By NICK CHILES
Our world is in such a shabby state that it is a little disconcerting to imagine sending a child out into it right now. But that's exactly what we are about to do. Our little boy, now almost grown into a fine young man, is walking across the stage today to receive his high school diploma. I know it's a clichÃ© to say, but it really does not seem like 18 years since I held that wrinkled little body in my hands for the first time. But alas, the years slip by us, filled up with the joys and wages of an exuberant life.
As I'm sure many of you know all too well, successfully guiding a black boy through 18 years of an American childhood is not a simple task. The challenges are so numerous and come from so many directions that sometimes you feel like a guerrilla fighter in the jungles of America's streets and schools, sprinting for cover with your precious cargo in tow, never knowing from where and when the next round of fire will come your way. The challenges only accumulate with each year:
- keeping him away from the bad kids
- making sure his teachers understand his sometimes excessive exuberance
- trying to lure him into a love of reading
- protecting him from the teachers who are afraid of black boys
- getting him to understand that his standard of measurement isn't his sullen homies in the back of the room but the girl in the front row with her hand up to answer every question
- applauding his accomplishments on the athletic fields but trying not to let his accomplishments on the athletic fields go to his head
- making sure he continued to understand that accomplishments in the classroom were more important than the ones on the athletic fields
- the dangers of the streets
- the ugly stereotypes the world harbors of large, scowling black boys
- being safe and smart behind the wheel
- stepping out each day with a measure of kindness and grace
I found myself talking to him about the world he will face much more often over the last few months, trying to cram in as much as I can before he is gone. And while I have been neurotic over the last few years about his whereabouts at every moment, particularly when he started driving, I've also noticed that I've slowly been easing up about that in recent months. After all, in just two months he will be off to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. I had to start letting him have a bit of the freedom that will soon be his, so that he can learn how to make good decisions on his own, decisions about time management, about appropriate and inappropriate behavior, about how to treat other human beings, especially young ladies, about how he carries himself.
Of course it's not easy to let go of the neuroses, to stop watching the clock and calling him every hour to see where he is, to stop doing the occasional location checks by driving around and making sure he's not lying to me, but ultimately I had to do it for his own good and also for my own good, so that I could be confident that I was sending a child out into the world who would be able to cope with all the hell and bullsh*t that will be thrown his way.
The boy has gotten so big. At 6-1 and 275, he sometimes looks monstrous to me. He informed me last week that he just tied his high school's record in the bench press for his weight group. His arms look like two big hams attached to enormous shoulders. Since he will be playing defensive lineman at Lafayette, responsible for tossing aside blockers so that he can grab those little running backs and quarterbacks and fling them to the ground, the size makes sense. But I must admit that I DO miss the little boy, the one that I could toss onto the bed like a giggling and squealing stuffed animal, the one who used to lug around his collection of action figures in his own shoulder bag, the one who was so outgoing in our old New Jersey neighborhood that the other adults on the block started calling him the mayor.
But I think that little boy isn't totally gone. All of those little boy fragments are still in there somewhere just covered over by layers of muscle and facial hair and black boy swagger. Every once in awhile, when he's running around the house making the walls shake! playing with his little sisters, laughing and giggling about something, I still see flashes of the little boy. And it makes me smile to know that he's still in there. Hopefully he always will be.
Congratulations, my boy. Go out there and slay the world.
Nick Chiles, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of seven books, including the New York Times bestselling tome The Blueprint: A Plan for Living Above Life’s Storms co-written with gospel legend Kirk Franklin. “The Blueprint” debuted No. 15 on the New York Times Bestseller’s Hardcover Advice List this week. Nick is also a featured writer in the June 2010 issue of Essence, where he frequently writes about fatherhood and manhood.