categories: Cocktail Hour


  Here’s a guest post from one of our favorite writers, Joe Wilkins:


On this bright-cool mid-May afternoon we are lazing on the front lawn, my three-year-old son and I. For a time we were rolling a ball back and forth, then we read through our stack of books, now we are inspecting leaves and pinecones and the brittle remnants of last fall’s winter-bitten buckeyes. Up the block the school bus settles to a stop. The yellow doors fold back, and the neighborhood children slip off and knot on the sidewalk. The bus whines to speed, and Walter rises, entranced, watching the bus glide by us and on down the hill, the husks of buckeyes forgotten at his feet. Despite the many and varied play options we’ve offered—dolls, trains, puzzles, garden tools, a kitchen set—Walter is all boy. He is unreasonably fascinated with busses, semi-trucks, and tractors. He likes to wrestle and stomp mudpuddles, chew sticks. At the park, he runs and runs the bases.

            Now the neighbor boys untangle themselves from the other children. The older one—who can’t be more than eight or nine, I imagine, but whose hair just this past half year has darkened from sunlight to dirty-gold, whose face has thinned and shoulders hunched, who for hours each evening kicks a football or soccer ball or whatever is around to be kicked from one side of the weedy yard to the other—disappears into the shadow of his father’s open garage, into that dark snarl of two-cycle engines, hog smokers, car doors, gray boards, and all manner of things drug home from repo lots or weekend trades with cousins out in the county.

               The younger boy, though, Hayden, who is maybe six, his cheeks round but his arms and legs gone long and noodle skinny, bounds across the lawn between us, calling, “Walter! Walter! Hey, Walter, I have to tell you something!”

            Walter is sure Hayden is as cool as they come. He runs over, gazes up at this older boy, and asks, in all earnestness and delight, “What, Hayden? What?”

            “I can throw a ball the way you’re supposed to throw a ball. And catch, too.”

            “I can throw! I can throw and catch!” Walter says, literally bouncing in the light of this unexpected attention.

            “No you can’t,” Hayden says. “You just roll it. Then your dad picks it up. That’s not how you do it. You can’t do it.”

            “I can, Hayden! I throw and catch! I get a ball!” Walter looks around and grabs the small basketball we were playing with earlier, and then shouts, “Catch!” With all his might, he heaves the ball an inch or two above his head. It falls, well short of Hayden, and bounces between the boys. Walter is overjoyed. “Your turn,” he says, laughing and clapping.

            Hayden shakes his head and tries for a look of bored, burdened disdain, a look you know someone has many times offered him. “I knew you couldn’t do it,” he says.

            And I rise, wonder why boys throw words and balls like rocks? Why boys build the hurt mismatch of themselves from the bruised bones and shames of other boys? I am thinking of the long-ago day when in a rage I told a boy, the one picked just behind me for recess games of touch football, he was worthless. To my horror, the name stuck. Worthless. Try playing some defense, Worthless. If the words of boys could be unsaid, drawn back into the vicious innocence of their mouths. I read these days about the man who would be President, the handsome, striving boy he was. How he wrestled another boy to the cold floor, how he hacked off that boy’s long hair. There is something broken in all boys. Some tiny bone-shard in the heart, scissoring the muscle with each necessary and wounding thump. If a boy’s heart is to be hurt but whole? If a boy is to be a human being? Knowing and not knowing the pain that in the years to come will surely wrack my own son, what might I say here in the afternoon light, as this older boy walks away, as I walk over to him? What might I say to assuage this and those hurts, to keep him—I hope, God how I hope—from hurting beyond recognition some other?

            “Walter,” I say, “toss me the ball!” He turns and thinks a moment. Then obliges. We high five, and I kneel before him, as if asking a pardon. “Sometimes boys don’t feel very good about themselves, and they say things that aren’t very nice. No matter what, I want you to always think about what you say, okay?”

            “Okay, Dad,” he says, stoically, and then for no reason I know takes off running around the buckeye tree.

  1. Tommy writes:

    Joe, I love how you really get at the essence of the moment here, the essence of being, as it’s played out in tiny vinettes while no one (moslty no one!) is watching. And when you disect and lay it all out for us, everyone has a memory, eveyone knows exactly what you’re talking about, what you’re asking.

    There’s something in here for all of us – like, how a three year old doesn’t let one moment poison the next. He goes from “the lesson”, straight into the next adventure, and dare I say, as he ran for the Buckeye tree – he didn’t look back, other than to see if you were watching! Sweet.

  2. Debora writes:

    Joe, beautifully written! I’m so glad I got to read it. I was feelin’ you and pulling for Walter and Dad. What’s the matter with all of us anyway! And how do we keep picking up the pieces. Must be the trees and dogs and thoughtful places like Bill and Dave’s.

    • Joe Wilkins writes:

      Thanks, Debora, for the kinds words. It is a wonderful thing to have places like Bill and Dave’s, where we can wonder at it all!

      • Debora writes:

        Hi Joe. There must be many parents and educators and child-care providers that have read this essay and have been impacted by it. I’ve sent some parents I know to the website to have a look, because I know they will likely relate to the pain of watching their child be hurt and the struggle of how to help. I know that I am always looking for ideas on how to deal with interpersonal situations. This narrator, “Dad”, is marvelous in the moment. Being marvelous in the moment is hard–it’s a skill–it takes practice.

        Do you have any advice, tricks, rules-of-thumb?

        Here’s one from my “archives” of working with inner-city eighth graders: As the leader I must evaluate if an altercation is really because of “my bad” (hard to believe, sometimes I’m cranky, stressed, or jump to the wrong conclusion)– if it IS my bad, I always apologize to the student in front of the class, explaining my oops. This sets a good example and builds trust. And FYI, this is important to think about, my students are always surprised when the teacher admits she is wrong. It goes a long way with them. 🙂

        • Joe Wilkins writes:

          Debora, definitely a good rule of thumb to consider and apologize, if appropriate. I taught 9th grade pre-algebra in a rural junior-high school in the Mississippi Delta for two years, and one of the many (so many!) things I learned in that time was similar: young people want and need to be treated respectfully, fairly, maturely. We all do, I think.

          And I’m glad you thought I handled the situation in “Buckeyes” well. I’ve never been quite sure if I did or not. I do know after thinking it through and writing about it, I’ve consciously tried to listen to and engage with Hayden more. And I think it’s paid off. I can see him trying to do the same for Walter.



          PS. Sorry this reply is so late in coming! These little ones are keeping us on our toes!