Kidhood should happen when you turn nine … maybe ten.
And last until the day you turn fourteen.
Then it’s over. Done.
That’s when everything you’ve learned starts to count.
Tommy Scott taught me to follow directions … by diagramming touch-football plays on my bony chest … with his stiff index-finger. The McCann brothers showed me how to tough-out a job … by delivering newspapers thru rain and snow. Joey Dandry proved that being muscled didn’t mean you couldn’t be soft … and sing like a choir boy.
Russell Pennington schooled me in music by teaching me to give every song a second chance. Howard Powell taught me to gut a fish … and Chrissy Keubler showed me how to prime an engine … and siphon gas without killing myself.
Matty McCann proved a kid can make a two-story fort … or anything else … with scrap wood and a jar of nails. And a ruler. Now he does it big time.
I discovered that girls and guys are surely different … but not as different as I imagined.
Marianne McLane uncovered my chivalry … and Bonnie Bohrman kick-started my libido without even knowing it. Ruth-Ann Repko taught me that ladies prefer gentlemen. And Helen O’Dell showed me how to kiss … very softly. And mean it.
Mark Middleton proved that some adults are racist-idiots … who can be perfectly shamed by a cool kid. And Ian Masterson proved it wasn’t necessary to talk every few seconds … that a nod would do.
Mary Byrne Hoffman showed brilliant guts by reciting every line of “The Song of Hiawatha” … without dying on stage … despite her speech issues. And George Elliot proved beyond a doubt that playing the piano was way cooler than swishing a bunch of jump shots.
Steve Bullock inspired me by pissin’ me off … and it cost him a swim championship. And I learned to use that switch to my advantage. Still do.
Larry Williams taught me the importance of patience … and helped me fall in love with the guitar. Eddie Plank demonstrated that it wasn’t impossible to be a football star … an altar boy … and a brainiac.
And Gary James learned never to sucker-punch my younger brother.
And there was more. Lots more.
Lessons on fighting and forgiveness … winning and losing … and even some bravery stuff. Informal tutoring about loyalty … and honor. And seeing inside people.
I learned how to take a beating … and to defend myself … and when enough is enough. And when to shake hands … and get back to whatever.
I almost mastered the difference between clever and crude … funny and foul … and what to say and not say in certain moments. And I learned about friendships … how to make ‘em and keep ‘em. And how to lose ’em with a word … or a broken promise.
I found out that kindness matters lots. And that “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” ain’t just preacher stuff. It’s real.
I conquered embarrassment by learning to laugh at myself … and rescuing others from their blushy moments. I discovered how to go solo … rather than follow the crowd … and be very okay with that choice. I found me.
I was coached on how to shoot a gun … flick a fly rod … string a bow … spear a fish … ride a motor scooter … and fix a prop.
I mastered zipping around the lake on one ski … and I taught my friends how to do it, too.
And all of this happened before any of us turned fourteen … without any adult in sight.
Because of that I didn’t raise my own kids like mushrooms … in a some dank room. And I didn’t protect ’em from every life-bump … or bother with the “what ifs” because I was too busy cheerin’ the “Why nots“.
They learned to love the big moment that made other kids shut down. But they also understood how to win … and lose … with grace and quiet class.
I allowed for lots of mistakes, bad decisions … and beautiful screw-ups. Even accidents. And I shut up as much as I could … because bad decisions have their own “I told you so” sermons. So, I bit my tongue and saved my homilies for when they really mattered.
I let ’em hang with the right friends … and learn things like I did … from one anther. I went easy on the rules and heavy on the common sense. And I let ’em try lots of things … sports, instruments, and edgy adventures that wouldn’t kill ’em.
I made sure they weren’t tv addicts or video junkies. I encouraged them to be the best … and taught them to be gentlemen way before they were even men.
So … throw ‘em on a team. Dare ‘em and challenge ‘em. And when they show up covered in dirt … with a hole in their head or some dried blood on their chin … don’t pass out and think they’ll come down with cholera by sundown.
If that stuff happens enough … well … you just might find yourself living with a helluva kid.
It happened to me. Three times.