Mr. President, when I was four my father put in our new mailbox. He let me stir the concrete. He let me put a little shovel-full in the hole. He let me press my hand into it. I followed him with a toy lawn mower when he mowed the grass. He showed me how to string line on a spinning reel, how to tie on a hook, how to cast a lure, how to step into a canoe. I mimicked his actions in order to learn. He used words to illustrate his actions. He allowed me to grow and walk close by him.
Frederick Douglass wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.” As a child, I can remember how my parents built me. As a father now, I think every day about how to build my children. As a teacher, I think each moment about how to pour the most good into my students to help them become generous, giving, kind, compassionate, thoughtful, strong adults.
Growing up our house was full of books, old and new: giant coffee-table books of New Yorker cartoons; a thick volume of political art from the 1800’s that I did not quite understand; Shakespeare’s complete works, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder, The Major Poets, Roman Vishniac’s pictorial history, Vanished World.
I most remember The Family of Man, the great collection of photographs from Edward Steichen’s historic exhibition. The book contained page after page of beautiful black and white photographs, and there I saw images of children and families from around the world—from Sweden, Zambia, Japan, New Guinea—mothers and fathers and grandparents, boys and girls sleeping, playing, laughing, weeping, being held in a parents’s arms. Before I was three my eyes were already traveling to far lands. The book remained inside of me like a living being.
One picture in particular transfixed me: Eugene Smith’s photograph of two small children— I imagined them a brother and sister—walking on a path in the woods, their backs to the camera. The woods behind them are dark. They pass out of the darkness, into an open clearing. The light is bright before them as they walk into the world. My heart beat faster to gaze upon it.
I found out much later that the children in the picture were Smith’s children. He had returned from photographing the Pacific theater for Time-Life, and had endured two years of rehabilitation and plastic surgery for wounds sustained in the war. He had taken no photos during those two years. Then one day in 1946, he took a walk with his children, Juanita and Patrick:
While I followed my children into the undergrowth and the group of taller trees – how they were delighted at every little discovery! – and observing them, I suddenly realized that at this moment, in spite of everything, in spite of all the wars and all I had gone through that day, I wanted to sing a sonnet to life and to the courage to go on living it…
He found life and courage in his children, even as they moved away from him. Their presence gave him hope, born from their innocent delight, that a new paradise, a new peace could be made.
I loved Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day—bakers and boats, house-builders and bulldozers—all the cooperative, thriving chaos of Busy Town. I loved the red fire trucks, the apparatus, ladders, and nozzles. As Huckle prepared to leap from the third floor with his trumpet in hand, my parents cried out in the voice of Huckle’s parents, “Save my Huckle, save my Huckle!”
I had a collection of my father’s books from his childhood. The board covers were worn, the stitched pages loose, the illustrations rich and lush with color. There was Nicodemus and His New Shoes, about a poor black boy who got a new pair of shoes. Nicodemus was drawn with exaggerated features—large lips and big eyes, the grossest caricatures imaginable—and as such was a prime example of how 20th century literature was replete with racist stereotypes. There was also Little Black Sambo. The caricature of main character was extreme and grotesque. Today the book would be rightly deemed unacceptably racist, but I only cared about the brightness of the colors—his green jacket, his purple pants, the blood red parasol, and in the end, the pool of melted, golden butter.
My parents read with us, to us, and to each other. Reading inculcated in us a desire to learn about the world, to see more of it. Rachel Carson’s book title was made manifest. And this I am certain must be one of the first and best ways to build children who are both strong and great.
After dinner, in winter, in Atlanta, on a rare cold night we’d make a fire. My father ordered one half cord of wood per year, stacked next to the drive way, alongside our aluminum canoe. We collected the kindling in a large square basket, built the fire, and read, my brother and I, on either side of him, with my mother close by, listening.
He read us The Lion’s Paw, the story of a sister and a brother, two orphans, running away on a sail boat headed to the Gulf of Mexico. And so I imagined the grail of a shell, the rare and beautiful Lion’s Paw, hidden and waiting somewhere at the end of the long tidal rivers. He read to us Honore Morrow’s On to Oregon, published in 1946. It must have been a book he read as a boy. His voice was steady and clear, his refined middle Georgia accent carrying the words with a cadenced lilt. In the city at night with a fire in the hearth, we followed families on the trail west, the clattering sounds of the wheels in the ruts, the casks of water and repairs of axles, the death of oxen, the yearning for the new world.
When my son was three, I drove him to day-care every morning. In the car we listened to Denzel Washington read John Henry, with B.B. King playing the soundtrack. My son sat in his car-seat with his mouth open, transfixed, transported to the other world, but one no less real. His heart must have beat faster to hear it. See, John Henry’s chest was bigger than a barrel. The human soul is greater than the machine. There were men and women, people of noble humility, the multitudes who built America and made it truly great and beautiful.
I kept from childhood a collection my father’s old books, including a series of hard cover books “for boys” from the late 1940’s, riveting and idealized tales of the Alamo and Midway and Ulysses and Pearl Harbor: Day of Infamy. When my son was nine I placed on his shelf, among his books about fire trucks and Wayne Gretzky and Mike Mulligan, a copy of one of those, Robert E. Lee: Virginia’s Son. I imagine he never read it. But I wanted him to have something he could hold, a link between my father, through me, to him, in the form of a book with a faded red cloth cover and dust on the tops of the pages.
Please, understand. These are the gifts we humbly bestow upon our children. We hold them close at night, pull them to us and we read. We give them pictures and parables, poems and legends. We breathe into them stories to live by, heroic deeds and great men and women. A book is no less than a museum, garden, historic site, library, or a path in the woods. We lift open the cover of the world so they may see the marvels inside. We lead them there and one day they will lead others.
We build them by letting them know that they have a place in a world—a world both magnificent and tragic—and that they will need to take their place in it with a sense of wonder and responsibility. If we are so blessed, we give them the best of what our mothers and fathers gave to us. We give them the chance to believe that they can sing sonnets to life. We give them Lee’s dignity, FDR’s determination, Mike Mulligan’s loyalty, Eugene Smith’s courage, John Henry’s untiring soul. We give them saviors and immigrants, poets and dreamers. We give them moments which will live in infamy, or even better, in their hearts. We don’t want the world to vanish before them. We say, “Put your hand here, where my hand is. You are part of me, and you are part of this.”