Lord of the Fleas

LOTF cover

And now for a dramatic reading of Lord of the Flies, that classic psychological study by William Golding, as seen through the eyes of my six-year-old:

Hayden picks up a copy of Lord of the Flies that he finds in my car while we are driving to swim lessons.

Hayden: Oh look, Lord of the Fleas.

Me: It’s Flies.

Hayden: Lord of the Flies. Here, I’ll read page 106. (He begins to make up words while pretending to read the print). And the boys came and farted on the Lord of the Flies. And then they watched as farts came out of the flies butts. Then all the boys said, “Ewwww. That’s gross!” Then the fleas–I mean flies–and the boys all started farting at the same time.

Me: (Rolling my eyes while driving–and laughing on the inside.)

I apologize for another post about farts, but the boys are in full swing with their fart jokes and potty words. And I can be as gross as they come, but the constant barrage of fart/pee/penis/butt/burp references is becoming a bit maddening. And speaking of maddening, I had to laugh at Hayden’s dramatic reading of the book, because he proved a theory that Golding was positing when he wrote this classic novel: all boys are freaking crazy; they are one plane crash away from a descent into madness.

I recently finished teaching Lord of the Flies (LOTF) to my ninth graders. The book is so captivating and eerily believable. I read the book (ish) in high school–I bet I read mainly the Cliffs Notes back then. But I did honestly read it in my twenties, then I taught it to juniors my first year of teaching high school. I was only 24 and I know I did not do the provocative themes justice. This year, we added it to the curriculum, and I became immersed in the island and its inhabitants. I shared with my students how different I felt teaching this book now that I am fortysomething and have young boys of my own.

In the month that I prepared for, and then taught, the book, I watched the behavior of boys through a different lens. I noticed how, in many ways, boys are so primitive in their need to be physical, to compete, to gain your attention, and, ultimately, your respect. As a teacher, I have the privilege of witnessing gawky freshmen boys grow  into confident, aware young men. And with my own boys, I see their constant battle of wills and wits. And whether they live as survivors on an island or siblings in the suburbs, boys everywhere are gross! They smell, they have sick senses of humor, and laugh at the most inane shit.

I had started to put the book behind me, having just finished it in time for spring break, when Hayden’s little literary serenade made me examine its impact on me again. We just happened to be on our way to swimming class, where last week I had an epiphany while reading the book. As I sat in the steamy pool area, I watched my boys begin to swim with the instructor. I brought my LOTF with me to re-read for the coming day. For the next few minutes, I was transported from the steamy discomfort of the Y, to an island in the Pacific, where a group of privileged boys were in a frenzied state, feasting on the succulent pork from their fresh kill. It was the crucial scene where Simon–sweet, innocent, Simon– runs on to the beach to tell the boys that “the Beast” is really just a dead parachutist. In the mayhem and confusion, some boys believe he is the Beast–although some knew he was not–they KNEW! He is pushed into the circle and brutally, fatally attacked. Too late, his fellow schoolmates realize it was one of their own that they have murdered.

As I come to the gruesome end of this chapter, I find I am distracted by another group of boys– the ones at the other end of the pool–the group of boys that includes my two sons. They are being loud. They are splashing a great deal. And they are hitting each other “playfully.” The instructor ( a mild-mannered man in his early twenties) has no control of this rowdy bunch of “Littluns” and is in the middle of the pool assisting the only girl in the class. I pick up my book and make my way down to the other end. I am glad to see that my sons appear to be merely bystanders in all this, but my anger with the boys in the novel is seeping through as I look at this lot. “Boys are crazy,” I think. “All boys. Crazy!” I watch as one of the swimmers taunts the weakest one in the pool. “He would be Roger,” I say to myself. I see another boy screaming song lyrics at the group while making violent waves in the water, “Baby you’re a firework!” he hollers. “And he would be Ralph,” I think. Two boys begin to hit each other with their kick boards. “And there are Jack and Piggy.” Owen, my eight year old, looks back at me, aware that I am watching and sensing that I am not comfortable with how his class is being conducted. He smiles at me, sitting on the edge waiting for the teacher. “And who would you be, Owen?” My eyes pass over to Hayden, the more volatile of my two sons. “And what about you, Hayden?” I wonder. “Would you be leaders or followers? Would you remain good or cross the line into evil? Would you be victims or perpetrators.” I shudder at these thoughts.


I share this incident with my students the following day. “That bunch would not have made it until the end of the week if they were stuck in that pool arena with no adults.” They laugh nervously, and then they become somewhat reflective. Throughout the teaching of this book, we’ve talked at length about human nature and what human beings are capable of. Sadly, I share news articles with them–articles that I simply came across from the daily paper. No need to look very far to read what humans can do to one another. The first is about a boy in our area who was beaten by two others in the school yard and died the day after his twelfth birthday. Next, I reference the atrocity of a European woman gang raped in India while on holiday with her husband. This serves as a  parallel to the killing of the sow by the boys, a performance that is likened to a gang rape by the diction Golding uses in the scene. I tell the students how infuriated such atrocities makes me. I reiterate how literature acts as a mirror for society. And I remind them that, yes, there is evil in this world, but there is also good. We can be agents of good. And ultimately, our challenges will probably not manifest themselves on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere, but in our neighborhoods, our school yards, our streets, and yes, even the steamy poolsides of the local YMCA.

Thankfully, I remain hopeful. I believe that humankind is inherently good. And I realize that we all are all things: good AND evil, leaders AND followers, victims AND perpetrators. It is my goal as a father to teach my boys to lead when necessary, but not be afraid to follow the right kind of person;  to stand up for the Piggys of this world who are victims of cruelty; to seek enlightenment like Simon who communed with nature on the island and realized there was a higher power in all of this; and to keep the fire burning on the shore, to never give up hope or the belief in their fellow man. If they can gain all of this, I can put up with all of the fart jokes they can muster.

Swim Lessons, Take Two

High DiveI spent the afternoon at the YMCA with my sons, watching them take swimming lessons. We’ve been at this since they were babies–every winter they take lessons, and I do see the results. But, God, sitting in that steamy hot chlorine sauna known as the indoor pool, I secretly pray that neither boy wants to join a swim team. As I watched them swim, I was once again made aware of how quickly they are growing, yet still wanting me close by. Hayden, my six-year-old, even insisted I sit on the benches at the deep end, so I could watch their dives up close. I find I am one of those parents who likes to sit farther away. This prevents me from hovering–wanting to reprimand their every misstep and also alleviate the perennial fear that they will get hurt. For instance, sitting near the deep end today, I was concerned with these pole-type things that hang down from the diving blocks. How are more kids not getting stitches from those, I wondered? Plus, the farther away I sit, the easier it is to check my cell phone.

Like many parents, I have the talk in my head when at an event like swim lessons. It goes something like this: “Now make sure you actually watch them when they are in the water. They really like to know you are paying attention. Do NOT check your phone or sit there texting like a teenager.” My other voice replies, “Jesus, give him a break, he’s sitting in this steam bath getting high on chlorine. He can look at his damn phone once in a while.” “Well, you know what I mean–don’t sit there the whole time and ignore your kids.” “He’s right,” a third voice chimes in.

I really want to be present in the moment. I want to capture all of these small snapshots in my memory, so I can happily sift through the slide show in my mind for decades to come. But swim lessons are boring as hell. I make an effort, though. Like an obedient dad, I do sit on the bench Hayden summoned me to. As instruction begins, I feel my phone buzz– a text from my wife about tacos for dinner. Hayden calls from the pool, “Dad, I was first to finish the lap.” I look up from my phone–caught, “Awesome, buddy.” “Pay attention, Michael”  Voice One reprimands. “Okay,” I say–right after I check Facebook. “Dad, watch this.” Now it’s Owen, conveniently in the lane next to Hayden, beckoning me to watch him bob from the poles hanging from the diving block. “Cool,” I say, looking up from my cell. “Dad!” It’s Hayden again, confidently waving to me from the other end of the pool. I hear his voice 50 meters away, yet there I am buried in my damn phone still.

“ENOUGH!” I think all the voices in my head say this at the same time. I place my phone in my back pocket, and swear  I won’t look at it again until we are in the car.  “Enjoy this time. Watch them swim. They want you here. Be present.” And so I watch their various drills, up and back the pool length. I admire how cute their new haircuts look now slick against their skin. I watch their little heads submerge in the water and come up to the surface with new life and excitement. I marvel at how their feet kick like tiny motors. I am in the moment. Until…Until, I begin to recall my own days of swim lessons. As I watch my own six-year-old in the water, he reminds me so much of what I think I was like as a child, bad bangs and all, and my mind flashes back 37 years…

I am in Abington Senior High School. It is the weekend. I am here with my five-year-old neighbor, Greg. His brother, Jeff, is my age (6) and we are friends, but Jeff is a capable swimmer, and I am not. Even Greg seems more advanced than I.  So, here I am, one of the oldest kids in the class, which will continue to be a pattern in my remedial athletic experiences as a kid (I think I was the only boy playing T-ball who had a learner’s permit).

Greg’s mother has driven us here. She drops us off outside the school, and we make our way into the labyrinth alone. It is our first lesson, so I am quite nervous.  I think this is my first time in the public high school, and since I go to Catholic school, I am immediately fearful of what I will find inside: kids hanging out doing drugs, gang members sharpening their knives, pregnant girls searching for the fathers of their unborn children…I was quite neurotic as a child (note the past tense).

Not surprisingly, Greg and I get lost. This confusion does nothing to calm my nerves. Finally, we find our way through the maze-like hallways to the boys’ locker room. We change, and then try to find the pool. I am overcome with anxiety, which means I have to go to the bathroom….number two….pronto. I tell Greg, and he kindly tries to find one with me. With each passing second, my nervousness increases, until finally, I can take it no more. The urge overtakes me, and I go to the bathroom in my bathing suit. Number Two. Number Freakin’ Two.

I am too embarrassed to tell Greg, so like any good Christian, I lie. “I don’t have to go anymore.” (Technically not a lie, I realize as I write this.) He is none the wiser, so we make our way out to the pool. Any bathroom still eludes us, so getting rid of the evidence is not an option. Once on the pool deck, we find our instructor, who checks our names off the list. My panic comes back, as I am now confronted with what the hell I am to do with this load that is sitting in my bathing suit. I contemplate telling the instructor. Or Greg. Or anyone. But then, I look around at all of the people, and I imagine all of them laughing at me. I peer into the future, and see my nickname years down the road: Poopy Pants Trainer, Poop for short. No effing way am I saying a word.

We are told to line up at the side of the pool. We are to jump in and swim to the other side. Now, I am nervous about the fact that I stink at swimming. Thankfully, this replaces my anxiousness about what lies beneath my bathing suit. “Okay, everybody, on the count of three.” I realize I must jump in and swim with the pack. Swim close to everyone else. If the poop does fly out and surfaces to the top of the water, I want a crowd around me so I will be able to deny, deny, deny. If I am in a pool surrounded by a dozen other kids, there’s no way they can pin it on me! As the instructor commands “three” I jump in wildly. I swim to the other side with reckless abandon, making sure that other kids are within arm’s length.

We get to the other side, and so far, no sign of my package being delivered. The instructor tells us to swim back and forth so he can assess us as a group. On about the fifth lap, I finally have the courage to feel the back of my suit. Gone! GONE I tell you. There is nothing but netting. In hindsight, I may have opened up the lining so it could slip out, but I honestly don’t remember. All I know is that the evidence disappeared from my suit, and did not resurface the entire time I was there. I was so relieved. After the lesson, I say nothing to Greg. When I get home, I do not breathe a word of this to anyone. The story alone could give me a nickname for life. My brothers would have had a field day with this one. Yes, I would be keeping this to myself. I consider it the day I swam and swam, and I never looked back.

“Hey, Dad.” It’s Hayden again. Waving to me for the umpteenth time. His voice brings me back to the present moment, and this pool a few lifetimes away from the one I was just revisiting.  I smile at the recollection of my swimming lesson. The smile turns into a chuckle. I laugh at it all. The craziness of my youth. The fact that now I am the adult in charge, and these two boys want very much for me to be there on that bench watching their every move.  I love that they care so much that I am watching. I love that they feel a sense of calm and security knowing that I will be with them each step of the way, so they won’t get lost; that I am just outside the pool if they need me, for example, to take them back to the locker room so they can go number two.