The Year Without a Secret Santa Claus

It was my seventh grade year. Middle school – that time in a young man’s life when everything revolves around going unnoticed. At least, that’s the way I remembered it. You kept your head down, closed your eyes, and prayed to God that no one noticed you’re alive, because if they did, they’d likely remember you’re a colossal nerd and they’d make fun of you. Or worse.

It’s not often that a young man dreams of being Sue Storm, but my seventh grade year certainly was one of those times.

Up until November, my plan for complete avoidance of all human contact had worked. Nobody paid attention to me, nobody picked on me, nobody remembered my name, let alone that I was small, skinny, and liked to draw and read comic books. But that all changed just before Thanksgiving.

“We’re going to draw names,” my teacher announced, “and whomever you draw, you’ll be their Secret Santa.”

I don’t remember whose name I drew. In fact, I wouldn’t remember anything about this at all except for the fact that, on the last day of school before Christmas break, in the middle of our class holiday party, I was the only kid who didn’t receive a gift.

My Secret Santa stiffed me.

I didn’t cry, though I felt like it. I knew what tears would do: draw attention to the fact I was an utter loser. So I simply sat at my desk in shame and ate my candy. Eventually one or two kids came by to stare at my nothing. I think one of them even tried to apologize on my Secret Santa’s behalf. It didn’t cross my mind at the time, but I think maybe they knew the identity of my Secret Shamer. I do recall my teacher came by and tried to say something comforting to me, even promising to make up for my loss when we returned from break (she did not).

But mostly I remember feeling like an outcast, an unworthy, unloved hunk of human disgrace who not only didn’t get a present but probably didn’t deserve one anyway.

I can’t say it didn’t affect me – its been over decades since it happened and I can still revisit the mind of the little boy seated at my desk that day. I remember the loneliness. I remember the embarrassment. But I also remember thinking very deeply about what might compel someone to be so cruel to a classmate, especially a classmate who never did anyone any harm in any way.

Why would someone hate me so much for no reason?

I still wonder about that, especially when I read stories like the Peshawar massacre or Ferguson. I wonder what it is inside some human souls that makes them seethe with so much disdain and disregard for the life of another.

25 years removed from that middle school classroom, and I’m still searching for answers.

When Anything Was Possible

photo (21)This morning, because he was climbing the walls, I put my son in my car and took him for a drive. We ran an errand for work first, then headed down Highway 78, eastbound. We passed through Loganville, Between, Monroe…and as the mile markers swept by, Jon asked me where we were going.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I’m going to take you to where I went to college.”

“You’re gonna take me to your college?” he repeated.

“Yeah. The University of Georgia.”

“The Yoo-be-nursery of…how do you say it?”

I smiled. “The University of Georgia.”

“Oh. You’re gonna take me there?” he asked, looking at me in the rearview mirror.


“Okay. Can we get ice cream?”

The great thing about my alma mater is that it’s less than an hour’s drive, yet feels like going to another planet. As we turned onto Milledge Avenue, Jon immediately started asking questions. “Why are there so many houses? Why do people have couches in the yard? Why do they have bulldogs on everything?” It was non-stop.

I turned into the Butts-Mehre Building parking lot, thinking that I’d take him to the sports museum inside and show him the glory, glory of old Georgia. We walked in and in quick order took pictures with the 1980 National Championship trophy, Herschel Walker’s Heisman Trophy, and a very nice lady who knew where the restrooms were (that was Jon’s idea). But all of that lasted less than a minute; suddenly, Jon wanted to know where the scientists were.

“I want to see the scientists, like me.” (Special thanks to my brother- and sister-in-law Terrell and Julie White for sending Jon a Big Bag of Science Experiments for his birthday. My kitchen floors will never be the same.)

So we left the Butts-Mehre, went down by Foley Field (Jon had zero interest in the baseball diamond), turned by Stegeman Coliseum (he wasn’t interested in that either) and zipped over towards the Biology, Chemistry and Food Sciences buildings. He begged me to find a place to park so he could “see the scientists make stuff up”, but I couldn’t find a spot, and wasn’t sure we could get into some of the labs anyway.

“That’s sad,” said Jon. “Don’t people want to see scientists?”

I’ve yet to tell him what Bear Bryant said on that issue: “80,000 people never showed up to watch a chemistry test.”

We turned left on East Campus Avenue and drove behind Sanford Stadium. I turned left again on Baldwin Street and showed him Park Hall. “That’s where daddy spent most of his last two years of college.”

“That looks boring,” he replied.

We turned right onto Milledge once more, and then made a right onto Broad Street. I parked downtown near the Arches and we took a stroll across North Campus. We looked at squirrels, trees, the Chapel Bell, the Law Library Atrium, and the inside of the main library. I walked him back down to Sanford Stadium and made the mistake of telling him that’s where all the dead Ugas are buried. After that, he wanted to talk about nothing else.

It was a nice trip, despite the fact that the campus looks almost nothing like I remember it. Fifteen years after I left, the university has become what former president Charles Knapp had dreamed: a top-flight center of education. I marveled at how young the students are compared to when I was in school; how many of them still think they’re invincible enough to smoke; how many of them seem far more determined than I was when I roamed the same grounds.

As we walked back to the car, I took Jon to Park Hall, where the English and Classics departments are headquartered. I snapped a picture in front of my old haunt, and recalled when a professor stopped me on the front steps and told me that, with a bit of revision, some of my pieces would be press-ready. And then the professor offered to send them to his friend at The New Yorker – and could almost guarantee they’d see print.

I stood there and watched that memory play out one more time: I shook his hand and told him thank you, but no. I wasn’t prepared to face rejection. He asked me to reconsider; told me that of all the students in my “Writing for Publication” class, I was the only one to demonstrate real potential.

I told him no a second time. Then I walked away.

It’s been fifteen years, and I still remember that. In college, so the saying goes, anything is possible. You’re not who you were, not yet who you’ll be. You’re a bundle of potential and passion and purposeless energy. You’re waiting to be aimed somewhere and to see how far you’ll go.

At least, that’s the way some people were. I wasn’t. I’m 37 now, and am just finally reaching my “anything is possible” phase. It took me this long to realize the things about myself that are good and worthy and deserving of people’s attention. Today, I wouldn’t hesitate to take that professor’s hand and say, “Let’s sit down and make those revisions now. Why wait?” I would whole-heartedly accept his offer and be so excited about even the possibility that I might get read, much less published.

But I am that person today because I wasn’t that person then. I am a husband and father and writer today because I couldn’t see myself as any of that then.

Sometimes, we take the path we think we’re supposed to take because we have a hard time imagining ourselves take any other path. We choose what we know because we’re afraid of what we don’t. And sometimes, we discover that we end up where we started; we come back to the path we turned away, prepared to take it and see what happens.

That’s what I felt today, standing on a campus that isn’t the same as it was fifteen years ago. But then again, neither was the man standing there. Today, with my son in tow, I went back in time and realized I hadn’t missed my moment; I’d just been preparing for it.

Carpe diem, right?

Anything is possible. Even today.

The Speed of Time

Ella, on the first day of school. Suffice it to say, a lot has changed.

Yesterday afternoon my daughter popped in a DVD that her Kindergarten teacher sent home. It was a video slide show, set to music, that captured moments from the entire school year. As Ella watched, her and her friends transformed from fresh faced babies into tall and lanky children, all in a matter of minutes. With each picture Ella would call out, “There’s Pate!” or “That’s Ms. Mercier!” or “Look at Mackenzy’s face!” She took genuine joy in the reminiscence and when the video was done, she quietly asked if she could watch it again.

Since her brother was in the middle of a fevered coughing fit, I – grateful for something to keep her occupied – hit the play button again.

It took less than thirty seconds for the tears to start. One second, Ella is sitting there with a smile on her face; the next, she’s a puddle of tears and blubber. The transformation was startling, but so too was the realization that my six year-old was caught up in the powerful emotion known as nostalgia. A six year-old. Nostalgic. For a school year that wasn’t even officially over.

If her brother had been well, I would’ve lingered on that thought a moment longer, would’ve allowed it to blossom in my mind. Instead I hit “Stop” on the DVD remote and said, “You’re brother’s falling to pieces because he’s sick, Ella. I can’t have you falling to pieces because of some video. We’ll watch this again another time; why don’t you see if you can find something else to do?”

I know. Heartless. But you’re not holding a coughing, feverish three year-old and wondering whether or not you need to head to the nearest pediatric emergency room.

Ella did go find something else to do: she started writing a note to her teachers, telling them how much she loved Kindergarten, how much she loved them, how much she would miss them over the summer and how she would promise to come see them once first grade began. She tore the note from her little binder, brought it to me for my editorial eye, and then announced that she would like to take it to school with her for her teachers.

“You can’t,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because tomorrow is the last day of school.”

“That’s why I need to take it tomorrow. Because I won’t see them any more after.”

“But you can’t take anything with you to school tomorrow – not a book bag, not a lunchbox, nothing.”

Ella frowned. “I can take a sack lunch. Ms. Mercier said so. So I can take the paper.”

I sighed. “No, you can’t. The reason you’re not allowed to take anything to school is because the school board doesn’t want students throwing paper out of the bus windows.”

“But I wouldn’t throw this out of the bus window. I would give it to Ms. Mercier.”

“I understand that, Ella, but the school board doesn’t. They don’t know that you’re a sweet girl who follows the rules.”

She smiled. “I can just tell them.”

“You don’t know enough about the government to know how funny what you just said really is.”

The conversation went on until Rachel stepped in and explained that, while Ella couldn’t take the note with her to school, she could type the note up in an email and send it to her teachers that way. Ella loved the idea, and I asked me to help her. I gave Jon to Rachel and took Ella to the computer. I opened a new email and typed in Ella’s teacher’s address. Then Ella slipped into my office chair.

“I got this,” she said.

And she did. With the exception of me showing her how to use the space bar and the shift key (for capitalizing letters), Ella banged out the entire email on her own, one finger hunting for each letter like an archaeologist brushing dirt off rare antiquities. When she finished (she typed her name in all caps so the teachers “would know it’s me who signed it”), I hit send and the email vanished. Ella beamed with pride.

Then she teared up again. “I’m going to miss being a Kindergartener.”


“Because it’s all I know how to be!”

I hugged her. “I know how you feel, Ella, but if you’ll remember, you didn’t even know how to be a Kindergartener when school started this year. But you learned, honey, and you learned well. I mean, you just sent an email to your teacher that you wrote and typed yourself! You don’t have to be afraid. Or sad.”

She wiped her nose on my shirt. “But I like being a Kindergartener. It’s fun.”

“I know. But any learning can be fun if you make it fun.”


“Well, maybe not Algebra. Or Statistics. But for the most part, yes. I promise.”

She made a face. “What is Stabisitics?”

“Don’t worry about it. It comes much later in your school career.”

She seemed satisfied with my answers, and that was pretty much the end of our talk. This morning, as I walked her to the bus stop for the final time this year, I reflected on just how much she’s grown; she reads at a near second-grade-level, loves to write notes in her journals, draws pictures with much more clarity and detail. Even watching her walk, I was taken back by how mature she seemed. She’s taller than when school started, and her hair’s longer – in fact, she was so excited to be able to pull it into a side-ponytail for the last day.

“Just like the older girls do,” she explained.

In a couple of hours, I’ll have a Kindergartener no longer. The speed of time is exponentially increasing on me, and I’m just coming to grips with the fact that I can’t slow it down, not when a quick glance at Facebook reveals former students who have been married seven years, former students who are on their third baby, former students who have just gotten engaged, not to mention the students who are just graduating this year, whom I first met when they were barely the age Ella is now. It all reminds me that this is what life is: a continual progression, a relentless march forward.

And it’s meant to be savored.

So when my first grader steps off the bus this afternoon and plants that first foot solidly into her summer break, I’ll grab her in a huge hug and say, “Let’s go do something fun. What do you say?”

Hopefully, because time is short and precious, she’ll say, “Yes!”

Law & Order: SVU and the Power of Parenting

Stabler was a great detective but a flawed father. I hope to be great at both.

So the past few days, Ella has been complaining that she doesn’t want to go to school anymore. She doesn’t like learning. She would just rather stay at home and veg out with Mommy (as if Rachel just sits on the couch all day…). Basically, the child has been dropping hints like a Pinto drops parts: I don’t like school.

Now, she’s only dropped these hints for Rachel. She hasn’t said a word to me about school, good, bad or indifferent. But Rachel’s had it up to her ears.

“I need you to talk to her,” she said last night. “I’m going to kill her.”

So this morning, when Ella woke up at 6:00am complaining of chest tightness, a sore throat and trouble breathing, but then suddenly got better once I turned on the TV, I decided it was time to have a chat with my girl.

The problem was how.

Here’s where Law & Order: SVU comes in. I’ve watched that show for years. This season is having to win me over because NBC made the boneheaded move of low-balling Christopher Meloni on his contract, and Meloni opted to walk and seek other projects. I can’t say I blame him, but dang – the show just isn’t the same without Meloni as its emotional center. I think the new actor hired to replace Meloni (Danny Pino, seen previously in Cold Case) is a decent enough actor, but he just doesn’t have the weightiness that Meloni brings.

What does that have to do with my daughter? This:

On the show, Meloni’s character, Detective Elliot Stabler, had a daughter named Katherine. During the show’s run, we saw Katherine go from a precocious preteen to troubled teen to raging collegiate drunk to reformed, responsible young woman. And we saw this character’s journey through the eyes of her policeman father, Det. Stabler. Now Stabler had his issues (anger management being one), which made it hard for him to talk to his daughter. In fact, the majority of their onscreen conversations usually ended with Katherine yelling and Stabler getting red in the face and trying not to explode.

Contrast that with Stabler’s ability to work with difficult witnesses in his precinct’s interrogation room: here, Stabler is in control. He knows exactly what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. He knows exactly how to get the answers he needs from a person who may or may not want to talk.

Long story short – SVU showed me that it was entirely possible to be gifted at communicating with everyone else but your kid. And I want to avoid that.

So, I did the unthinkable: I approached my conversation with Ella this morning as if I were a fictional detective trying to get answers out of a child. I kept my cool. I let Ella direct the conversation, while still plying her with guided questions. I never said anything that made it sound like I didn’t believe her. And when Ella’s answers were vague or non-existent, I gently rephrased the question and prompted her to answer again.

We must’ve talked for 20 minutes. She was hesitant at first, but after a while she opened up and said that there was a boy in her class who talks all the time, is constantly in trouble, and sits right next to her. This boy allegedly gets into Ella’s personal space, making it hard for Ella to concentrate. She also alleged that the boy punched her in the neck last week.

After hearing that, I wouldn’t want to go to school either.

I gave her a hug and thanked her for telling me the truth (even though in the back of my mind I knew I would need to do a little fact-checking) and she seemed better. After talking with Rachel, we agreed that I needed to go by the school this morning and speak with the teacher about Ella’s story, just to make sure Ella was on the up and up. So I showered, got dressed, and put on my badge, uh, cell phone, and headed up to the school.

Ella’s teacher wasn’t there, but I spoke with the paraprofessional who works in the classroom. We’ll call her Ms. Doe. Ms. Doe confirmed that the boy seated next to Ella is quite chatty, and has to be removed from group work frequently, and as such does sometimes prohibit Ella from doing her best. She didn’t know anything about the alleged punch to the neck, but did say that, given the classroom’s close quarters, an accidental encounter was probable. I thanked her for her time and texted Rachel.

I’ll sit down with Ella’s teacher face to face next week during our parent-teacher conference, but for now, I feel like I have the information I need to help Ella better enjoy school. I also feel great because I was able to actually talk with my daughter this morning about a real problem, and it went well.

There are times when I wonder if I’m good at this whole fatherhood thing. Nothing terrifies me more than the idea that I’ll lose the close, loving relationship that Ella and I share; I don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that. But I also know that if I don’t talk to her about things like this, if I don’t show her that I’m willing to listen without getting angry and find solutions without punishing her out of the gate, I’ll lose her anyway.

Walking up the hill to the bus stop this morning, I said as much.

“You can talk to me about anything. You know that right?” I said.

“Yeah, daddy. I know.”

“I won’t get angry with you. I promise. You can tell me anything, and we’ll work together to figure out what’s best.”

“Okay, daddy.” She smiled. “I like talking to you.”

“I like talking to you, too, Ella.”

She got on the bus smiling, and even waved back at me as the bus drove off. It felt good to be her dad at that moment, good to be not only a caring father but a shrewd detective.

Now, I need to head to a costume shop and get me a cool looking badge…

Someone’s Gonna Get Killed…

This rarely happens in The Play Zone. There, kids rule the plastic jungle...

Tonight was “Spirit Night” for my daughter’s elementary school. The purpose of “Spirit Night” is to help kids get excited about going to their school by bribing them with fun nights where the family does something out of the norm. Tonight’s “Spirit Night” was at a local Chick-Fil-A, and may I say – it was well attended.

Now, as always, the people of Chickalay (as Jon calls it) do a fantastic job in general, but they were on the ball tonight. Not only did my son spill his lemonade onto the floor approximately 2.687 seconds after receiving it, but my wife accidentally shot salad dressing all over the table. The Chickalay folks were on it, man. Sticky, lemon-scented floor? Mopped and dried in under three minutes. Nasty globs of ranch coating your table? Wiped and clean in under a minute and a half.

But for all of the Chickalay folks’ derring-do, even they have limits. There exists a place inside almost every Chick-Fil-A where even the most hardened adult dares not venture.

The Play Zone.

It’s like being thrown into the monkey cage at the zoo, only if the monkeys were all small, had scores of black tar heroin thumping through their veins, and were trying to kill each other by screaming as loudly as possible.

Naturally I let my children run into the madhouse unsupervised.

Let me just say this: if the process of natural selection were still a viable method for the continuation of the human species, I would not have to worry about my genetic code disappearing from the face of the earth. My children would be able to hold their own in the unfriendly confines of the wild.

Especially Jon. Anytime another kid would get near him, my son would go crazy-eyed and start yelling as loud as possible in a manner similar to Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. He freaked one girl out so bad she just fell on the floor, limp. Granted, Jon does this whenever he gets really excited (and let’s face it: what’s more exciting than a small, padded room where you and your friends can climb, slide, throw, roll and otherwise exert supreme mastery over all you see?), but tonight there was a little something extra in each scream, a primal force that seemed to burst out of my son as if to say, “I am KING of this bendy plastic jungle!”

Ella was much more subtle. My daughter has been called Ella-cat since she was born, because the child has at least 13 chromosomes from the feline species. She likes to get in your face whenever it’s inconvenient, she circles your lap three times before sitting down, she’s constantly stretching and arching her back, and whenever you ignore her she breaks crap to see if you’re paying attention.

So inside the plastic insanitarium, Ella was all slink and guile, moving through the different play sections with the liquid ease of a panther, slipping between the other rampaging tots like smoke through a crack in your door. It was amazing to watch her navigate; if the other kids had been covered in wet paint, Ella wouldn’t have gotten a spot on her. I’m telling you – if the fate of the free world were to come down to a game of dodgeball, I know whom I would put on the floor: my girl.

It was just weird to observe the chaos going on just mere feet away from all of the parents enjoying a few minutes respite from the usual assault of questions, demands and whines. You could see couples enjoying their conversation, even as a group of six year-olds hoisted a trussed-up toddler above their head like a pre-pubescent Lord of the Flies. No one wanted to look. No one wanted to see. Every adult seemed more than willing to concede the 45-square feet of the Play Zone entirely to the kids.

Eventually, someone’s going to get killed. But as they say, only the strong survive.