Monday, April 07, 2014

A toddler, a cracker, a lawn chair and an unexpected encounter at a baseball game

OK, so last week you got Curmudgeon the outraged father, demanding that all schools of education be closed, railing not just against schools of education generally, but in particular railing against the poor, benighted education department at South Janesville College, the fake name I made up for the very real school that Youngest Son attends.

I got very little work done Thursday or Friday as I talked frequently to my son, wrote carefully worded letters to his coach and to the financial aid department, and generally tried to keep Long Suffering Spouse from going up there and raising holy heck with Youngest Son's professors.

We had to go up there on Saturday anyway.

Youngest Son was pitching.

Given the weather we've been having, Saturday wasn't entirely terrible: Crisp but sunny, easily 55 degrees. There was a breeze that wasn't quite a wind chill. In full sunlight it felt almost not-cold. Almost.

I wore my down coat, of course, over a wool sweater and a flannel shirt, with scarf and gloves and a hat with ear flaps. Long Suffering Spouse wore the lighter of her two winter coats (but we brought the heavier one just in case) with scarf and stocking hat. She brought blankets, too. And we always bring lawn chairs.

At South Janesville college there are a set of bleachers on the home side of the dugout; we've never sat there. We set up our chairs on the other side of the dugout, past the adjacent bullpen. If I actually sat in the chair, I'd not be able to see the players from the shoulders on up; there's a big found yellow guard that runs atop the chain-link fence. This prevents a clear view of the field, but it's great for leaning on, if you pace to the fence, and away from it, and back and forth as the game situation and pitch count dictates. The kid may be doing all the work out on the mound, but I'm fretting enough for both of us.

For you younger parents, or those who never had a kid in sports, trust me when I tell you, it was ever thus. I can go with you to a park of your own choosing, anywhere in the United States where a baseball game is being played, and I can spot the pitchers' parents. They're the ones who are writhing in pain or pacing fitfully or wringing their hands. As parents, we want our kid to do well -- but there's not one darned thing we can do to help when he's out on the mound. So we worry.

That's one reason why we don't sit in the bleachers with the other parents and girlfriends and other fans.

Another reason is that the stands are too close to the umpires.

Now -- again for you younger parents -- you will never help your kid by screaming at the umpire, even when his strike zone is consistently inconsistent.

And coaches will bench a kid sometimes just because the kid's parents get on the umpire's case. It can hurt the team to get the ump mad.

So I never, ever yell at the ump. But sometimes I can't help an involuntary sharp intake of air, or a sigh, or even a moan when a good pitch isn't called for a strike. Umpires have rabbit ears; they can hear stuff like that if you're too close to the plate. And they won't like it. So I like being down the line a bit.

If you could promise me that the kid would do well, maybe I could sit with the others. But if he struggled and if, heaven forbid, someone should get on him a bit, I might have difficulty in not responding. I would never yell at another kid on our team -- but if someone made a bonehead play or dropped an easy fly ball or uncorked a wild throw in the infield I might have that sharp intake of breath, or sigh, or moan -- all involuntarily -- and that kid's parents wouldn't like that either. And I don't blame them.

So that's why Long Suffering Spouse and I keep to ourselves at the games.

Actually, Youngest Son has had a very good spring. He came into Saturday's game with an ERA under 2.0 and a winning record. He's established himself as the number two starting pitcher on the staff. That's pretty good for a junior.

But Youngest Son also had a horrible week. His graduation plans were dashed, the education department pulled a surprise evaluation on him, and he's running a class of pledges at his fraternity and the initiation is almost upon him. The kid had to keep his cool with his professors and keep his outraged parents under control.

I was a little concerned about how he might fare. Could he shut out all these distractions and focus on his game?

He got into some trouble in the first, giving up three runs -- more in that inning than he'd given up all year so far. When he came out for the second I mentioned to Long Suffering Spouse that, if he didn't have a shutdown inning, he was going to have a tough afternoon. Long Suffering Spouse was talking by then with Youngest Son's girlfriend. She came over from the bleachers to say hello. That's pretty brave, don't you think?

If Youngest Son was in any way concerned about his girlfriend socializing with his parents he did not show it. He had his shutdown inning. He had righted the ship. He'd pushed the stress of the week outside the lines.

People wander around at these games. Parents, kids, students, neighborhood people. The women's softball game was going on the next field over and there'd been a lacrosse game over on the football field earlier. So I don't mean to say that Long Suffering Spouse and I were entirely alone. There was another man in a folding chair a little further down the left field line. He looked pretty young for a player's dad, but I think he was.

So, anyway, it was no surprise that, at some point, a toddler wandered over, clutching a cracker, now dropping it, now picking it up and sticking it right back in her mouth.

Her anxious father was close behind. He was a young man, bearded, perhaps the age of Older Daughter. My grandfather instincts kicked right in. As the little girl picked up the cracker I called over to the father, "It probably tastes better that way."

"It's an organic cracker," the father responded. "Now it's a little more so."

The little girl reminded Long Suffering Spouse and me of our own granddaughter -- she was a little thinner, perhaps, but nearly as a tall. She was a month or two older than our granddaughter and so had a couple of actual words down pat. "No," for example.

Somehow that's just about the first real word kids learn. Mama, perhaps Dada, and then "no!"

The toddler thought our lawn chairs were the most interesting things she'd ever seen. One was a table for her cracker first. Then she decided she'd like to sit in it. The father was apologetic, but we egged the kid on. Made a fuss. Cooed at her. Made faces. She was interested in our sunglasses; her father wasn't wearing any.

Both benches were lively during the game. When the other pitcher was having trouble finding the strike zone (even the umpire didn't know where it was for most of the afternoon, truth be told) our bench whooped and hollered. Their bench whooped and hollered right back when Youngest Son went back on the hill. "You see?" the father told his daughter. "Boys are crazy. Stay away from them."

Well, of course Long Suffering Spouse and I played along with that, too.

But I had to watch the game, too, and occasionally have those sharp intakes of breath, or sighs, or moans. The father asked which one of the boys was ours. The pitcher, I told him. "Oh," said the toddler's father, "he's one of my students." He stuck out his hand to introduce himself more formally.

Yes, you guessed it. This nice young man with the cute toddler was one of the education professors who turned down my son's petition to student teach in the fall.

I took his hand, of course, and tried not to blanch visibly. My wife and I had one of those moments of telepathic contact that sometimes occur with long-married couples: We somehow both resolved not to bring up our son's issues right then and there. I wanted to -- I wanted to haul off and belt the guy once I knew who he was -- but I just couldn't justify that after the amiable manner in which we'd been conversing to that point.

Our conversation continued, but we were wary now. He realized that my wife was grading papers (she's always grading papers) and asked if she also taught high school. "Elementary," my wife said, after just the briefest pause. She didn't want to say that she taught at a Catholic school in case this professor was anti-Catholic as so many at the very secular South Janesville College seem to be. And she didn't want to say junior high either, lest it trigger a discussion of the education department's sua sponte consideration -- and rejection -- of a proposal to let Youngest Son student teach in junior high next fall instead of high school.

Youngest Son looked over at us at some point and saw with whom we were speaking. "I almost lost it right there," he told us later. I promise, I told him, we did not talk business. This professor must still grade Youngest Son; Youngest Son was concerned that we might say something sufficient to goad the professor into dropping his grade. But we stayed mum. Honest.

In the end, it was the toddler that brought us together; it was the toddler who decided it was time to part. She had tired of the chair. She wanted new excitement elsewhere. Her father had no choice but to comply. We were relieved to see him go.

Seriously, though. What else could we have done? Should we have raised our issues? I could have tried to be polite -- I can be, at least for short spurts when it's really, really important. Or were we wise to not inject those issues into what had been a relaxed social encounter?

The good news is that South Janesville came back to win the game; Youngest Son went eight innings and got the win. But, for now at least, he still must expect to do his student teaching in his ninth college semester.


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