I squeeze myself into a tiny chair next to a knee-high table. It’s the same Pre-K classroom where, it seems like only yesterday, my sons were cutting out Valentines with safety scissors and napping on Kindermats. Beside me is our oldest, 13, and growing so fast I can practically see the cells dividing with my naked eye.
We are here to weigh the possibility of him going to New York with his junior high classmates. The fact that he not only wants to go but has actually pushed me to attend this meeting is both pleasantly surprising and vaguely unsettling.
On the pleasantly surprising side, the former city slicker in me is delighted that my farm boy is inquisitive enough to wonder what lies beyond his quaint little Mayberry and brave enough to go looking for it. There are some adults in this rural part of the world who would not willingly set foot in New Orleans, much less New York.
That provincial mindset is something I vowed to discourage in my children from the very beginning. They might be country bumpkins, but, by golly, they would not be fearful, closed-minded country bumpkins.
I wanted the people I raise to be curious about the world out there. It was important to me that they be open to new experiences, places and cultures. I’d make sure they had options and opportunities beyond what a little town has to offer. I’d encourage them to step outside of their comfort zone, meet people with different beliefs, take a big ol’ sweet-n-sour bite out of this thing called life.
So what better chance for my country boy to “be a part of it” than New York City?
Of course, I am also thinking about my own maiden voyage to New York – to perform in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with my Birmingham high school marching band. Granted, I was not quite so young or utterly green behind the ears as my son. Unlike him, I had grown up in a decent-sized city. And I had already flown several times and visited a couple of major cities such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
Still, nothing compares to your first trip to New York.
True story: The night our band arrived on a bus from JFK Airport, I stepped out into the bright lights of Manhattan, gazed straight up at the top of a skyscraper and got so dizzy that I fell off my high heels and landed in a tangle on the sidewalk. In all honesty, my embarrassing wipeout was probably due more to being a doofus than to being blown away. But I still think it perfectly symbolized a Southern girl’s first reaction to New York.
Apart from that awkward introduction, what struck me most about New York was not just the sights – the Statue of Liberties, the Rockettes, the Broadway musicals – but New Yorkers. Until then, all I had ever known was the stereotype: rude, nasty, pushy, unfriendly Yankees. But that was not how I regarded New Yorkers after I actually visited New York, at all. Instead, I remembered the man who chased me for half a city block to return a scarf I did not know I had dropped. I still think about the tough New York cops who took our dance team into a coffee shop to get warm after the parade and were reduced to giggly schoolboys by our Southern accents. People whom I had assumed were nothing like me were, just under the surface, very much like me.
That is the type of mind-expanding experiences I have always hoped to give my kids. I wanted my children’s worldview to extend beyond the limits of this sweet-but-sometimes insular life we lead. I did not want them to stagnate in a small town, never encountering anything different, never growing. When the time came, I would give my children the gift of wings. And I would watch with a proud, beatific expression as they flew off into the sunset to meet their destiny, no matter where it took them.
Those are the kind of thoughts you think before you realize your children are really going to grow up and leave you.
Here, in what was once my son’s Pre-K classroom, listening to a teacher talk about itineraries and fundraisers, I fight a rising wave of despair that, somehow, despite all my efforts to prevent it, the years have slipped through my fingers. Before I could turn around, the little boy who scribbled with fat crayons was teleported into his teenage years.
As I calculate the costs of flights and hotels, I’m also doing the hard math that parents of teenagers are forced to do. How many moments do we have left? How many Christmas mornings? How many baseball games? How many dreary afternoons when I’m nagging him to do his homework and pick up his shoes? How many nights when I look in on him sleeping and feel like squeezing him hard but merely straighten the covers and kiss his forehead?
A number that once seemed infinite is now preceded by a “less than” sign.
When I’m being honest with myself, that is the vaguely unsettling part, the part of showing my children the great big world that worries me. That is the part I think about every time I hear the country song, “Small Town Saturday Night,” a spot-on tale of bored teenagers drinking, fighting and driving too fast to amuse themselves in a small town. In one part, the boy speculates on life beyond their little turf, telling his girlfriend:
“Lucy, you know the world must be flat,/ ’Cause when people leave town they never come back”
It is not a sad song, yet that line stabs me in the heart every time.
When my son and I walk out of the New York meeting, I have a feeling he won’t be going. For what it would cost to send him and a (mandatory) parent, our whole family could take a really nice vacation. Financially, it just doesn’t make sense for us.
But one day, if not now, I want my country boys to taste the Big Apple and a lot of other places, to boot. I want them to get wobbly-legged when they see a skyscraper up-close for the first time. I dream of them having unforgettable experiences and meeting strangers who restore their faith in their fellow man.
And then, deep-down, in my most selfish heart of hearts, I hope they come home.
Because one of my greatest fears is that my farm boys will never know what they are missing out there.
And one of my other greatest fears is that they will.