Wednesday, October 3, 2012

From the Mouths of Babes

 Grandfather and granddaughter--the Norman Rockwell version

           Most chronological adults have probably experienced disquieting episodes of what I will call reverse pedagogy in which young children ostensibly under their care or tutelage suddenly turn the tables on them.  Certainly every parent will know what I am talking about.

            Forty years ago and more, when I was a young father, I thought there was way too much violence in the world, and that I would offer my widow’s mite toward the healing the of planet by forbidding my own children from playing the kind of “war games” that had been a staple of my own childhood and that of every other child I knew during the first couple of decades of my life.   The term “political correctness” had not yet become canonical.  I was practicing “social awareness”.  I didn’t want to raise a brood of warriors.  Surely, I reasoned, a young lad could amuse himself in some way more edifying that pretending to shoot and be shot at by his peers.  So there was a blanket prohibition on all toy guns.

            This seemed to work well enough, though it sometimes caused awkwardness when he encountered playmates of the more primitive kind.  One day, quite by accident, I overheard my son, aged perhaps five, explaining the ludic rules of the house to a new friend.   He explained why he could not play with toy guns.  “You see,” he said apologetically, and with pity rather than indignation, “my Daddy can’t tell the difference between a toy gun and a real gun.”  That is now ancient history; and my son will himself soon enough have the opportunity of viewing reality from the other end of the telescope.  A generation later my infantile instructors are now my two young granddaughters, Lulu and Cora.

            What is often terrible about the censures from the very young is that they come in simple, unemotional, declarative sentences.  Two or three years ago I was walking up the Avenue Desaix in Paris with Lulu and Cora.  In fact I was walking them home from their nearby schools--a fact that may gain relevance as my story progresses.  We were heading for their apartment two or three blocks away.  I paused to make a purchase at one of the mom-and-pop shops that are so numerous in the French capital.  My daughter had asked me to pick up an item or two, a liter of milk and something else, I don’t quite remember.  Fond grandfather that I am, I also got some small treat for the girls intended for immediate consumption.  The entire commercial episode cannot have taken more the ninety seconds.

            As we stepped out of the shop and continued on our way up the road, my granddaughter Lulu (then aged six, I think) said to me, “You don’t speak French very well, do you, Granddad?”  This was said in a most neutral, matter-of-fact way.  It was not a reprimand and not an accusation, simply an observation.  Perhaps there was even a note of cheerful sympathy in it.  Its devastating effect derived entirely from the ineluctable fact that I don’t speak French very well. 

            It was not after all such a terrible indictment.  I would risk the generalization that most people from Arkansas don’t speak French very well.  But then most people from Arkansas are not supposed experts in medieval French literature.  But this was one scrape that tenure could not get me out of.  I instinctively realized that my many publications were unlikely to redeem me in my granddaughter’s eyes.  “O yeah, kid?   Well just read my book on the manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose.”

            Fast forward two or three years to early yesterday morning.  I am now in my daughter’s apartment on Washington Square in New York City.  It turns out that, work schedules being tight, I could offer the household a signal service were I to be the girls’ designated escort on the walk to their school just up in the Twenties on the East Side.  Furthermore such an arrangement would be highly convenient for me as well, for by continuing on in a northwesterly direction at an unforced pace for another mile I would arrive at Penn Station in time to catch the 9:01 express for Princeton.

            I heard my daughter explaining to Lulu and Cora that, exceptionally, neither she nor their father Zvi would be walking with them on this particular day.  Not to worry, however—“Granddad will take you.”  Lulu’s entirely disingenuous response to this proposal could be heard from three rooms away.  “By himself?” she asked incredulously.  My daughter did defend me—vigorously.  She pointed out that in my time I had walked to many a school, as likely as not bare-footed, uphill, through snow-drifts high as a steer’s forelock.  In fact I had several times walked to this very school with these very granddaughters.  But that was last year.  Lulu’s question clearly reflected her current assessment of her grandfather’s deteriorating cognitive and/or motor skills, which apparently approached those of his Francophony.