Sally Epstein’s Day Off
● By Sandy Kauten
My 15-year-old daughter Sally looked me in the eye and said with controlled anger, “You’ll regret this.” Then she stalked up to her room.
A three-day weekend had been on the school calendar, but Sally wanted to expand it to four. Otherwise her trip to Threehundredmilesaway College would entail almost as much bus-riding as visiting.
One of my core principles was at stake, namely, the value of Showing Up. Maybe you won’t hit a home run every day, but you DEFINITELY won’t if you aren’t even there. In fact, my only sports hero is Lou Gehrig, “The Iron Horse of Baseball.” Even broken bones did not prevent him from playing 2,130 consecutive ballgames for the New York Yankees.
At the office that I manage, anyone will tell you, “Epstein might not do much once he’s here, but by golly he always shows up.” And I like to hold others to that high standard. When extreme weather conditions caused the governor to order all “non-essential personnel” to go home, I told my staff, “If any of you are non-essential, go on home. AND STAY THERE!”
I got this way during my first week of college. When an upperclassman heard I was afraid of flunking out, he said, “The only people who flunk out are the ones who miss a lot of classes and generally give up.” Then and there I pledged myself to Perfect Attendance. Although some days I did little more than sit there imagining some of my classmates naked, some knowledge was bound to leak in. And for a student like me, being there made the critical difference between failure and success. Well, between failure and non-failure, anyway.
My wife, who got through college using other techniques (such as studying), is lax on attendance. So it’s been up to me to hammer it into the kids. As a result, their favorite video is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” That’s the 1986 movie in which a high school boy feigns illness (he licks his palms to produce a mysterious clamminess) and has a day of wild adventure.
The kids know that to miss school they must convince me they are really sick. In one unsuccessful attempt at age 10, our youngest broke a thermometer while rubbing it against a light bulb. We regretted the loss of the thermometer, but were relieved that Wendy didn’t really have a 115-degree fever.
My policy provided so much early dramatic exercise for my oldest daughter Marie that her acting ability won her a college scholarship. At the audition she didn’t pretend to be merely sick, she pretended to be DEAD! Her portrayal of the tormented ghost of Emily Gibbs of “Our Town” melted the icy hearts of the faculty and swept her into the school on a wave of money.
Although Marie had to writhe and emote for every Mental Health Day she ever got, Sally managed to dodge an entire year of school by convincing the authorities that she didn’t need eighth grade. So now we were going to the mat over one undistinguished day of her junior year.
My wife Betsy stayed out of the discussion. That meant she agreed with my scrappy, little opponent. There are four reasons for this:
1. Sally has hit a rough spot in her academic career. She is taking a cruel pounding in U.S. History and is barely surviving a daily intellectual slugfest with an egomaniacal American Lit teacher. But she fights doggedly on.
2. When teen life – including boyfriends, girlfriends, teachers, parents and mid-term exams – drives her into an emotional corner, Sally phones her big sister. Marie figuratively rubs the battling bantam’s shoulders, gives her advice for the next round and sends her back into the ring. Their relationship is beautiful and should be encouraged.
3. “The kid has never given us a speck of trouble and deserves some consideration,” said Betsy, when I asked her.
4. Sally is usually right.
A painful hour after I’d made my decree, I told Sally, “All right, you can miss this one day of school to go see Marie,” and her scowl became a smirk. “Although right now your job is to go to school, it’s not like you’ll be letting anyone down if you miss a day. But don’t count on this happening again.”
Whether I’m right or wrong to let her go, I’ll admit the decision-making process was messy. AND weak, AND stupid, AND inconsistent, you say? Well, you have your parenting style and I have mine.
Rick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.