got out, and reached for her hand.
“Don’t make me,” she shouted.
“I’m not,” I said. What was I going to do? Carry her onto the indoor field, crying, in front of her peers? That was when a bribe occurred to me.
This was not new. I’d been sweetening the pot for a long time. She was a picky eater, so I’d encourage her to sample new foods: avocado, asparagus, pinto beans. Dollar bills did the trick. If I were in a pickle and needed help with chores pronto, a bag of silly bands might influence her to put all the dishes in the dishwasher. As a musician, I often needed her to accompany me on gigs. By age 4, she’d seen too many and refused. In exchange for long car rides and sitting out the show in the front row where I could see her, I offered monster dolls. It seemed eminently reasonable to entice her—an easy way to get her to do what needed to be done.
But gone were the days when a bag of Skittles would clinch the deal. She had graduated to asking for things called “iPad” and “iTouch.”
“What if I bought you an iPod?” I asked. If Kate could face up to her fears now, it might become part of her repertoire.
“No!” she howled.
“Katie,” my tone softened, “if you can’t face these girls now, it will be harder to do later.”
I could see her thinking about it, trying to dig beneath her hysteria.
“Are you still offering the iPod?” she asked.
She gave me her hand. “I’ll do it.”
Watching Kate join her team, I wondered if it would be that easy to bribe myself to go to work tomorrow. I had made my living, happily, as a children’s musician, but switched to teaching for paid vacations, benefits, and a pension. I was floundering at a difficult job that I didn’t enjoy.
Pursuing a pay-off had led me down the wrong path. I wanted Kate to overcome her fears, but not at the expense of valuing things over her best instincts. I started searching on my smart phone to see what this iPod was going to cost me.
It’s embarrassing, but sometimes Kate knows better than I do. I remember once when she was 3, I barked at her because I was pressed for time and she wouldn’t walk. Carrying her back to the Chevy Malibu, I harnessed her into the car seat.
“Why did you yell at me?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t like to yell. I’m not perfect. I try to be a good daddy.”
“What if,” Kate said thoughtfully, “you’re trying to be perfect, and you are perfect?”
My daughter, the guru.
Two years later, a 5-year-old Kate perched on my lap as I clicked on the email congratulations from NYC Teaching Fellows, the select recruiting arm of the City that admitted un-licensed individuals like myself to teach in the public schools. I was thrilled that in my need, and at age 51, they chose me. But Kate cried in my arms as if I’d just scored a seat on the Hindenburg. Right again.
Now, Kate and I are dealing with a concussion she suffered in a soccer game. I don’t know why the symptoms linger. I don’t know when the low-grade headaches will end. On a bad morning, Kate asked me if she should stay home from school. I admitted that I didn’t know. A friend of mine says “don’t know” is her favorite position. Kate suggested that she stay home that day, and I agreed. I can’t say when she’ll be able to play soccer again.
Why is this happening? When will it end? Time will tell. I’m no longer dead sure I’m right. I realize that I just don’t know.