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Wisdom of the Fathers: The Ache for Work

It is Father’s Day. There are cards, sentimental posts on social media, and likely more than a few humorous t-shirts and prank gifts. Wrap me up in that stuff, it is wonderful and I am beyond grateful for my kids and my own dad that I can call and speak with. Fatherhood is a gift beyond measure.

My youngest will be in college this fall, as a dad there’s much more sitting back and enjoying the show than there used to be. And yes, I miss taking them to daycare, going to soccer games and recitals, watching nervously through a window as they walked/ran/drove away from home. And as I turn around in my mind I think about my own dad, and the age of my children, and am reminded of an incredible gift he gave me.

As a senior in high school I asked my AP English teacher his advice about what to major in when I went off to school. Dr. Deluzain, brilliant and humorous, did not hesitate:

You have to major in something you love.

It was like someone dropped magic soap into my muddy soul. My future became crystal clear and arrived like an audible ‘TING’…

I loved to draw.

No doubt about it.

I'd be an art major for sure, not a moment of doubt.

I have had more conversations than I can count with students and parents about being an art major. Sometimes the students are in tears. Parents are often simply disappointed. I don’t get this, but I can talk them through it. Perhaps I will deal with this in the future, but for now I want to address why I don’t get it.

My dad worked as a colorist in a textile mill and chased that industry through Dixie as it died and blew like dry leaves to other shores. He worked late shifts. When he took his work shoes off and put them down they would rock back and forth where their soles had bowed from the chemicals on the floor at the plant. He worked unfathomably hard to provide a beautiful and secure life. As a freshmen at the school where I now teach, I told dad I wanted to be an art major.

Was he disappointed? Concerned, anxious, freaked out… Hardly.

He said:

I don’t care what you major in. Just promise me you’ll work damn hard at it.

I did. Relentlessly, breaking into the department at night without permission to work. I did so with joy, and unburdened by parental expectation other than my sweat. I was an art major, philosophy minor, and went through the Great Books track. I’ll joke with folks now that I was many a parent’s heart attack. I could do all of this because my dad gave me a gift in removing hesitation. I hope I can do the same for my kids, for the ones my wife and I raised and also those who take my classes.

I have also taught Great Books. I rediscovered my dad’s wisdom in The Aeneid, Virgil’s great epic poem. Aeneas, warrior and hero, is getting ready for the final battle. His son, Ascanius, is watching his father lacing up his work shoes. Aeneas sees his son witnessing him about to go to work and says:

Learn fortitude and toil from me, my son

Ache of true toil. Good fortune learn from others.

Write this on your studio wall, your bulletin board, in your freshman planner… pick up a handful of color off of the plant floor and write it all over the textile mill. Carve it in stone. Ache for the work you have to do, it is a blessing. I don’t care what you want to major in, just work damn hard at it. Thanks dad.

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