There are two missed childhood experiences for which I harbor minor regrets. One is the dog I never had. The other is a paper route.
Is there not something admirable about the ability of a child to rise at 4:30 in the morning, mount a bicycle, and set out in the darkness to rendezvous with a mountain of newspapers? All this, while impatient customers still slumber, anticipating the presence of the daily gazette on their front steps at the break of dawn.
I don't really know why I never had a paper route as a kid. Perhaps it is for the very reasons cited above: the darkness, the early hour, and, in the winter, the biting cold. A warm bed and the extra hours of sleep held far greater allure.
Recently, my son, Alyosha, a vigorous young teenager, was asked by his friend Simon to take over his paper route for one week while Simon was away with his family. I overheard the phone conversation and watched as Alyosha twisted about on his feet, screwed up his face, and emitted a sigh at the very thought of what the job would entail.
I immediately did the thing I knew I shouldn't have done. I nudged my son and nodded aggressively, the message being, "Go ahead. Why not? It's just a week, and you'll make some honest money."
Alyosha, not yet teenager enough to confidently resist the yoke of parental influence, reluctantly agreed. After he had hung up the phone he rolled his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, with heavy heart, "What have I done!" Such was the pickle I had coaxed my son into.
The thing is, my son has a pretty easy life. His receives a modest allowance, enjoys fulfilling friendships, and gets pizza every Friday night. His chores around the house are few, and he has been known to treat the washing of a dish with the wearied exasperation of a piano mover asked to work overtime.
But his anxiety this time was real. I had never seen him so beset with worry as I did the day after Simon oriented him to the delivery route.
"I'll never remember all the houses!" he wailed. "This one wants it folded, that one wants it behind the door, the other one in front of the door."
Actually, it was worse than he portrayed it. I picked up his route sheet and read some of the annotations: 114 Main St. (fussy woman!); 332 Ridge Rd. (remove all flyers); 78 Park (don't make noise - sensitive dog).
I immediately felt a welling of sympathy for my son. But what could I do? I knew that the worst thing would be to accompany him on his route.
"Look," I told him the night before his solo, "thousands, maybe millions, of kids have done it before you. Why should you be the one to fail?"
Alyosha rolled over in bed and drew the blanket over his head.
"Good night, Dad," he said by way of dismissal.
Ironically, it was my sleep that was fitful that night, while Alyosha, as far as I could discern, didn't stir - until 4:30, when I heard the faintest creaking in his upstairs room, and then a hectic scurrying through the house. I rose in the early darkness, walked into the kitchen, and found him there, tying his shoes and adjusting his bicycle helmet.
I began to crumble. "If you really think you need a ride ...," I offered.
"It's OK, Dad," he said, and the next moment he was out the door.
I perched by the kitchen window and watched as he rode off, slowly, until he disappeared into the predawn mist.
By 6 he had returned, faintly aglow with his accomplishment. "How did it go?" I asked.
"No problem," he said, cavalierly, before heading up to bed for his missed hours of sleep.
"What about the fussy woman?" I called up after him.
"No problem!" he reiterated.
To make a long story short, the week went well. The Bangor (Maine) Daily News called only once, to report that one of the delivered papers had blown off a front porch. "But," the understanding man told my son, "I'm very proud of you. You've done an excellent job."
Alyosha turned away from me to conceal his broad smile.
I'm not sure why I had worried so about my son's stint as a paperboy. (I was, after all, the one who had nudged him into it.) Perhaps it is because I, like many parents, am reluctant to admit that children are capable of much more than we give them credit for. In every parent there exists a conflict between presenting a child with opportunities for independence and keeping that child near at hand, within cuddling distance.
Last night, at dinner with friends, Alyosha was offered an opportunity to deliver papers for another boy, on another route, during a week when it would be colder and darker. This time I vowed to stay out of it: My son knew what he would be getting into. My silence was rewarded when, without hesitation, and speaking with confidence, Alyosha said, "I think I can handle it."
The voice of experience, this time unassisted by Dad.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society