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Teacher talk: 'All the change in my pocket'

Posted: Friday, November 04, 2005

My dad never said many words to me as a kid, but his impact on my life has been huge. Every morning of my youth, I would watch him kiss my mom goodbye in the morning. He would smell of a strong, sweet after-shave. Everyday he wore one of his blue or brown suits, or, on occasion, a blinding, indescribable green conglomeration. He was a creature of habit and a man on a mission. His number one mission in life was to make sure his six children made it through college.

When my dad died, I was 30 years old and studying to be a teacher. I flew home for the funeral. A short time later, I got a letter informing me of his last wishes and a detailed summary of how his estate would be dispersed. I didn't get a dime. I smiled because he already gave me my inheritance; he paid for me to go to college. The day I graduated college, my dad pulled me aside and said in his crass style something along the line of, "You are on your own now, kid." I said, "I know, Dad," and I moved to Alaska and have lived here in body or spirit ever since. My move didn't please him, but he accepted it.

In his silent way, he let me know his expectations from an early age. Coming from an economically disadvantaged home, he associated good grades with cold hard cash. So, report card day was a big day for me as a kid. Around 5 p.m. on report card day, I would hang out in the living room of 97 Farwell St., and I would wait for the garage door to open. It inevitably would. As my dad shuffled up the steps, I'd announce, "It is report card day, Dad." He'd grunt. I'd give him some room to settle into his chair, my mom would bring him his drink, and he'd turn on the news. I'd try to wait patiently. Eventually, he would ask to see my report card, and I would just so happen to have it handy. I almost always had straight A's, so I was never worried about being crushed by his words. But what I wanted him to do was to "show me the money."

He often gave me a choice in my reward for acceptable achievement. He'd pull out his money clip and peel of a five-dollar bill. He'd say, "You can have a five or you can have all the change in my pocket."

Being the calculating kid I was cultivated to be, I'd ponder my options and try to remember my dad's stride as he walked into the house that night. I knew my dad always carried a wad a bills on his person at all times because he never knew when cash-on-hand would ease his way through his day. What I also knew about my dad was that he played cards for money almost every day of his life since being in the service. What this meant was that he always carried change. On particularly lucky days, "all the change in his pocket" meant big bucks. So, depending on the sound of his walk that evening and how low his pants were hanging, I made my choice. He let me choose. His money put me through college. His infrequent, but meaningful challenges challenged me.

My dad never went to parent conferences. He never helped me with my homework, and he never asked how I was getting along in school. My dad never knew much about my life as a teenager. My senior year he woke up a little and started showing up for my field hockey games and my basketball games. He'd yell and scream much to my embarrassment. I am lucky to be the fifth kid in my family. By the time I hit my senior year in high school, my dad was 52 years old. He was old enough to have a college savings plan in place for all of us. He was old enough to be looking toward retirement. Even though he ran his own business all of my life with him, at 52, I think he realized that he could, perhaps, take the afternoon off to watch his daughter sock it to them on the field hockey field. But most of all, I think he realized that he needed to start showing me that there is more to him and more to life than earning money for a job well done.

Where was my mom during all this? Well, my mom's story is far more courageous than my dad's and it is certainly worthy of its own column, or perhaps its own book, when the time comes. One thing I can tell you about my mom, though, is she was always there when I needed her. Always. I think being there for her kids was her primary mission in life. My mom never offered me all the change in her pocket for doing what she wanted me to do, because she never had any money of her own, it seemed. She did, however, do everything else she could do to make me feel loved and wanted. Between the two of them, I got most of what I needed to be ready to be booted out on my own upon graduation. The rest I had to learn on my own.

• Mary-Lou Gervais is a math teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School.



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