My son turned 21 recently. Having been there, I understand the significance of this milestone.
When I held him for the first time, I looked into his scrunched-up eyes and made a prayer, one I probably repeated daily: Please let him live to be a good and caring man.
His father and I divorced when he was 2. I certainly wasn't a perfect mother, but I did my best: choosing good schools, supporting his interests, and teaching him right from wrong.
Some days were difficult, others were great. What I reminded myself, however, was that the years mattered more than the days.
I remember a particular day at the veterinarian's office when my son was 12. As we waited, we joshed in a silly word game we often played. One woman said, "I wish I had such a good relationship with my son."
To carve his own identity meant constantly growing away from me. I wondered, if I had prepared him enough to face the emotional strain of adolescence.
In junior high, the open, caring young boy, who was never without a book, began to change. He felt an outcast among kids he'd known since preschool. He refused to bring home the few friends he had. Despite my urging, he slacked on his homework. I was worried.
Ninth grade arrived, and I held hope that high school would be better. When he signed up for marching band, the possibility seemed stronger. At band camp before his freshman year, he began a refrain I'd hear for months. "Mr. G." expects too much! He works us too hard! Doesn't he know we've got a life? I admired Mr. G., knowing he had tossed a lifeline to my son.
One evening while driving home from band practice, he was unusually chatty, talking about the cool kids he met at school. I listened gladly until he said, "They're skinheads."
Pretending a calmness I didn't feel, I asked my son if he, like the skinheads, believed in Nazis, violence, and white supremacy. He said, "No."
Outside of band, his life continued to spiral downward. Late in his sophomore year the assistant principal informed us that my son had skipped school for three straight weeks, returning only for band. His stepdad and I were stunned.
We sent my son to live with his father where he made some important discoveries. First, that his father made the same unreasonable demands for respect, integrity, and honesty as we. That social cliques are to be endured. And that it was no fun walking half-a-mile to the bus when the temperature was 40 below zero.
In the spring he asked to return because he did not like the band at his new school. The embers of hope glimmered in my heart.
Over the next two years he gradually changed. He brought friends home, he dated, and fell in love. He continued to scorn classes that lacked stimulation.
The one constant was band and his unwavering admiration for Mr. G. After high school, he wouldn't consider college. As painful as I first found that, I knew he needed to learn from life, rather than be taught from books.
Today, he has work he loves, where his quick mind and pride in workmanship are prized by his bosses. Occasionally, he even picks up his sax and jams.
He lives on his own so we don't see him often. At the voting precinct this spring, for an election expecting a 15 percent turnout, he drove up as we walked in. His stepdad finished voting before I did, but my son still wasn't inside. I found them outdoors chatting about cars.
He looked at me, scrunching up his eyes just like the day he was born. "You know the machine shop I called about the work on your car?" he said. "I forgot to ask something, so I stopped by. There was a small swastika on the wall under the calendar. I decided we'd take our business elsewhere."
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