Of Heroes, Monsters, And Epic Journeys

“There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.” ~ J.K. Rowling

Even now I am constantly amazed that my kids have become people.

Living with this condition – what else can I call it but a condition – is like reaching every day into a bag of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans: you never know what you’ve got until you chew on it.

Sometimes the flavor sucks. Sometimes you get a mouthful of tripe or farm dirt.

These are the times when the cream cheese is left out on the counter or no one vacuums before Shabbos. Or the times when an email comes from a rabbi at the yeshiva. Or when someone is moody and being selfish and a real pain and needs to be temporarily banished and quarantined.

But sometimes it’s great, too. Sometimes you get a good chocolate or a sweet marmalade.

Like hearing him invent on his guitar or hearing her sing in her room. Like how he’s going to be 18 and still hugs us and holds my hand and works hard to do well at school. Like how she’s 14 going on 25, hugs like a koala, and works hard to balance her salty fierceness with her sweet strawberry heart and raging intellect.

How can a parent not think in metaphor and allegory on the grand scale even as we live in the minutia of the ever present now? What greater adventure, what greater risk, what greater folly, what greater responsibility than raising and loving these – beings?

Once a parent, everything, everything, is being a parent.

The world takes a new shape. The landscape transforms. Strange creatures roam this path, dangerous visions befall those who drink from that cup. Strive for the wisdom to make choices and weigh possibilities and fight the good fights and live by the code and learn the ancient, mysterious ways because anything can happen at any time so we must remain vigilant in the face of constant threat to our way of life in our idealized rendering of our world and humble home of strange scents and sinks full of dishes the kids haven’t washed in too long.

At least, with some imagination, with some escapist tendencies…

Harsh reality tends to burn all those pages to ash on a regular basis, though. The reality, for most of us, is that everyday mundane life is a boring read.

If you don’t know how to read.

Every year I’ve been teaching, I start 9th English by telling my students that I know they know how to read words and sentences, but they really don’t know how to actually read stories and poems. Actually reading is a rich, multi-layered, full-brain enriched experience. It is of the mind, not simply the brain reading words. Actually reading is active actualizing the reading, making connections, asking questions, recognizing symbols and allusions, appreciating the turn of a phrase or the development of a character’s motivation or the twist of a plot. Being an active participant in the story. Living the questions.

And now, all of a sudden, my daughter is a 9th grader and my son is in 12th. Both of them have known how to actually read since elementary school, since they both first starting reading the Harry Potter series. They’ve always devoured books since then. Both of them have been complimented by teachers recognizing them as children of two English teachers (don’t pity them!).

And now, just recently, I’ve realized that my kids have become my favorite students. Neither of them is in my classroom. But in my 15 years of teaching, I’ve come across students who gain a particular status in my estimation through their intellectual prowess or their creativity or their gumption or their audacious chutzpah. You try not to show it, but it’s impossible when certain kids in the class exude such contagious joy at their own discoveries through their studies. These are the students who are lit up with literature and light up the class and make my days much more adventurous. These are the students whose demeanor becomes intense and delighted, troubled and curious, critical and demanding when they read stories, novels, and poems.

And our two children have grown into just the kind of students I’ve always enjoyed in my classrooms.

And they live in my house. All the time. For now…

Noah is in his last year of yeshiva. Last week, I picked him up from school, as usual, after a 50 minute drive. As always, he reported without prompting his most recent academic accomplishments in both Torah and secular studies.

About 10 minutes into the drive back home, he turns to me and says, “Dad. Dad. Oh, my gosh, Dad.”

“What? What?”

“Dad! Frankenstein! Holy –“

“Ah! One of my favorites!”

We start discussing the beast. How Noah finds himself pitying the nameless monster.

I say, “Imagine if Hashem abandoned Adam right after creating him.”

He nods. We discuss it further. He says how the monster was rejected by society and how there was no society to reject Adam. “Who can blame the beast,” he asks, “when he’s treated so horribly?”

He shakes his head in wonder. He goes on and on, extrapolating, using the right terminology for literary techniques and devices, devising theories.

Surely many frum fathers have felt this joy when their sons come home to explain a Torah concept with energy and depth and clarity and even sources. As much pleasure as that has given me on the rare occasions it has happened, sharing a love of literature with Noah at such an academic level with his excitement and appreciation is a priceless geshmack moment for me.

“But his response is to kill,” he says, “so he’s still a monster. He could have just gone into hiding.”

I ask him if he thinks Dr. Frankenstein is a monster as well. He tells me to watch the road. I have to speed up a bit.

I’m in Gan Eden. I have to keep checking the speedometer. I find my foot to be lighter and lighter on the accelerator. I want the car ride home to last forever and a day.

Soon, he begins to relate the theme of the corruption of nature to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” and I feel like I’m going to burst. (“He was so obsessed with it, he didn’t recognize how beautiful she really was!”)

Two days later, we’re sitting at the dining room table after Shabbos lunch. Frankenstein came up again during the meal. Now we’re full and tired and I want to go read myself to sleep, but suddenly that’s not an option at this moment.

Chana, of course, has part ownership of my heart. Right now she’s pushed out the other tenants to take over. Forcefully and with a smile, as is her wont.

“Talk to me,” my daughter says, eyebrows raised.

What she wants is to hear about my experience so far reading the Harry Potter series.

Our latest adventure began with a deal made long ago. Kept promises are being fulfilled. More treasure must be around the bend. Surely whatever troll lies in wait is no match for our strengths, skills, and abilities.

Yes, I am just now reading the Harry Potter series. I know I’m late to it in 2017 at the age of 46, but I am currently in the middle of the series (more specifically, I’m in the middle of Goblet of Fire, the fourth book of seven, just after Harry defeats the dragon at the Triwizard Tournament) and I’m smitten.

As most of you probably already know, J.K. Rowling writes beautifully, bringing to life incredible characters who struggle with making choices and doing the right thing in a fantastical England, holding us in rapt suspense as she twines her fanciful story into the very fibers of our romantic hearts.

Please don’t assume I never tried this previously. I did. I read the first three books when I started teaching middle school about 15 years ago. My son was three or four, my daughter less than a year old. But my 7th grade students were obsessed. And I wanted to know what they were obsessed about.

After speeding through the first three books to get a better understanding of what my students were into, I decided it was great children’s literature, really great, wonderful in fact, an instant classic, but I would rather spend my time reading more “adult” fiction.

And then my daughter is suddenly in the middle of middle school a couple of years ago. And she’s read all the books at least three times by then.

But it’s more than reading. She’s studied the books. She reads and rereads. And she’s been infernally dismissive of any commentary I might make on J.K. Rowling’s books in connection with my own teaching in class, since I have no right to speak of them when I’d only read – and not really deeply read, just merely sped through the pages I couldn’t even remember the details from anymore anyway – the first three books (seeing the movies does not count, bless her heart). If I reported to my wife anywhere within earshot of my daughter that I’d spoken about the grounded in reality “truth” of the friendships and loyalty and love as themes in the story, I’d be sure to hear, “How do you even know!?”

By then, the series was a favorite of my wife’s, my son’s, my daughter’s, as well as much of the known world’s.

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So when one Shabbos a couple of years ago Chana wonders aloud, “What can I read next?” and I offer The Hobbit as a suggestion, a deal is finally made.

Mind you, this wasn’t the first time I’d suggested it. The kids knew The Hobbit became one of my favorite books of all time when I finally had a chance to teach it in 9th grade. In fact, years earlier I had read to her pages from The Hobbit as she fell asleep on quite a few occasions. She’d always insisted I start from the beginning in those days, so we never got through Chapter 1.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. . . “

When it came to reading it on her own, though, she resisted.

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll read it if you read Harry Potter.”

“I already –“

“All of them. Starting from the beginning.”

“But –“

“That’s the deal, Dad.”

“But –“

“How can you not?”

“How can you not?” I ask with indignation. “I mean, Tolkien comes before Rowling. Harry Potter wouldn’t even exist without Bilbo Baggins.”

The look of shock, as if I’d slapped her.

Stupid thing to say, really. She didn’t talk to me for almost an hour.

So the deal stuck without any progress for three years.

This year she started 9th grade and she’s been assigned to read The Hobbit.

As soon as she came home with the assignment, she said: “We have books 2-6. You have to go to the used bookstore and look for The Sorcerer’s Stone. And The Deathly Hollows, too, if they have it.”

So I found the book at our local used bookstore and started. And although I’m zooming through, I’m paying a lot more attention.

So this Shabbos at the table, she’s looking at me expectantly.

I start: “I love how she –“

“Who’s your favorite character so far?”

I take a moment to think and watch the wind pick up in the back yard. Thunder knocks the sky nearby. Anyone I name has repercussions, a detailed conversation I don’t think I’m ready to have.

“I love Neville,” she says. “How he stood up to them. How he helps Harry. He’s a hero, too. You’ll see. Just keep going.”

“I did cry a second when he got the points for the win,” I admit. I take a gulp of beer.

More and more leaves are being picked up by the wind, blowing through the yard, circling the trunks of our trees. Thunder again, this time just above us.

“Oh, wow, if that’s all it takes –“

“I’m sure I’ll be a blubbering mess soon enough.”

We talk about where I am in the story. She and her mother exchange looks when I mention a plot development or new character. My wife is charmed by this whole exchange. It’s been a long time coming.

“But isn’t she just amazing?” Chana asks.

“Really knows how to turn a phrase.”

“Oh, my gosh, I love her sentences,” my 14 year old daughter says.

Outside, the downpour begins in earnest.

I nod, “Yeah. And she builds characters with such ease. Such a pacing of the story, too. The suspense is delicious.”

“Speaking of – how about the feasts!?”

“I get hungry every time I read about them.”

“Yes! I’m so happy you’re reading this.”

“And what about Bilbo?”

And she proceeds to prove to me she knows the book better than I do already since she’s memorized the names of all the dwarves.

Soon, Noah is napping with Frankenstein in the crook of his arm, Chana and my wife are reading on the couch, and I’m on the big fat blue chair reading about how Hermione wants to help free the house-elves.

Our epic journey continues. . .

In fact, God willing, it never ends.


Cover image from Flickr.