Skipping Stones By Example

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A few weeks back, while taking a walk along the river with me, my nine-year-old son paused to pick up a round flat stone. I watched as he cast it into the water and then as he expressed grave disappointment. ``What's the matter?'' I asked. He told me that it hadn't skipped. ``No,'' I said, picking up a stone of my own. ``You have to throw it a certain way, like this.'' @bodytext-noindent = As he watched, I crouched a bit, drew my arm back at an odd angle, and flung the stone out over the river. It came down flat and spinning, skipping briskly across the stillness. Five times. ``Wow,'' he said. ``How did you do that?''

How I did it was clear. But I had to think for a few moments to remember who had taught me. And then I recalled a bright summer day long ago, when my own father had converted me, in a twinkling it seemed, from a mere thrower of rocks to a bona fide stone skipper.

In the next moment, I was standing behind my son, wrapping his fingers around a flat smooth piece of shale, drawing his arm back to show him the required motion. ``Now snap it,'' I said.

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He threw as I had shown him and the stone skidded boldly forth, leaping three times before sputtering out in a series of skiplets vague enough to boost the self-esteem of any novice.

``Wow! Fifty!'' he exclaimed. And who would have had the heart to debate this?

The things I have taught my son are mostly unremarkable, though important for functioning smoothly in our cultural landscape: brushing teeth, opening a twist-cap bottle, tying double knots, putting gum wrappers in his pocket if he doesn't see a trash can nearby, washing hands after using the bathroom.

I also taught him how to shake hands with a modicum of sincerity. I found myself deeply conscious of the import of such moments, especially the handshake. Several years ago, while a volunteer in the Big Brother program, I saw two of the ``littles'' being introduced to the program director. When he extended his hand to greet them they stared dumbly at it. These boys, aged 9 and 10, couldn't shake hands because they didn't know how to. The most instinctive and social of gestures in our society was a mystery to them.

I have a friend who spends much of his time worrying that he is having no influence over his 10-year-old, other than setting acceptable limits on his activities and behavior.

``You'd never believe he was my son,'' he recently lamented. ``I say one thing and he does another.''

I comforted him as best I could, although I couldn't really identify with his experience. He was confusing influence with control. Unless one is using a ball and chain, one can't control another person, not even a child; not for long, at least. Influence is really no more than a seed of example, subtly planted. Then it takes time to grow.

The other day, while doing some mundane task, I happened to hear a classical piece on the radio and was immediately able to identify it and the composer. You see, when I was growing up my father had a collection of light classical pieces of ``The World's Most Beautiful Music'' variety, which he bought on a subscription basis. With due frequency, when I came home from school he would stop me at the door while he dropped the phonograph needle onto a new record.

``Name this piece,'' he'd say, and I'd hover on the threshold, balancing my books, listening to the opening strains while my father read the record jacket.

I still remember the day he received his Viennese collection. ``It's a waltz,'' I offered, and my father nodded sagaciously. But this was only the beginning. ``Title?'' he asked, his voice rising with expectation.

`` `Vienna Blood?' ''

My father nodded again. He put his hand out (I still wasn't allowed to budge). ``Composer?''

``Strauss.''

My father raised a finger. ``Which one?''

``The younger.''

``Right.''

My father was not a college graduate, and he was not a musician, but he sensed, with the instincts of a teacher, that music that had persisted for a century was worth being aware of. It was a creative way for a family of limited means to endow its children with a cultural sense of place. This was influence, not control. And it was done not only with music, but with literature and geography as well.

Last evening I happened to look out the kitchen window to see my son repeatedly skipping stones off the river. He had been at it a month now. This activity had great appeal to him, although he was still only middling at it. But I had shown him the door, and now he was venturing out on his own.

This is the very essence of teaching. As I watched him throw, I imagined him as a young adult, still skipping stones and finally proficient at it.

And as he threw, rhythmically, smoothly, I imagined him whispering, `` `Vienna Blood,' Johann Strauss, the younger.'' And I indulged myself in the small conceit that he would think kindly of me for having taught him something that made him feel at home in the world.

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