We’re on our way from Tyson’s kindergarten – were he was deposited with a hug and a kiss and without fuss – towards Archie and Lewis’s school, and our mood is a joyous one thanks to the boppy rhythm of the epic tune Right On Track.
…Influencing What People Talk About in Cars
Lewis is nodding along, Archie is staring straight ahead and Maki is thrashing his arms and legs Flash Dance style while informing me – several times already – that I have a smelly butt.
When Archie suddenly says, ‘Dad, did you ever worry about bullies when you were a kid?’ I am forced to relegate the 80s classic to a background beat which is not only disappointing but is also a kind of blasphemy which I will only ever engage in if the needs of my family demand it.
‘Turn it back up, Dad,’ Lewis yells, in such an exasperated fashion that it makes me feel proud.
‘I did worry about bullies Arch,’ I say. ‘When I started at a new school, in grade three, I got picked on a fair bit. There was this other kid there George, who was Greek and didn’t speak much English, who got picked on a bit as well. We used to walk around together during playtime trying to avoid the bullies. I got pushed over and called names. Once I saw two kids tear up all George’s homework while he was waiting for his Mum to pick him up. It wasn’t very nice. I went home from school a few times crying… how about you Arch?’
‘I just used to make them think I didn’t care,’ he says.
‘How did you that?’
‘I’d say I don’t care,’ he says, with a shrug.
Maki points at me like he’s never seen me before. ‘Daddy got a smelly butt!’
‘I’d just punch them in the face,’ Lewis says, fake karate-chopping the back of the seat in front of him and screaming hey-yah before catching my eye in the mirror and shaking his head in utter disbelief. ‘Can you pleeease turn the music up Dad?’
Right On Track finished minutes ago but I can now hear The Psychedelic Furs singing Love My Way and the volume button becomes an almost irresistible force promising the kind of mood-magic that follows Reservoir Mum’s wink and a nod towards the marital bedroom. Somehow I resist and stay focused. ‘You never try to solve violence with violence Lewy,’ I say. ‘Unless there is absolutely no other option… like when you have to protect yourself from getting hurt… but most of the time other options are there…’
‘Yesterday, me and Aiden and Christopher were trying to scare a pigeon off the roof at school,’ Archie interrupts. ‘And then a kid from grade six came up to us and said, “If you try to scare my Dad’s pigeon again I’ll kill you.”’
‘How was it his Dad’s pigeon?’
‘He said his Dad let it out every morning and that it flew to the school and then flew back again.’
‘Hmm,’ I say, channelling an episode of The Mentalist. ‘Do you believe that?’
‘I dunno,’ Archie shrugs.
‘Smelly! Butt! Daddy!’
‘You know what you should do in situations like that Arch?’
‘Think of something a little unusual. Say something a little weird. You could have said, “Oh sorry. My Dad has a chicken which is scared of pigeons. He used to let it out every morning and it would fly to the school and then fly back again. But now it just stays in the cage plucking its own feathers out. You might want to inform YOUR Dad about that so that he can fit a muzzle to his heathen pigeon.’ Archie raises an eyebrow and smirks in a way that communicates the thought How is this guy MY Dad? but in a way that feels encouraging, endearing. ‘Then he’d probably be in the car with his Dad later saying, “This boy in grade four said his Dad has a chicken which flies to the school every morning” and his Dad would say, “Hmmm, do you believe that” like The Mentalist…’
‘What’s the Mentalist?’ he asks.
‘Ah, doesn’t matter. But it’s pretty cool to think you can influence what people talk about in cars, isn’t it?’
There’s that look again and here comes the school up ahead and as I think forward to the next point of the morning run – Family Day Care for Maki – a lingering concern brings me back to something Archie said earlier.
‘Hey Arch. You never told me there were bullies at school when you were younger. Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I dunno,’ Archie says.
‘I thought you’d tell me something like that. Why didn’t you?’
Archie shrugs and then says, ‘Because there were no bullies.’
‘Oh,’ I say, looking at his still youthful face and noting the smile and what appears to be a twinkle in his eyes but a little concerned and wondering…
‘If you ever see someone being bullied just tell a teacher right away, okay? Bullying can make some kids feel really really terrible, so that they can’t be themselves and can’t concentrate in class and are too scared to go outside at playtime. And telling a teacher can even help the bully. Some kids bully other kids because they’re not very happy themselves. There might be something bad happening in their life or they might just need some help… so if you tell a teacher you’ll be helping the kid who’s being bullied and the bully and then we can all hold hands and be happy together, like we’re eating lolly-pops and dancing across the tops of rainbows…’
‘Nah,’ Lewis says, as we pull up in front of the school. ‘Because we’re not in the sky.’
The boys scramble over the seats and exit the passenger side door and wave goodbye before charging the school grounds and as I turn my gaze from the dozen or more pigeons on the school roof I notice that both Archie and Lewis look bigger right now, taller and stronger than I’ve ever seen them, but it doesn’t make me feel any more secure. Right now, their growth is a like a distant flare above the ocean, warning me that the time is passing by. I’m losing my ability to protect them.
On the way to Family Day Care I’m over-emphasising my fake laugh and making clown-like faces of surprise as Maki continues to rearrange those same five words. I’m cherishing the outrageousness in his laughter and celebrating this time of his life – how much influence I have over him – but feeling a little guilty about taking this one child-free day a week to do my work .
I finally succumb to the lure of the volume control when I hear Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat and Maki’s thrashing his arms and legs again and it’s hard to stop myself from looking over my shoulder to watch him because he’s hilarious but also because he’s been instrumental in planning my itinerary for the next six hours, before it’s time to take to the Tarago again for school-pick up.
No matter what I do, a shower and a butt clean must come first.