DAD STORIES... memories of a man who got it right

Seventeen and Sinking Fast


The summer I turned seventeen I hit a low point. No longer a darling little girl whose shyness could be explained away with a smile and an excuse, my social angst kept me chained to passivity. Add to that a curious mixture of perfectionism and an almost phobic fear of working too hard (I think that’s actually called laziness), and its no wonder my report card was less than impressive.

I carried that folded piece of card stock to my room, hid it where mom wouldn’t take a peek, and waited with dread for my dad to come home.

Deep dread.

My dad, you see, expected more from me. A whole lot more.

Somehow he’d gotten this notion into his head that I was smart. I still don’t understand why he was so sure of this up-to-that-point unverified theory. Me, smart? Sure, I could read far and away above my grade level, but most of my reading consisted of either horse books or adventure stories. Not exactly the stuff of Pulitzer prizes. And math- Dad’s favorite subject- was my worst enemy. I’m still convinced my Algebra teacher’s C+ was his way of kicking me out of his class lest he have to endure another year of my woeful whimpering, “But I just don’t understand…”

But Dad saw something inside that fair-haired head of mine and he was determined that I use it well.

Thus the angst.

This report card was a reliable barometer of just how well my scholastic life was proceeding. And how hard I was trying when my patient father wiped my tears after a math assignment and told me to “just do your best.” My best that year included skipping classes after lunch (you guessed it, Algebra) and not even attempting that American history research project that was required for any grade above a C.

While I waited for my always punctual, ever-predictable father to pull into the garage and make his way upstairs, I imagined every possible scenario. Would he yell at me? Rummage through the boxes in the attic and dust off that well-worn paddle I hadn’t felt since grade school?  Ground me from life?

I’d told my best friend in no uncertain terms, that my father was going to kill me.

But that’s not exactly what happened.

When I handed him that report card he got real quiet. Just sort of still, like he wasn’t there in that moment, like I’d lost him to somewhere far away. I think he forgot I was standing there, shaking, a chip on my shoulder so big I could hardly hold it up.

And then he sat down on the side of the bed... slumped a little... sighed.

When he finally looked at me with a look of defeat on his face that chip came crashing to the floor, taking all my excuses with it.

My dad was disappointed in me.

Not furious, not disgusted, not even a hint of impatience. He was just sad. So very sad.

I’d let him down. I’d let me down, and he didn’t know what to do.

We didn’t talk much after that, as I remember. What could I say? Sorry Dad, I’ll try harder next year? The fact was, I couldn’t try harder, didn’t have the courage, or the drive, or whatever it takes to succeed at such a thing as school. And he knew it, and that’s what made his shoulders sag and his eyes fill.

He must have said something to mom because she never so much as uttered a word of reproof to me. And I wasn’t about to bring it up, no, I tip-toed around the subject of school as if the summer would go on forever and my senior year wasn’t looming like a storm on the horizon.

That summer I’d taken a job flipping burgers at an amusement park called Frontier Village. My uniform was a ghastly combination of red and white stripes and bows and funky converse high tops. Every day I did the same thing: pull frozen patties from the deep freeze, load hotdogs into the steamer, hand out change, pour ketchup and mayonnaise and relish into stainless steel trays.  And every night I came home smelling of grease and salt and deep-fried onion rings.

I hated that job.

But my dad loved it! At least once or twice a week he’d exchange his wingtips for cowboy boots, pay the price of admission, and sit down to eat what he proclaimed was “the best burger I’ve ever tasted!”

All summer he bragged about my burger flipping capabilities. In fact, all summer my dad bragged about me. A lot. At the supper table he’d tell my skeptical older brother what a valuable addition I was to the lofty corporation of Frontier Village. Then he’d try to impress my little sister that I was by far the best looking girl who’d ever worked there.

He spent the summer convincing me that I was indeed the smartest, most capable, invaluable employee on the roster of that little amusement park. At his urging, I tried to get to my job just a little early every morning. Then I’d stay a few minutes late, wiping those counters down one last time. I’d greet the boss by looking him in the eye- after all, Dad said I was one of the elite, and I was starting to believe it.

By the end of that summer I strode a little straighter into my last year of high school. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to look my teachers in the eye, to stay and talk about assignments and up coming tests.

I was interested.

I was capable.

I was smart.

I believed I could succeed because Dad believed in me.

I still don’t know how my dad knew what to do that day I handed him my inadequacies. He never let me in on his secret source of wisdom. We didn’t talk about those kinds of things, he and I. Our conversations were about the here and now, not philosophies and ideas.

Yet I knew he knew and he knew I did too.

And somehow I think that when Dad retreated into that silence pause, he was talking to the One who’d carefully crafted and placed me in my father’s care. I think he was asking that Father for wisdom for his wandering girl. And I think he got it.

From my heart,


10 things Dad did right:

  1. He saw something no one else did— potential.
  2. He communicated to me what he saw in specific, daily doses.
  3. He restrained his response to my failure.
  4. He went out of his way to show interest in my life.
  5. He inconvenienced himself to involve himself in my life.
  6. He ate my hamburgers!
  7. He assumed I wanted to do well when everything about me screamed defeat.
  8. He praised me in front of the rest of the family.
  9. He redefined my image of who I was.
  10. He loved me anyway.
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