Fathers and Sons: The Headmaster’s Story

I want to thank all of the actors and crew members who helped make “Pippin” a wonderful show. There was “magic to do” at the BSS theatre last week, and I know the audience thoroughly enjoyed your good work!For those of you who missed the magic, “Pippin” is about a young man’s coming of age; it’s about Charlemagne’s son’s effort to figure out what he wants to do with his life, and it’s about also about his relationship with a father who doesn’t quite understand him.

UCC is a member of the International Boys Schools Coalition, and because of this, every summer teachers from over 300 schools from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, the UK, and North America gather to exchange their collective wisdom on working with boys. At a recent boys schools gathering, a psychologist gave a lecture on what she had learned about father son relationships. Her research suggests that, when it comes to fathers and sons, Pippin is not alone:

30% of adult males report having no relationship at all with their fathers;

30% say they have a “prickly” relationship with their dads. They don’t see their fathers all that often, and when they do, their dads say things like, “You bought the wrong lawn mower” or “Your tie is too skinny.”

Another 30% describe having a “dutiful” relationship with their dads. These are the sons who call home every Sunday afternoon and talk to their dads about the Leafs, Argos, and Raptors. If they’re feeling particularly connected, they might talk about the Blue Jays, but that’s about it.

According to the research, only 10% of adult males have an unconditionally affirming, “I’ve got your back. You’ve got mine, and we can talk about anything” kind of relationship.

When I asked the speaker why the research skewed so negatively, without a moment’s hesitation she blurted, “It’s a result of the industrial revolution. We haven’t recovered from it yet. Before the industrial revolution, adolescent males spent most of their days in the company of fathers, uncles, and extended male family members. By contrast, today most dads work in isolation, away from the home in a city centre or away in a glass tower. Most boys have no real understanding of what their fathers do or what they are about.”

At this point, I happened to be sitting next to the head of an English boys boarding school, perhaps the spiffiest of spiffy boys schools in the world. Because I am an unrepentant social climber, I asked him if the research rang true. Instead of answering me, my newfound best friend told me this story.

“My father was much, much older man when I was born, so there was always a great distance between us. He had been fighting in Europe during World War 2, when his first wife and daughter, my half-sister, were evaporated by a bomb during the blitz.

My father returned from the war, became a mechanic, and married a younger woman. I am the sole result of that union. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but my father was probably suffering from something we today would call ‘Post Traumatic Stress.’ All I knew was that we didn’t talk very much. There was, though, one conversation in our home, which I to this day can recall: I had just won a scholarship to attend ——– , and my parents couldn’t decide whether or not I should accept it. I remember being upstairs listening to the only argument I can remember my parents ever having. My mother’s point was, ‘He has to go. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.’ My father’s response was, ‘We can’t send him. It will change him.’

For some fortunate reason, my mother prevailed, and I went to ——–. My father never ever visited the school — not once –during the entire 6 years I was there as a boarder. The already considerable distance between us continued to grow. My mother went there on only one occasion. She stood in the school’s foyer for 10 minutes, and then she left. She didn’t resent the place, but she immediately came to the conclusion, right then and there, that she simply didn’t belong. And she never returned to the school.”

I know this may sound like an out-take from Downton Abbey, but the English headmaster ended his story by saying, “Some 30 years later, on the day I was appointed the headmaster of my old school , I kept thinking about my parents’ conversation, and I realized that strangely enough, they had both been exactly right. Attending the school was an incredible opportunity, one for which I am extraordinarily grateful. So my mother was right. But my father was right, too; my going to live and study there effectively changed our relationship. We never fully reconnected after that because, you see, I was now of a different world.”

The headmaster’s story has echoes because we are all, to varying degrees, cut off from one another, and sometimes it is a real struggle to try to understand someone, especially when there are generational or cultural differences.

Let me offer a personal example. I became an English major largely because of Mr. O’Brien, my Grade 11 English teacher. Mr. O’Brien was witty and engaging, and he had a great sense of humour. I liked him so much that I didn’t hold it against him that he had cut me from the Grade 9 basketball team, though in the history of athletic misjudgments, I am convinced that that particular oversight would be on the Hall of Fame of egregious moral errors!

As much as I liked Mr. O’Brien, though, he had one flaw; it sometimes took him a while to return essays. I hope I wasn’t a grade grubber. Perhaps I was.  Decades later, when I was a high school English teacher myself, I happened to bump into Mr. O’Brien at a teachers’ workshop, and I was surprised and delighted that he remembered me. I was even more taken back when unsolicited he said, “You were with us in the mid-70’s, right? Those were crazy days for me. My wife and I had a bunch of kids, and I was selling real estate on Saturdays and insurance on Sundays, just trying to make it all work!”

I suddenly felt very small. What I had perceived, as a kid, as a lack of care on his part, was in fact Mr. O’Brien’s trying to juggle one too many balls. What I had thought of as a lack of interest was really just a matter of economic reality for Mr. O’Brien.

So my take-away from this morning is this:

I want to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone here has a father, but many of you will be parents some day, and you’re going to want to do better than the 30/30/30/10 split. When it comes to fathers and sons, there will always be challenges, but there are difficulties in every relationship. It’s the nature of human interaction.

When we are young, there is a natural temptation for us to blame others for the breakdowns that occur. But relationships cut both ways, and we owe it to one another to try to extend ourselves, to understand what it’s like to be in the other guy’s shoes, whether he is an ageing emperor, a widower soldier, or an English teacher with lots of kids and even more essays.

The ability to understand another, whether you want to call it emotional intelligence, social skill, or basic compassion is what allows us to bridge the gaps that separate us from one another. That generosity of spirit, that moral imagination is what, as they say in “Pippin” separates the charlatans from the Charlemagnes.


29 thoughts on “Fathers and Sons: The Headmaster’s Story

  1. This is a great story about Mr. O’Brien. I had him Freshman year. He was amazing. Still a little slow on the grading though…

  2. Another wonderfully engaging address Jim. Thank you. The 30/30/30/10 data is very surprising to me. It might replicate at the father-grandfather level too. So many people live far away from their parents now, unlike even a generation ago. And I learned the other day that many divorced Dads use Facebook simply since it’s their only way to keep up with their sons’ activities. But I suspect it’s more complex than that.

  3. Over recent decades we’ve discovered that our concentration on the evils produced by early capitalism distracted us from the probably greater evils of farm life; to this day in the US farm- raised kids are overworked, under-educated and exposed to lots of dangerous chemicals; in the 19th century, lots of paternal oppression, as children were often birthed merely to provide farmhands. My econ text features as a vignette on this subject Sen Tom Harkin: he cancelled a lot of our factory orders from Bangladesh, because the young girls who did the sewing were exploited (it’s true; they were); when the factories then closed, however, the girls had to resort to prostitution to survive. Same indirection at work.

  4. Jim: Thanks for reflections on father/son relations. As we in the states currently have an actual–it seems to me–British socialist of the “I’m alright, Jack” variety–in Bernie Sanders eager to transform us all for the better, my eye was taken by the presenter’s assertion that all paternal relations were ruptured by the Industrial Revolution; this seems to me to be a classic windy generalization from the academic left.

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