During the pre-boarding period for a flight from Heathrow to Houston, I couldn’t help but notice that there were more “pre-boarders” than “boarders.” The pre-boarding group was mostly composed of families with small children. “Families of small children” might be a more accurate term.
I kid you not—for every solitary traveler on my flight, there seemed to be family of forty-five, forty-three of them children. Even the captain made a point of announcing the obvious fact that there was an extraordinary number of children on board. All being transported to Houston.
A general boarder myself, I soon came to regard my delayed entry as a mark of specialness, peculiarity, eccentricity—dare I say privilege? One is an odd number.
Now, I have been informed by some dear souls that the world’s stock of homo sapiens is being depleted because people are refusing to have children. At least, I’ve been told, the kind of children who can be expected to vote the ‘right’ way in my own country, or the quantity needed to pay for my social security, are not being born. To be fair, I have also been informed by another crowd of an opposite threat: without drastic intervention, our teeming progeny will irrevocably upset the economic equilibrium of our food supply, and we will all die that way, instead. The ominous neo-Malthusian prophecy resounds through the sybilline pages of Dan Brown’s Inferno.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that both of these doomsday prognostications for the loins of our species, those of fire and ice, are exaggerations, but there’s no virtue in vaguely placing oneself in the middle in this respect. If I deny world hunger I should be justly charged with all the oblivion behind “Let them eat cake”; if I vaguely count on Social Security to provide for me in my second childhood, I would be no less deluded. But pit John Paul II against Dan Brown on the subject of human sexuality and reproduction, and in this instance I’ll side with the celibate. For the Father with no biological children has said, in his own way, let’s be open to welcoming more of them.
There goes one toddling past my seat right now. There’s another squealing two rows in front of me. Directly in front of me, a child peeks back at me impishly. An infant at a diagonal laments the injustices of the world with utmost lung capacity. Brother and sister spar to my left.
I find myself in the best possible situation for appreciating these children, mostly because they are not my own, and I am not responsible for their behavior in confined spaces. As an outside observer, I can appreciate them for who they are, without the frightening feeling of being accountable for their behavior and development. I am also free of the opposite but equally frightening awareness that they too will be responsible for their own behavior and development.
A child myself once, and one with five younger siblings, I know the tumults of play and the agons of the large family. “Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them,” my father would quote, indicating us, his children, his arrows. I certainly knew the barbs of insults and the sharp pains of getting my hair pulled while growing up, but what sort of useful weaponry we were to my father, I can only speculate. “Cheaper by the dozen,” he would say, but to my limited knowledge that simply meant that we ate at McDonalds instead of Cracker Barrel on family road trips. The idea of our family growing to a full dozen frightened me; I would have to scramble for my share of the box of Lucky Charms against six further siblings. Oh, well. “An adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered,” G. K. Chesterton said, and I never ended up experiencing that particular sort of adventure against that particular number of combatants.
I may know next to nothing about children, but perhaps I understand a little something about motherhood. I’m subject to what several Greek philosophers point to as the peculiarly maternal injustice of favoritism that comes with “love of one’s own.” I have students–and (dare I say it?) I prefer them to students who are not my students. And (dare I say it?) I love them, and want them to succeed. Yes, I know I’m not supposed to take personally a student’s decision to skip class to go see the ivy in the botanical gardens. And yes, not all my classes are worth losing that opportunity to view the ivy, to be honest. It was a frightening moment when, as a student, I calculated just how much one 50-minute period in the college classroom was costing me; it’s so much more frightening as a professor to be conscious of how much my students are paying for those fifty minutes I superintend. But the point is, I feel an awful weight of responsibility on me, and at the same time an awful awareness that the success of each student is not merely up to my wishing it, or my following the right pedagogical formula. It bothers me when my students fail.
Not necessarily when they drop a class, mind you—there are plenty of situations in life where the wisest and most honest thing to do is to drop out. Abdiel heroically dropped out of Satan’s ranks in the War in Heaven. Go ahead and drop out if you find yourself studying under the likes of Wackford Squeers or Miss Prizzle. And sometimes the dropping out is good, even if the teacher is good. Uninterested in oft-repeated arguments drawn primarily from financial success, I won’t invoke the names of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg here. Perhaps there’s no point in hypothesizing what “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Samuel Clemens, Zac Efron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Adolf Hitler, Paris Hilton, Rush Limbaugh, Herman Melville, Nicki Minaj, Joel Osteen, Quentin Tarantino, or Sofia Vergara would have done with a college degree. Every dropped thing implies a lost opportunity, even if it gains another, but most of us haven’t mastered the arts of bilocation and of never growing old, and so we have to make choices.
I imagine one of hardest tasks for a parent is to learn when and how to step back and let a child make decisions—not necessarily on her own, but—of her own. Good parenting is a strenuous but graceful dance of freedom, law, and love, isn’t it?
Friends with children may justifiably think that I have no business whatsoever talking about children. I have no children. God in his infinite wisdom knew I wouldn’t be able to resist reading them selections from Tristram Shandy for their bedtime stories. In his infinite grace he has spared them my odd humors—at least until I grow up a bit myself.
But in my state of childlessness, I am granted insight in compensation for this absence. My love is not blind. Childless, I can thus properly see children—even the very ones surrounding me, on this airplane—as joyous nuisances, tremendous souls, wide-eyed forest creatures, immoderate in their attachments, in their energy, in their sense of deserving, in their impressionability, and in a certain kind of forgetfulness.
Forgetfulness of wrongs past—oh to be like a child in that! Buoyancy of spirit is really a forgiveness that doesn’t have to try too hard. Oh, I know the little beasts are selfish and betray the marks of original sin. But they haven’t lived long enough to nurse a real live grudge into a monstrous wen; their grumbles have not reverberated long enough to make them bona fide grumblers. Their squirreling of fruit snacks beneath the sofa cushions is only one part avarice and two parts comic. The aged Ebenezer Scrooge, on the other hand, is only two parts avarice and one part comic.
The journey from innocence to experience is too fast and too inevitable. The child that peeked over the seat in front of me, and who discovered me with glee, has grown tired of repetition, and now resignedly faces what lies ahead. It appears the lineaments of my face are not eternally novel.
But there’s one sitting on his father’s lap, playing with the tray table. Now it’s unlatched and down. Now up. Now down. Up. Down. Up. How maddening it would be to serve as sports announcer for this child’s play. Such ritual, such tenacity, is surely a mark of superb athleticism.
Nine hours into the flight, I think I’ll stay with the pre-boarders until we land. I’ve made this decision not just because I’m at an altitude of 40,000 ft., still 397 miles from my destination, and traveling at a ground speed of 515 mph. It’s mostly because the outside temperature is a chilly negative 67 degrees Fahrenheit, and I don’t like to be that cold.
We’ll land, and it will be pleasantly in the 90s with 80% humidity, or 100% mugginess, and through that Houstonian soup I will make my way home, and the pre-boarders will head to theirs. I will have the distinct pleasure of not having to bathe any children. But I do hope the parents will feel the distinct privilege of doing just that. The next day, I will have the satisfaction of not having to get dirty playing with these children; but again I hope their parents feel the joy of doing just that. An adventure, not an inconvenience.
We’re descending, and an infant’s ears have quite sensibly decided that it’s not quite natural to descend at the rate of 100 feet every 3 seconds. Her screams shake me from my adult-like insensitivity to the momentousness of traveling by air.
Yet the acquisition of experience is mandatory. Ulysses’ speech to his shipmates at the Straits of Gibraltar was utterly banal. Experience will come without summons—even the child growing up in a bubble acquires a peculiar sort of experience, like it or not.
The Lady Wisdom, on the other hand, is optional. I am told she is the handmaiden of joy, not cynicism. I am told that if I seek her I will find her. I will try not to be so deliberately deaf as to avoid listening for her in the squeals of a child.
My young friend in the seat in front of me just awoke to play peekaboo again. Only thirty minutes to go.