My father wasn’t a spanker, a shouter, a poker, or a grounder. He was a lecturer. When he really got into it, I swear he channeled another dimension, some celestial debating hall in which Pericles and William James present their cases before a council of mathematicians, with the legendary Rabbi Hillel presiding.
His timing was brilliant, too. When I got a C in math, he waited to give me The Talk until we were in a moving car, so that I had nowhere to run. I could see it coming, but there was nothing to be done, except brace myself for interrogation, and prime my teenage powers of eye rolling for an epic confrontation.
Of course, it wasn’t a confrontation at all, and how much easier a confrontation would have been than the reasoned interlocution that ensued. We had to dissect the consequences, and analyze the obstacles, and make a detailed plan for the future. He wouldn’t quit until I understood his central points, and then he still wouldn’t quit, because there were auxiliary points, alternative angles, and it turned out he felt those were actually pretty central too.
There’s a story I’ve often told about my dad when I want to convey my admiration of him, a true story of a lecture so short it barely deserves the title. I came home from middle school and mentioned that one of the few black kids on the playground got picked on that day. I’d even heard “the ‘N’ word” for the first time. Dad asked if I told a teacher, and I said no, I was just glad they weren’t picking on me.
“No,” he said. And his voice was soft; this was different. “Do your homework” this was not. “Whenever you hear ‘nigger,’ hear ‘dirty Jew.’ Whenever you hear ‘spic,’ or ‘fag,’ or ‘dyke,’ hear ‘dirty Jew.’ And take it personally.”
Those words have had an enormous impact on me. They have helped to define the person I strive to become. And so they have become the go-to story, the story of a simple lecture of justice and moral clarity.
But over the years I have come to appreciate the longer lectures too, those knots of on-the-one-hands and on-the-others I so hated as an adolescent. Sometimes the story is simple; sometimes the lecture can be short. But nowadays, I mostly find myself shaped by convoluted auxiliary points, by caveats and nuances. Like my father, I have become a collector of alternative angles, finding sanity in interminable deliberation.
Dad doesn’t care about my old math grades anymore. In truth, I’m not sure he ever did. It was the process he was pressing into my mind, the process of living as an impromptu lecture. I believe in dissecting consequences, analyzing obstacles, considering possibilities, making a plan—and doing it all now, in the moving car, without notes or preparations, whether you like it or not—because life isn’t as easy as getting grounded or spanked, and there’s an awful lot we have to talk through.
Seth Chalmer is a graduate student of Judaic studies and nonprofit management at New York University. Previously, he helped former prisoners succeed in careers, toured the United States as a performer in Sesame Street Live, and served as cultural arts director of the Jewish Community Center in Dayton, Ohio.
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