February 28, 2020

Ripple Effect: Fathers 

My late father was a renowned educator.

He touched hundreds if not thousands of people’s lives.  

His vision and teachings were simple and clear.

Do the right thing.

Be a mensch (good person).

Take responsibility.

Follow a strong moral compass with absolutely no compromising.

He led with conviction and was an exceptional role model of everything he believed in. Recently someone shared with me a recording of him addressing the staff of a summer camp where he was the director.

I have not heard his voice in 16 years.

I had forgotten how thick his Bostonian accent was and how absolutely normal his voice sounded. Somewhere in my mind his voice was more godlike. In my head he had a deep, loud, heavy, overpowering voice. Funny what time and the imagination can do.

His words and the things he was talking about in this recording reminded me just why he was beloved by so many and why he was so influential. He had humility and charm. He was honest and shared the stage oh so gallantly with my mom.

There was one segment that I particularly liked where he talked about his legacy. He wondered how someone he influenced or touched as an educator would write about him in a chapter of the book about their life. How would they describe him as someone who shaped them?

Would their words be of kindness? What lesson did they take from all he tried to teach them? What did they remember and take note of? 

What mattered most?

My father was not one who cared about what people thought of him. 

He truly wanted to know what mark he left on his students. 

More than that he wanted to bring to the attention of the educators he was talking to how everything they do influences the youth they work with.

 

In an all-boys class I was teaching in a LA County probation lockup 

facility, many of the young men were fathers to multiple babies with multiple young women.

I struggled in trying to teach them the responsibility of fatherhood and the meaning and great joy they could derive from actually being involved both with their children and the women they had the children with.

One day I tried an exercise asking about their own fathers.

 

In a class of 12 students not one had a relationship with their father.

Most didn’t know them or had never met them.

“Write three things you want to ask your father.” 

I asked them to write them on the paper in front of them.

 

My tough, rough gangbangers started getting very agitated.

 

The probation officer in the room motioned me to stop what I was doing.

“Ms., this isn’t good,” he whispered. 

“I ain’t got nothing, Ms.” one said. 

“Why would I ask him anything?” 

“He’s a motherfucker.”

I hit a nerve. They were pissed. 

“I don’t want to ask him shit,” another said. 

“How can I ask something to someone I don’t know?”

The probation officer was right. This was not good.

But I love the “not good,” because under it lives the great.

“Okay, put down the pens,” I say.

“Stand up.” I motion.  

Now they are doubly pissed.

When I feel tension in the room, I use a ball as a talking stick and throw it to people to speak.

“Stand up, people,” I say again.

“Ms…” they whine. 

I love when my rough guys turn into little boys. 

“Okay,” I tell them. 

“When I throw the ball to you, tell me one thing you want to say to your father.”

Somehow, they cooperate. 

“Why did you leave?”

“Why didn’t you stay?”

“Why did you do drugs?”

“Why did you get locked up?” 

This was not good either and not really going anywhere. 

I stop. I think.

“Okay, let’s change it,” I say. 

“One thing you want to tell them about you. Can you think of something positive about yourself?”  I ask them. 

I repeat, “Something positive, good that you are proud of.”

I ask them to come into a closer circle.

“Give it to me, Ms.,” one says. 

I throw the ball to him. 

He says, “I AM NOT LIKE YOU.” 

He is super proud. 

“Okay,” I say. 

“Me! Me!” Another one raises his hand. 

“I am getting me a high school diploma.” 

“Nice!” I say. 

“I am taking care of my ma, since you’re AWOL.” 

They laugh.

The mood swings a little.

“One more thing,” I tell them. “One wish.

What do you wish for, for you and your father?”

I throw the ball.

“I wish I knew you.”

“I wish we hung out.”

“I wish you came to visit me.”

“I wish I could visit you.”

“I wish you taught me how to be a father.”

It’s quiet. I take the moment. 

“How many of you have kids?” I ask them. 

Most raise their hands.

“I want to invite you to be the father you didn’t have.  

Think about that.

Don’t say anything.

Just let that sit,” I say. 

It goes to a deeper level of quiet. 

Some of them look down.

I know I am in a tricky place talking about a tricky topic.

“No shame,” I say. “Just take it all in.”

Then I move to something lighter.

Because you always need to lighten the heavy.

We laugh, release a little and have some fun.

These boys are kids themselves, kids in desperate need of love and compassion.

Typically, when a group culminates, they fill out a survey. 

One of the questions is “How will your relationships change after participating in this class?”

One kid from this group wrote, “No change. I will now have a relationship with my son.”

I think about my Dad and how he taught the importance of truth and dedication. I think about this kid and hope that what he writes about me is that I motivated him to be a better Dad.

On the back of the survey he wrote:

“Ms., I never thought I mattered to my son. I didn’t know he could be wishing for me. I’m gonna make sure to have a relationship with him when I get out.”

I know that the change is not being someone you are not. It is actually being who you are.

Our job as facilitators of change is not to move mountains, but with ease and care to gently help the water to flow downstream just where it was supposed to go.

If we do this, I am sure that only good will be written on those pages my father was so interested in.


Naomi Ackerman is a Mom, activist, writer, performer, and the founder and Executive Director of The Advot (ripple) Project a registered 501(c)3 that uses theatre and the arts to empower youth at risk to live their best life.

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