Friday, April 17, 2015

Waiting for Knowledge...or Pursuing It?

There’s a great scene in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot when Estragon says to Vladimir, “Let’s go.” And Vladimir replies to his buddy, “Yes, let’s go.” Beckett then gives us the final stage direction: “They do not move.”

Usually, talking to my 7th graders about the English portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test is a bit like that scene. There is not a whole lot of movement when it comes to deep learning, knowledge, and reflection.

So this year—my sixth as a public school teacher—I decided to not really talk about the test very much.

I figured that if my students were learning to become more effective writers, stronger readers, and deeper thinkers, that would show up on any kind of assessment they were forced to take.

But with three days to go until the test, I noticed something: a bunch of my students began to freak out.

“Mr. Reynolds, are you going to prepare us for the MCAS?”

“Mr. Reynolds, WHEN IS the MCAS?”

“Mr. Reynolds, what are we going to have to do this year on the MCAS?”

And that’s about when I realized that I was either doing one of two things: 1) being a terribly inept teacher in not photocopying a slew of models and worksheets and test preparation activities for my students; or 2) practicing what I had been preaching all year long: that education is about more than a test grade, and that authentic learning is more about going deep than it is about going fast or far.

However, I relented a bit and explained what the MCAS was about, and what it would ask them to do. I even photocopied a few examples of what the MCAS people said were strong writing samples.

This seemed to quell the anxiety of some of my students. Yet the day before the test, I asked all of my students in each of my five 7th grade classes to close their eyes. Then I asked them to hold up a hand with fingers from 1 – 5. 1 meant I am really freaked out and nervous and anxious about this test tomorrow! 5 meant I am not worried at all; everything will be fine.

While some students held up 5’s, I felt a pang inside myself to see that some students felt a 1 or a 2. Many held up a 3. In years past, I had done more test prep activities, and I had detested every minute of it. It felt so awkward to stop what we were doing as a class to hand out practice bubble-tests, practice test-writing prompts, and practice readings.

I love writing and reading. They are my lifeblood, and I believe that words have the power to dramatically transform lives. But I struggle with the intention behind the words we ask students to read and write. If the intention is words for the sake of accountability, my heart wants to distance itself from activities in this camp.

Maybe I am idealistic. Maybe I need to learn how to help my students pause the normal classroom activities and prepare with conscientiousness and a good work ethic for the test that they are required to take.

Maybe I am selfish. Maybe I need to learn to think about my students more—asking, if they are forced to take this test, then isn’t it my responsibility to ensure they are impeccably well-prepared for it? In this vein, my actions this year indict me as self-focused and unkind.

But some part of me wants to hold on to the hope that as we talked (briefly) about the MCAS this year, and as I used the refrain, “You are more than a test score” over and over and over and…Perhaps something of that reality set in.

Perhaps my students were able to reflect on the fact that we can focus on writing and reading for the sake of writing and reading, rather than bubbling, and they felt the continuity of our class and curriculum moving deeper and deeper.  

Maybe, come next Fall, their scores will provide the verdict.

Or maybe, we won’t be just sitting around waiting to hear their scores. Maybe our stage direction will look a little different than Vladimir’s and Estragon’s. Maybe we won’t be waiting, at all, for the knowledge of if we are strong writers and readers, so much as we’ll be pursuing it. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Looney Experiment: A Cover and a Quandary

I have been reading voraciously over the past week as the news of Harper Lee's second (first) novel, Go Set a Watchman, unfolded. What began as elation about my favorite author's new (old) novel that would be released this July transmogrified into worry and doubt--Does she want this? Is she being taken advantage of?--and then has settled somewhere along the lines of either a humble ignorance or an ignorant humility.

Still not sure which.

Of all the articles that have come out--from incredibly keen observers and analysts in national newspapers around the country to insightful authors and speakers who have aired their opinions on great programs like News Hour--I've come away knowing only one thing: I have no idea what Harper Lee really wants.

And I am becoming more comfortable with simply not knowing. As my first novel is being prepared--copyediting occurring right now!--I am left with a deep sense of irony, too.

The novel is called The Looney Experiment, and it follows the journey of 12-year old Atticus Hobart. It has the heart and humor of everything I've learned about life, twelve-year olds, and courage. And much of what I've learned comes from two people: Mr. Robert Looney, my real-life fifth grade teacher, and Ms. Harper Lee, who penned the book that gave my soul a figure like Atticus Finch to ponder, aspire towards, and appreciate.

So, as the cover for The Looney Experiment is now final, my processing of the news about Harper Lee is anything but. In the next months, we will probably learn much more. And many more brilliant thinkers and friends and writers will share their ideas and insights.

In the meantime, I'm simply grateful--grateful to have had the chance to write a novel that tries to explore the life a middle-school kid named Atticus, and a crazy, old teacher named Mr. Looney. And I'm grateful that the fictional journey of these two characters was--and continues to be--inspired by two characters from my own life to whom I owe a huge debt.

Monday, December 8, 2014

It's a Swamp Thing

No matter what else is going on, being around trees, puddles, roots, moss, vegetation always brings peace. And right now, we are fortunate to be renting an apartment behind which a good-sized expanse of forest sits.

Overt the past week, Tyler and I have enjoyed bushwhacking within the forest--exploring any path that seems to call us, and walking through the EYE POKERS (twigs or thorns approaching eye level), the FEET GOBBLERS (any puddle area deeper than our shoe laces), and along the BALANCE BEAMS (long trees that have fallen and so afforded us ample opportunity to balance our way across).

There is something about bushwhacking that feels right. Something about exploring a forest without a path. Something about zig-zagging our way through notable sights, noises, opportunities.

And when, over this past week, the forest turned into a legitimate swamp with all the rainfall, this excitement grew. Now, we could leap from moss-covered rock to moss-covered rock. We could stretch our legs across substantial FEET GOBBLERS and see if we'd reach safety on the other side.

The swamp smells. The swamp is dirty. The swamp makes bushwhacking all the more riveting. And Tyler's desire to go out and explore it grows exponentially and correlates with the water level.

Meanwhile--as my 7th grade students explore with great cordiality and energy Avi's Nothing But the Truth, and as Jen and I prepare for Christmas, and as Benjamin, our one year old, takes his first wobbling steps on his own--I find myself reading and re-reading accounts of Ferguson.

I re-read all of the plot-driven events, all of the analysis, the commentary, the calls to action, the calls to change, the calls to consider, the calls to contemplation.

And as a swamp-exploring Daddy, I wonder what I will tell my sons when they are old enough to understand. I wonder how I will explain the kinds of balance our world needs, the very present realities of the dangers that lurk everywhere, and prevent justice for some based on what Toni Morrison calls a social construct--invented hate to match swollen, fearful hearts.

It is far easier to tell Tyler what moss-covered rock towards which to leap; it is more difficult to chart a path through the tragedy and pain our world sees played and replayed.

When Tyler and I explore the forest, we take a new path each time. Now that our forest has become a swamp, the possibilities for paths actually increase. The water--rather than hiding avenues--reveals them. The mucky water shows us leaps we never would have seen before. The dirty build-up affords us opportunities to see chances to buck tired, traditional views of safety in pursuit of something more real, something more right.

So, maybe it is a swamp thing. Maybe the injustice we see playing out is the ultimate call to make new leaps. Maybe the inexplicable pain and horror we now watch is causing a rise in the water level, demanding that we get off the paths we've been walking and start to make leaps toward justice.

They will not be easy. And they will throw us off balance. But the status quo is no longer even an option.

I do not have words to explain to my sons the kind of world I wish we lived in; and I know that thinkers and activists far more esteemed and brave then I am even say that such a perfect world of justice and grace is impossible--people like critical race theorist Derrick Bell, who believed that racism will always be among us, though our challenge to fight it is no less necessary.

However, I do have the words to tell my sons to leap. I have the words to tell them to look for the gaps where the water has risen, to see a trajectory across, and to go for it. And as they grow, I can hope to tell them to keep leaping--in the swamps, yes--but also in their schools, in their relationships, in their words, in their lives, and towards justice.

And I can hope beyond hope to model this leaping, however humbly and imperfectly I can.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Swimming with Thoreau

Yesterday, after school, Jennifer and Tyler and Benjamin picked me up and we all went to Walden Pond, famed residence of the 19th century advocate of simplicity, nature, possibility, and idealism: Henry David Thoreau. Toting bags of beach towels, snacks, various changes of clothes, diapers, a stroller, and sand shovels, we marched onto the beach and plopped down on a spot near the water.

The heat came in waves, as did the people. Over the next two hours, more and more small children crowded onto Walden's shores, and the sounds of their delight created a crescendo that mirrored each lapping wave.

"Let's build a sandcastle as big as I am!" Tyler yelled out.

"Yaba laba tu-tu!" Benjamin announced.

Jen and I acknowledged both children, and the sandcastle construction commenced. As we layered on handfuls of sand, I kept asking myself, What would Thoreau make of this?  From his small cabin on the other side of the pond, would he look out with disgust as the seeming chaos, noise, and carving out of his shore? Or would his eyebrows rise with glee at the prospect of so much unabashed joy, so much delight from children in the place that so deeply delighted him.

Our family castle grew, and the construction schedule allowed for various breaks to rush into the cool water of Walden, dive under, and glide, then to rush back out and feel the sand prickle and tickle all the wet places on our bodies.

Eventually, we finished, and we became hungry for dinner, and we found a tick on Tyler's belly, and Benjamin needed to nurse, and we realized that our time to say goodbye to Walden had come.

Thoreau once suggested that, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he steps to the beat of a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." I think Thoreau would not be dissuaded from the notion that his pond is enjoyed by children frolicking in great freedom, building beautiful, big castles. Instead, I think Thoreau might even don his swimming trousers, and dive in. After all, those who stand on shore and wonder don't often move to any drummer, but those who see life's invitations and dive in--chaos, confusion, and all--have the sublime chance to swim in different currents, and to feel the sand stick to where water once flew.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Holy Moley Mountain

In back of our apartment complex, a huge parking lot transformed, this winter, into the trailhead for what Tyler and I have come to call the Holy Moley Mountain--a place built of snow drifts, ice, and the occasional spot of dog urine. In our first foray up the Holy Moley Mountain, which the plows had formed during the first snowstorm of the winter, Tyler and I kept slipping back into the parking lot. Each time we fell, we screamed out, "Holy Moley!" and then we let the ice take us down.

Eventually, we summited the Holy Moley Mountain, with the help of a lot of hand-holding and the forward thrust of our new puppy, Harper Blanche Reynolds. (Harper after Harper Lee, Blanche after the name they had given her at the animal shelter). Breathless and at the top, we determined to "hike" the Holy Moley Mountain every day of the Winter.

As each successive storm has arrived, the Holy Moley Mountain has grown--and its formidable icy ascent has grown slicker, too. But Tyler and I find the climb even more thrilling. (Harper Blanche, I think, does not approve of the climb, or, for that mater, anything cold.)

Over Christmas, my kind and deep-thinking brother Michael gave Jennifer and I a card with a remarkable line from Mary Oliver's book, Blue Pastures: "Who knows, maybe the root is the flower of that other life." And the line has greeted us each morning we've woken of this winter.

As we welcomed our second son, Benjamin Peter, into the family, and as we went through the sleepless nights a second time, that line greeted us. As we've contemplated the loss of one life, in England, for the commencement of another, in Boston, that line greeted us. As we've struggled with the tension between studying something--theorizing possibilities of transformation and change through our doctoral programs--and doing something that actually creates a transformation (however tiny), that line greeted us. As we reflected on dreams turned upside down and swirled around and taken for walks around blocks we never thought existed, that line greeted us.

And in every circumstance, Mary Oliver's line has created a place of peace where worry might have reigned. Our culture is so adept at regurgitating the belief that flowering is what matters--reaching the finish line and raising one's arms in victory. But what if the root here is the flower of that other life? What if the roots that we often so impatiently seek to grow up and out and away from are the flowers, the finish lines, of the kind of life that matters?

When I ask myself that question long and hard enough, I am reminded of a line from a great professor I once had named Marv Wilson. He said, "The essence of religion is relationship." And I think this is true for so many areas of our lives--the essence of education is relationship, the essence of family is relationship, the essence of success is relationship. Our goals and dreams never seem quite so beautiful without the complex and remarkable system of roots beneath them. Or, if we take Mary Oliver's words to heart, maybe above them.

And as Tyler and I make our daily ascent up the Holy Moley Mountain, Mary Oliver's words live in every icy step. Because the summit of that mountain is not nearly as fun as the precarious trek towards it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Everybody Falls

Today, Jen and I ventured with Tyler into the Nashoba Valley Ice Rink where we proceeded to put on Tyler's thrift-store chosen purchase of ice skates, rent a pair for me, as Jen watched and waved from the sidelines while trying to figure out how to comfortably watch and wave from the sidelines at 36 weeks of pregnancy.

Tyler stepped onto the ice with a ridiculous amount of glee.


And we are wearing sharp blades designed to glide along that ice!

"Daddy, how is there ice inside of a big room like this?"

"Well, they flood it with water and then make the temperatures super duper cooooooold."

"Whoa!" And with that whoa, Tyler crossed the threshold for his first touch of the freezing stuff while wearing blades.

And then the warm, ridiculous glee he'd been feeling a moment ago turned cold. Turned to ice, actually.

"I don't want to do this. I don't like--whoa!--I don't like it!" We had taken five or six steps, and already he'd wibbled an wobbled and had felt himself slide backwards and forwards and side-wards and he couldn't seem to get himself to stand straight-wards, even while holding onto me and the wall.

So I did what any parent would do in a situation like this. I pretended not to hear what he said. Instead, I pointed down towards the end of the ice where the hockey nets would stand, and I began to talk about something totally unrelated to the deep fear and the intense desire to get of the ice that he was feeling.

"Hey T-Man, can you believe that people try to hit a puck into nets on this ice? Whoa, man!"

But Tyler wasn't having any of that Distraction Game. And I felt a sudden pang for the days when distraction was all it took--back when Tyler was two and he wanted, say, ice cream. All it took for Jen and I to get his mind off ice cream was to introduce some ludicrously unrelated item.

"Oh, really you want ice cream? Well did I ever tell you the story about the MASSIVE DIGGER THAT TURNED INTO A SUNFLOWER?!" And, bam, see you later ice cream desire!

But today, at five years old, Tyler's ability to fend off distraction had grown as prodigious as a mountain. A big mountain. Maybe even Everest.

"Lets' go, Daddy I don't want to do this."

This time, rather than pretending not to hear, I fell. And I laughed. And then Tyler's determination softened.

"Can I fall too?"

"Of course, let's fall!" So we both fell and we both laughed. From the sidelines, Jen shot us a thumbs up and I shot a thumbs up back and then we fell again. And again.

And again.

Finally, Tyler agreed that it would be good to try and stand. So we stood, and we eventually crept further around the rink. After maybe 32 minutes, we had made it successfully one time around the rink. "Want to stop, buddy?"

"No, let's do it again!" Tyler uttered.

So we did, and the subsequent trip around the rink took us a mere 15 minutes. Then the third trip took us a whopping, Guinness-book breaking four minutes. By the time we'd gone around twelve times, the rink was closing, and we were ready to get off. But I felt this itch to see how fast I could go around myself.

So with the rink entirely clear of people, I let loose. It felt great, and though I am absolutely no pretty sight on the ice, it felt good to just go fast--however clumsy I might have looked. The only problem is, I can't stop. I mean, I can technically stop by keeping my feet still on the ice and then going and going and going until I cease to go. That--or just hit the wall hard.

So maybe it was because my son and my wife were watching. Or maybe it was because I'd forgotten that I didn't know how to stop. Either reason, I came in towards the gate of the rink--where Jen and Tyler waited--really fast. And I turned my skates quickly like I remember the guy in the movie The Cutting Edge do.

But instead of stopping really fast, like he did, I toppled over, banging my knee and elbow and back as I did so.

Tyler laughed. Jen smiled. And I laughed.

Because falling can sometimes be fun, and because everybody falls.

Tonight, as I type these words I can feel my elbow reminding me that one day I am really going to need to learn how to stop. Yes. But I also think back to Tyler's transformation from glee to fear as he stepped onto the ice for the first time.

And I think both have something to say about chasing dreams, about pursuing anything outside of what's expected for us, or from us. Starting is never easy, but before we start, we at least have those grandiose and ridiculously gleeful notions of what it will be like. Writing can be like this--a vision for a novel, a picture book, or a research project even. We can become inundated with our own hope for the thing. But once we cross that threshold, the warmth of the hope sometimes fades and we're left standing on something frozen wondering, can I really do this?

The good news is that there is an incredible amount of inspiration and energy that comes from stepping out onto something slippery--some mystery where you haven't before walked (or skated). Lewis Hyde says it best in his beautiful book, The Gift: "The passage into mystery always refreshes. If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies." When we step into hopes and dreams and possibilities for our lives about which we don't have a huge amount of egoism and pride and so-called knowledge, then we put ourselves into the hands of mystery. And then we are ready to surprise both ourselves and the world around us.

In short: we grow.

This growth involves some glee at the start, yes. Maybe even ridiculous glee. But then it involves a whole lot of fear and trepidation and saying, I want to go back. Let me go back! And then it involves a whole lot of falling. Because everybody falls. But then you get going. I mean, you really get going, and you feel the speed and the joy and the fun.

And maybe--just maybe--once you really get going, you find that you just can't stop.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Peaks and Valleys

In England, Tyler constantly asked to hike Mt. Everest--and so we began training (with a tiny "mountain" I labeled Mt. Georges and which one could hike in a matter of minutes--possibly even seconds).  Once we moved back to New England, the request to hike Mt. Everest wore off some, and I thought it had been all but forgotten until one day he brought it up again.

"Daddy, why did we never hike Mt. Everest?"

"Well, we practiced on Mt. Georges for a while, but we need to practice loads more before we hike Everest."

"Okay, let's do it! Let's practice." Tyler then stood up, ready to hike a mountain maybe a little higher than Mt. Georges.

Jen and I talked and came up with the idea of hiking Mt. Monadnock, a short hour and a half drive from us. We told Tyler about it and he began counting down the days.

When we finally woke up on Saturday, packed up food and water, and Tyler had put on his Batman costume (goodbye, red underwear; hello, Batman), we loaded ourselves into the car and set off for Jaffrey, New Hampshire--a place both Thoreau and Emerson had gone to hike the same mountain we were about to hike (though we doubted either Thoreau or Emerson donned a Batman costume).

I'm not precisely sure what we were thinking when we finally pulled into Monadnock State Park and the ranger on duty gave us a map, explaining that the peak measured 3,165 feet in the air.

"Wow, I didn't realize it was that high," I said.

"Me neither," Jen said.

"Is that as high as Mt. Everest?" Tyler chimed in.

The ranger winked at us and then said, "Go get 'em, Batman."

Jen just hit her 32nd week of pregnancy, and Tyler was a little under a week away from his fifth birthday. It seemed like the perfect Fall day for a stroll in the beautiful New England foliage. And for the first twenty--even thirty--minutes, it was!

Nice slight incline!

Incredible leafy colors!

Kind people remarking that they felt much safer on the mountain now that Batman was here!

And then thirty minutes into the hike, a cliff emerged in front of us. Tyler immediately ran ahead and began scaling it. I looked back at Jen as if to say, I don't remember anything about a cliff on this hike. Jen looked back at me as if to say, No, nor do I.

But there we were. (Did I mention how beautiful it was--and that we really thought we'd make it to the peak? And that, of the three of us, none of us much likes to quit anything? And that Tyler did have loads upon loads of energy?)

So, we scaled the first cliff. I tried to gauge being ready to catch Tyler if he fell from in front of me, but also lean back and see if my lovely pregnant wife needed a hand as she and Baby Bump made their way precariously up the stone face. But as I looked back and forth between them, this is what was really going on in my head: This is so awesome.

And then that cliff led to more cliffs and stone faces and further cliffs and stone faces and further cliffs and stone faces. I tried to picture Emerson and Thoreau on their bellies against one of the flat long stones trying to shimmy upwards and slide their feet into cracks. It's kind of a funny image, you've got to admit--and (like me) I'm sure that both of them must have farted amidst their climb up Monadnock. Probably often. When one is stretching one's body that much, and the stone is pushing against one's belly, I think it's basically impossible not to.

As we reached each new jaunt upwards in the stone, we would stop and turn to Tyler and say, "Are you tired buddy? Do you want to turn back?" And he would roar back, "No way! Come on, we can do it! Let's keep going!" And I would turn to Jen and ask, "How are you feeling?" and she would say, "Great--really good actually."

At 3,165 feet, the wind blew strong and the view was miraculous. The three of us held hands and looked out and looked back and we couldn't believe we were there. After a solid three and a half minutes on the peak, Tyler piped up, "Okay! Let's hike back down! Come on everybody!"

It's funny how going down usually feels so much faster than going up. And it's really funny how--sometimes--going down feels way, way longer than going up. As it did in our case that day.

After sliding down the steep rock faces and properly thinning out the butt areas of our garments, it wasn't long before we started asking one another, "Do you think we're close?"

Do you?

Think we're close?

Ever turn in the trail held the possible dénouement of our little expedition, and a ceasing of what were becoming sharper and more stabbing pains in our calves, knees, and shoulders.

Do you?

Think we're close?

But of course, we never were. Not until it was getting dark, and the parking lot opened before us like manna in the desert. We all ran out to the water fountain and chugged like this was the last water fountain on this particular stony face of this particular patch of Earth.

We climbed into the car and headed home--wearing joy on our faces and in our hearts. After all: we had peaked! We had practically had a day hike with Thoreau and Emerson! A woman seven months pregnant and a boy not-yet-five had made it! I kept saying how proud and amazed I was that they had both done it. Truth is, that whole day was like magic for us as a family. A true peak.

Fast forward two days: Monday. We all wake up saying, "Ow, ow, ow" with stiff backs and bellies and bums. We don't have the energy to even pour bowls of cereal. We are sniffing and some of us are coughing and there is mucus. Yes.

The whole day passes and we all take turns complaining about everything that hurts and how we're coming down with certain colds or possibly even--ack!--the flu!

When we lived in York, I taught Public Speaking in the Adult Education program there, and one evening I did a lesson where everyone in the class had to chart their life--basically make a graph and just throw some plots on it for their highs and lows, maybe adding a key words to describe what each high or low was--maybe their wedding day, an award they'd received, the birth of a child, or alternately, the death of someone they loved, cruel words spoken about their worth or value, losing their job.

The point of the Chart Your Life activity isn't actually to talk about each--or any--of these events. It's to hold all the graphs one on top of the other and see something strange and beautiful and somehow also ordinary: the graphs are pretty much identical. In the classes, there were old people and young people and CEOs and janitors and teachers and managers and lawyers and stay-at-home-parents; they were people who were wealthy and people who were broke; they were people from England or immigrants from totally different countries--and yet every graph was pretty much the same.

No matter who we are or what we have, our lives, charted, always have peaks and valleys. None of us is immune to pain and fear and none of us is blocked completely from joy. None of us remains on top a constant peak, and none of us remains in a constant valley. We are all more similar than we think. Those who seem like they live on peaks do not; and those who seem like they will never be lifted up out of the valley one day will.

And our little family expedition this past week places two more plot points on that graph: a great peak, and a painful valley. Neither lasts forever. Neither is a final resting place or a definitive this is it! But both have something to say of what matters in life: namely, that we seek to live it, in all its glory and pain. Or, as Thoreau said better than I could: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Red Underwear

Jennifer and I sometimes look at one another longingly whenever Tyler now roars out, "I am Superman--to the rescue!" Because it was a brief six months ago that Tyler's favorite show was the quirky, tender, violence-free Charlie and Lola.


Goodbye, Charlie and Lola.

Hello, red underwear.

At Target last week, the three of us giddily shopped the clearance rack in pursuit of a few necessary items: ties and a couple of pants to wear to work, some maternity clothes for Jen, and long pants and shirts for Tyler. As we approached one of the clearance racks in the boys sections, Tyler's whole face lit up.

Red Underwear!

With a Superman logo right in the front!

"Daddy! Mommy! LOOK WHAT I FOUND!" Tyler's who body began to do a dance, and he held the sacred red underwear in his hands as though it were something for which his little soul had been searching all his life. Finally! 

I looked at the price tag, exploring the first measure of a viable reason for saying No. But the price tag afforded me no such easy departure into the land of No-Superman-Status. It read: $1.96.

In my mind (yes, for real) flashed Jackson Katz's incredible documentary Tough Guise, which explores the very dangerous and deplorable ways we teach boys how to be men: through violence, bravado, and toughness. I though of the incredible and momentous readings in Critical Race Theory, which challenge us to explode the myths of equality-already-reached and instead see the severe structural inequalities, dominance, and racism built into our society.

And, yes, I thought of Charlie and Lola.

And I looked down into the bright eyes of my soon-to-be-five-year-old son holding red underwear with a Superman emblem right in the front.

"Please, Daddy? I can rescue people with these!"

And, okay, I caved. It wasn't so much that I chose the macho male route (at least I hope not) but rather that I wanted to allow Tyler to explore everything he wants to explore, rather than trying to hold him at a stage or a place that that brings Jen and I delight and glee.

Immediately upon returning home with the $1.96 red underwear with the Superman logo in the front, Tyler ran to his room, put on his blue pants, and then pulled the red underwear on top of them.

He then ran back out to the living room, "Let's go to the park because I AM SUPERMAN!"

At the playground, we saw two children we've played with before, Inian and Chandrini. They are delightful, kind, thoughtful children, and immediately they asked Tyler if he wanted to play with them. And he did.

I sat alongside their mother, explaining about the red underwear. She laughed and smiled, then said., "My kids don't even notice it, see?"

And it was true. They didn't. The three kids walked balance beams, played tag, played Octopus (a game they made up whereby an "octopus" tries to reach up onto the play structure and gran the swimmers' feet! Ah!), and then created an obstacle course.

I watched my son in the red underwear--watched how he giggled, held hands with Chandrini, giggled some more--when it was finally time to go--gave both kids massive hugs. And something in me calmed down. Just because he's in a Superman stage doesn't mean he's going to start acting tough and cool (and we especially hope not, because, hey, lets' face it: he's got a Dad for whom traditional notions of toughness are about as familiar as rubbing Crisco all over oneself and subsequently taking a trip to the Moon).

At lunch today, Jen was explaining to Tyler that on this very day nine years ago, "Daddy asked me to marry him, so today is our anniversary.

"What did you say when Daddy asked you about that?" Tyler wondered with anticipation and excitement written on his face.

"I said Yes." Jen looked at me and I looked at this beautiful, strong, loving, kind woman. Then Tyler interrupted our little reverie and said, "HAPPY UNIVERSITY!"

The thing about red underwear is that maybe it doesn't have to be what society says it is. Maybe it doesn't have to be about bravado and fighting and a one-size-fits-all definition of masculinity. Maybe it's possible to remake Superman into something other than a fighting machine. Because at some point we come to the conclusion that everything is flawed--all of it. There's no film, television show, book, interpersonal connection, article, essay, political stance that is flawless. There is bias and cruelty and ignorance in everything we create, because there is bias and cruelty and ignorance inside each of us.

But there's also love.

There is incredible love. And what is love if it's not the power to remake something, to rename and recreate and redeem? It happens in the small moments when we take one of the world's symbols and we transform it to mean something different--to allow love to so overwhelm that thing that it ceases to signify whatever it once did.

It happens when Superman becomes a stand-in for gentleness and thoughtfulness, and when the rescuing he's doing doesn't involve intense violence but instead involves intense connection. Maybe it happens when red underwear streams across a playground with giddy giggle and lots of hand-holding.

Transforming and renaming and redefining seems to be what Jesus was all about. You thought religion was about rules and standards and judgment? You're wrong. It's not. It's about grace and surprising forgiveness and love. You thought love was being nice to people who look and act and talk just like you? It's not. Love is hard, love is work, love is bravely caring for someone so hard that your caring breaks open the concrete doors of their own pride, fear, self-righteousness, guilt. Seems like Jesus had a never-ending list of You thought it was like that, but it's really like this. 

Like all of us, I am (of course) still learning how to navigate the cultural messages my son receives--and those that I receive. What to allow, what not to allow? How to explain certain things, how to teach certain things, how to transform certain things--in my own heart and in the world's? And while Jen and I both explore how to do this at each new stage Tyler approaches, we're holding on to one firm hope: that love trumps everything, and that nothing--not even Superman's red underwear--can long resist transformation in the face of love.