My Father's Final Lesson - The Zena Sutherland Lecture

The idea of giving a lecture is kind of funky for me. So I will do what I always do, which is just tell you a story. Anyone who knows me knows I love my mama. But when I was thinking about what I wanted to talk about today, I realized I did not want to talk about her. Instead, I want to talk to you about my father, who passed away recently. Don’t worry everybody, this will not be sad, because I’m not sad.

I want to tell you the story of my father and me, and what I learned from him, which has become really helpful when I think about it all now. I didn’t understand it at the time, but now I realize there were a lot of lessons. A lot. So what I’m going to do is go from the beginning of my life to the end of his.

Photo: James J. Reddington.

My mother had a C-section, so when I was surgically removed from her womb, the doctor gave me to my dad. He was the first person I met, which was a big thing for him, his greatest boast. Perhaps it was because of this, we had an interesting bond when I was young. I have siblings, but he and I always had a fascinating connection. And it didn’t hurt that he was absolutely magnetic. A dynamic person. He possessed a little bit of everything. He was more of a street kid, a hustler from a small town who ended up making it to the big city and got himself into all kinds of trouble, while also learning how to navigate the world. He was in the military; he grew up with nine siblings. It should come as no surprise that he had all the stories.

By the time I came along, my father was so seasoned that he was a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, which made for the perfect kind of dad, right? He wasn’t like anybody else’s father, that’s for sure. He wasn’t a serious man. He wasn’t the strong, silent type. My father rode motorcycles, he was covered in tattoos, gold chains, gold bracelets. He always had a cigar, a skinny one tucked behind his ear. Or he had one in his mouth — even if it was unlit, he would just chew on it. He always wore a diamond pinky ring, and he had a deep baritone voice. During the weekdays, he would dress head to toe in beautiful suits. This was a man who served in both spaces: he could be the bad boy, but he also was this really interesting professional man. He could be both those things, effortlessly. He was the kind of man who was an absolute protector and an absolute clown at the same time. The kind of man who would wake us up in the middle of the night because he wanted us to see him do somersaults on the bed. Of course, my mother hated this. But for us, as children, we loved the fact that our father did not take himself seriously. It was like he understood what we needed to see from him, and he would go above and beyond to ensure that we did. My mother took care of us at night, she was sensible about dinner, bed, things like that. My father got us up for school every day. And the way he did this was by screaming, “Rise and shine!” He would kiss us on the forehead. He would kiss us on the cheek. He would kiss us boys, gently. He hugged us tight. He would pick out our clothes, and pack our lunches, and he’d drive me to nursery school blasting all the eighties pop jams. Hall & Oates, Tracy Chapman. All kinds of songs that were big at the time. “My Sharona.” And I would be singing my heart out in the back seat. I would be getting the words wrong, and he would be telling me that the words were right just because he thought it was funny. That was the kind of father he was.

At the same time, we all knew not to play with him. He never put his hands on us, nothing like that. But he commanded a certain kind of respect. He came from a certain environment. He had seen things, gone through things. We knew he was a tough man. Even though he was lighthearted, empathetic, sensitive, he was also a rough customer if you caught him in the wrong situation, if you threatened his family. This was the same man who, as head of a mental health clinic, would bring people who were living with different mental illnesses into our home, which was against the law, by the way. He would bring them to our home for family cookouts, so my brother and sister and I would feel comfortable with people dealing with real-life things. We knew that they were normal, but the chemicals in their brains worked differently than ours. But we could easily be just like them, if we woke up tomorrow and life wasn’t on our side. We were taught that at six or seven years old. Imagine, you’re a child at the cookout, and there is a man in front of you with schizophrenia. You are not afraid, because your father said there is no reason to fear. He is a man, he is human. He is here to eat and drink with the rest of us. Get him a hotdog and keep it moving. That’s what our dad taught us.

My father would play basketball with us. He would race us. He would ride bikes with us. He would wake us up whenever Michael Jackson would come on. Back in the day, his concerts would air on prime-time television. My father would make sure we stayed up late, or he would wake us up early. My mother was also not happy about that. We would crawl into bed with her so we could see the magic. My father understood that we needed to see magic. That magic was meaningful.

When my mother went out of town, she would make sure that we had food every single day. She knew my father was a big kid. As soon as she would walk out the door, he would say, “We are eating pizza, and McDonald’s, and Chinese food all week long.” And right before she came home, we would have to work extra hard to clean the house, because none of us wanted to get in trouble.

He was a good-time guy. I idolized him. He was everything. And everybody in my neighborhood, everybody in my friendship circle, knew it to be so. Everybody knew that he was different, and he understood how to connect with anybody from any walk of life. And I was proud of him.

* * *

One day when I was about ten, my father was outside fixing his car. My older brother and I went out there to ask him something. Asked to go somewhere or if someone could come over or if he could give us a ride. My father said, “Kids, I’m leaving.” First he said he was going to take care of his father, my grandfather, who was an aging, blind man. But eventually, it became painfully obvious that my parents were splitting up.

I never saw my parents fight. I never knew anything was going on. They always seemed so happy, you know? My father was an affectionate man. I understand what it meant to love, because I watched my parents do it for so long. And then all of a sudden, boom. It was over. My father packed his things, and he was gone. It was tough. I remember crying, and my mother coming into my room, saying, “What is the matter? You were always asleep when he came home, anyway.” But I’d always known that at least he was coming home. To make matters worse, because he was gone, and there was no man in the house, my mother decided she would take me out of public school and put me into private school. This was a tricky thing. All my friends got to go to another school. Got to wear what they wanted, got to talk how they wanted.

I asked my mother, “What are you doing to me?” and she said, “We have to make sure that we save your life, I cannot put you through what your brother went through, and your dad is not here to make sure it doesn’t happen. So we will have to put you in a uniform.” I will never forget it. You know the kind of guy I am, do you think I would be okay in a uniform? (I know I kind of wear a uniform now, but you know what I’m saying!) I gave my mother the blues, saying, I hate it here. This is all your fault. If Dad hadn’t left, then I would not have to go here. Where are my friends? I do not want to go to school. They do not understand me.

I start doing poorly in school, everything becomes a blur. But the most important part — the most tragic part — is that I hated my father. I resented him for being gone. Resented him for leaving us alone. Resented him for breaking his promise. Resented him for breaking my heart. I did not understand: how could he do that? He was my hero. We were just on the back of the motorcycle last week and now he doesn’t live here anymore?

I was struggling to understand how to put the pieces together, how to make it make sense. He would call, but I would deny the phone.

My mother would say to him, “Listen, the boys do not want to speak to you, and I cannot make them speak to you. They have to deal with it on their own time.”

He would call again. “They still do not want to speak to you. I cannot make them. They have to figure it out. We have to let them figure it out. I cannot force them to talk to you if they do not want to talk to you. They are heartbroken. I cannot make them do this. I cannot force them to speak to a person if they do not want to speak to them. Unfortunately, we have to let this play out.”

Year after year after year after year.

Eventually, I found poetry. And while my writing got stronger, and I found something I was passionate about, he wasn’t around. He didn’t know what was happening. He didn’t see my life changing. I can count on my hands and feet the number of times I’d spoken to him throughout high school. Not because he hadn’t tried, not because he hadn’t come by to see us. I just couldn’t stomach the pain.

* * *

When I was seventeen, he decided to insert himself in my life in a really aggressive way. It was my freshman year of college. He said I should join the ROTC. Of course, I didn’t want to. But he insisted, telling me how it saved his life and it would save mine. (If any of you have read All American Boys, you will recognize this.)

“You can be an officer, see the world, it will be a good path for you,” he preached. But I refused. He set up meetings with lieutenants, and I sabotaged every meeting. I would show up late, I would act like I was sleeping, I would be disrespectful. And eventually, over dinner, my father lost his cool and we got into a serious altercation. He called my mother and told her that he did not understand what was wrong, and she told him that there was nothing about me that was a soldier. “He is not an army kid, he is an artist. How could you not know?” So my father left it alone and we continued on with our years of silence. Year after year after year. When he’d call, sometimes I would answer, but I would be short. Year after year after year. Eventually, I graduated from college and moved to New York.

I knew what I wanted to do with my life. At least I thought I did. I got a book deal at twenty-one and blew my advance on sneakers and lobsters, then somehow had to figure out how to write the book I was contracted for. It came out three years later, and you know what happened? America went into recession.

Recession is an interesting word. When I was thinking about this lecture, this talk, this conversation, this story, I was thinking about that word. Recession. Root word being recede, right? To go back. To pull back, to return. But recession is also made up of the word recess. The definition of the noun version of that word is hole. So in 2008 when the recession hit, I did just that. I had no choice. I returned to the hole. And the hole was the chasm between my father and me. The question is: why? Why did I go back there? Why now? The answer is: I needed help. Real help. In ten years, I did not ask him for anything. But the recession came, and I lost my apartment. And my job. I knew my mother had nothing to offer me either, so I went back home, and I called my father. I returned to the hole. I said, “Pop, I need a job. I have never asked you for anything. I need a favor. I need this one solid. You owe it to me. Please, just give me this — I need a job.” My father got me a job as a caseworker. Working with people with all different mental illnesses and differences. Schizophrenia, bipolar mania, bipolar II, drug addiction, all walks of life. My father was the psychiatrist for all my clients. So whenever they found out I was Allen Reynolds’s son, they’d say, “Your father gave me my first job, he fed me. Looked out for me when I was going through a tough time. Gave me a couple extra bucks, gave me food. Put me in a hotel for a month.”

All that did at the time was split me in half. A part of me proud to share his DNA, and another part of me being absolutely infuriated by the fact these people had him in a way I did not. Complicated, right? But we were working in such close proximity, and we shared clients, so our lives began to overlap in a way that I could not control.

* * *

At twenty-five years old, fifteen years after he left, after my parents split, we had a conversation. We talked about everything. We talked about what had happened back then. We talked about what he wished he’d done differently. We talked about the things I could not know because I was too young. We talked about it all. We put it back together. And we kept it together. Every year after that, we would make sure we caught up at least twice a year. My siblings and I would go to his house and have crabs and beer. We would laugh and joke and talk about childhood, which was a sweet spot. I would call him when I had problems. I was an adult navigating a new world, and I often asked him what to do. What does it mean to be a man, to be thirty, how am I supposed to navigate relationships? Am I supposed to take a risk to focus on my career, how was I supposed to take care of myself? What are the mistakes that he made? We were going through it all and it was fortifying me in ways I never expected it would. It was changing me in ways I never thought it would. It was chemically rearranging who I was, my identity evolving as I am now engaging with this man, and he can see me once again, here, eye to eye. Just like he could when I was a ten-year-old. It was as if there was a recollection of our relationship in a real way. And we kept it that way — tight. For ten good years. And then, he was diagnosed with cancer.

(Again, I want to remind everybody, this is not a sad story. Do not worry.)

My father’s diagnosis was devastating news. He beat it, and it came back after a year. When it returned, the doctors told him it was aggressive, and because of where it was located they would not be able to remove it. My father was not the kind of guy to get chemo, he would rather live out his life and call it quits. “I am not interested in saving three months; if it is going to get me, just get me.” We understood, and all agreed.

Fast-forward to the last week of his life. At this point, my father was in hospice care at home. To give you context, it was December 23, my older brother and I went to see him. He was weak. But he was up, and he was good. We laughed, we joked, and in that moment I knew it was near the end because he told us that he was tired.

He said, “I am tired, so anything you need to say, just say it.”

I said, “Can you tell me stuff from when I was twenty-five? I need it fresh in my mind. I need you to remind me one more time, so that I can carry it with me for the rest of my life without you. I need to hold these things closer, tell me one more time. Let me know.”

He said, “Son, the most important thing I want you to remember is that when you live a life of service — when you give, give what you want. Give away the things you want. Not the things you do not want.”

I will repeat it so you understand: he is saying that if you’re going to give someone something, give away the thing that you actually would rather keep. Not the thing you were throwing away anyway.

I asked him why, and he said because to give something you were going to throw away is charity. But to give something you actually love is sacrifice. There is a difference. One is sympathy, one is empathy.

We talked a little bit more that day; his voice was weak. I recorded the whole thing. I could hear him trying so hard to speak, and I felt guilty for asking him to repeat himself, but I knew he wanted to say some of these things, and he knew I needed to hear them.

The next day, December 24, Christmas Eve. At this point, my father is slipping in and out of consciousness; overnight he has declined. He would wake up for a moment, but he wouldn’t say anything. He would just lie there, look left, look right. Conscious. Alive. But not living. My stepmother, the sweetest person in the world, whom I love dearly, was trying to bring some festive energy into a fractured space. So she was playing some sort of orchestral Christmas music on the radio. Which was beautiful, sounded amazing. But my dad was a rock ’n’ roll dude, a bluesman. Living on the edge. This was not what he wanted to listen to. I was sitting in the room, my older brother and I looking at each other, and looking at our father, half-asleep. And I finally said, “We have to change this. Whether he is conscious or not, he does not want to hear this. Whether he can move or not, he does not want to hear this!”

So I changed the music to the blues station, and Little Richard was on. He was singing “Lucille.” My father’s eyes opened wide. He sat up in the bed and began to sing the song. He was patting his knees, shimmying his shoulders. Laughing. All of a sudden, he was back. The next song was by B. B. King — my father was telling us where he was when he first heard the song, telling us about his life and how he loved this music, how it was burning and coursing through his bloodline. This was the kind of man he was, this is the kind of man I am.

After a while, I said, “Pop, we know you’re tired, we will go ahead and leave.”

He replied, “Don’t go yet.”

So we stayed another hour.

And after that hour, I said, again, “We want you to get some rest.”

And my father said, in the way only he could, “Don’t worry about that, son, I’m going to get a whole lot of rest real soon.”

A joke. A joke! We all burst out laughing. It’s just like my father to crack a joke about his own death. That was the last thing he ever said to me. It was a gift. He left us with a laugh. A gift for my older brother and me, which we will cherish for the rest of our lives.

* * *

Why am I telling you this story? Because when I really think about it, that is the story of our relationship with reading. Kids are in love with reading when they are young. They are in love with story. We start their lives with story! We inject it into everything they do. It is how they learn, it is how we connect. We deposit it right into their consciousness, their psyche from the beginning. The good stuff, the bad stuff. All of those stories, their own, their family’s, books, fairy tales, everything amalgamating inside their bodies. A little rock ’n’ roll. A little Christmas music. Some flute, some guitar. Right? A tough guy, and the man who kisses his kids, both. There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. (That is a story about poverty, if you ask me.)

We do this, it is a natural thing. And then all of a sudden, unbeknownst to us, something happens where the relationship fractures. And everything stops. What happens in this moment is something adults can’t blame children for, because the child has nothing to do with the relationship being fractured. The adult says, “What do you want me to do? If he doesn’t want to talk to you, he doesn’t want to talk to you. You have to sort that out on your own.” This is what we say instead of trying to find more creative ways to engage. The truth of the matter is, my parents could’ve saved me those fifteen years. I don’t hold it against them, but they could’ve figured it out. They could’ve found a creative way to do it. But they had their own pain, their own stuff. That is okay, we are only human, but think about that in context of our children’s relationship with reading. The valley comes, and we’re like, “I don’t know what to do with these boys. I don’t know why they won’t read.” There has to be a creative way to engage. Whether it is refreshing books, new authors, fresh new methods to think about reading as a whole. Whatever it takes, let’s figure that out. Because the child inherently loves it! They have just forgotten. Something has happened. There has been a chasm, something has chopped it off. But it is inherent! Story is a human thing! It literally is how we are raised! How we are reared, how we learn to walk, how we learn to use the bathroom, how we learn to tie our shoes. It is all narrative.

It is there, we just have to figure out how to not let it slide. The tricky part is, when it happens, when the actual divorce happens and the kid is left without that thing that was feeding them, the adults put the child in a uniform. It’s a natural thing. It feels safer that way, doesn’t it? Get him a uniform. Safe for the moment, but dangerous in the long run, perhaps. That uniform is stopping them from expressing themselves — who they really are. The uniform says they’re supposed to be this specific kind of kid from here on out. Thinking about that military moment with my father, you know why it didn’t work? It is the same reason that certain books don’t work when we try to give them to these kids. My father didn’t know who I was anymore. When we give these books to these kids, and they are resistant to them, they are saying, You don’t know me! This book don’t know me, you don’t know me, this author don’t know me. I can tell you don’t know me, because you keep trying to make me a soldier. You are trying to enlist me in something without ever knowing that I am an art kid, I am not that kid! But you have to get to know me.

That is what we do every day in our classrooms. In our textbooks. Don’t even get me started on the things that none of us here can control, like standardized testing. That’s what we do! “Just go into the army, it will save your life!” But I’m not made for the army, I am made for art. The reason my father and I reconnected when I was twenty-five is that then he could see me as a twenty-five-year-old and reconnect with me at that level. We have to figure out how to make sure we are connected when kids are between ten and seventeen. We have to sort that out. When my father and I built our relationship back up, it was the same thing. It restored my faith in myself, in the world, in imagination and curiosity. Think about that! My father was the one who taught me to not be afraid to try new things, because nothing could happen to you if you fail. “Nothing is actually going to happen,” he said. “Jason, what is the worst thing that will happen if you fail? What exactly are you so afraid of?” That is what we get from books! Possibility, opportunity to relive and live and try again. That is the power of reading. I could find my courage and my confidence in my father telling me. My father represents the books that I should’ve had when I was young, or the relationship with books that I should’ve had. It works the same way.

Let’s fast-forward to his dying days. Why is it important that my father says, “Kid, if there is one thing left to tell you it is to give others the things you want, and not the things you don’t want”? Why is that important? Well, it’s important because — if you are a teacher, a librarian, a writer, young folks don’t deserve second-best. I know it’s hard, I know we are exhausted. I am exhausted right now. I know. We are all tired. Zoom has been killing us. The pandemic is actually killing us. So what? If you love kids, then you sacrifice. And to sacrifice, you have to give them what you would give you. Which is the best. Can’t be no shorts. It can’t be, “I am going to teach the same thing every single semester, because I don’t have to think about it.” If you get to that point, you should probably start rethinking something. I love you, but that is just me being honest with you. Kids don’t deserve our leftovers. We gotta give a thousand percent as often as possible. I know we are only human, but if we can, we have to make sure we are giving them the best of us. The part of us you would want for your kids, by the way. They don’t deserve the crumbs.

* * *

To close, I think about that last moment when I changed the station and played the blues, and my father woke up. Came back to himself. That’s what happens when we get it right. That’s what happens when we find the right book, the right story, when we engage with our young people and realize they are not built for classical Christmas music. They might need a little blues, a little rock ’n’ roll. Even if it feels inappropriate for the season, inappropriate for the occasion. If it brings them to life, then it is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Our jobs have been done. Watching my father go through that, watching his brain turn on. Think about what that means when it comes to our work, books, stories, writing, all that. His brain is turning on, his spirit is turning on. His strength is accelerating. Think about what’s happening here! He could move his body again. He could see, and could recognize his children, his family. He could see himself, again. He could feel like himself again! Think about that! It’s an amazing thing to experience, and on top of all that, because of that music, he could even find laughter in the midst of such pain. That is what stories do when we figure out the right ones, when we do the extra work to figure out which ones are attached to our babies, fossilized and crystallized in their brains because of their own experiences and their own curiosities. We figure out how to match them up, how to tether them together — we make them whole. Or we help them stay whole.

I appreciate you all for enduring that, and I want you to know that you are looking at Allen Reynolds’s son. I am built like him, I talk like him, I move like him, I think like him, and before he died, he told me, “Don’t worry about it, kid, you will see me in the mirror.” One day I will write about him. One of these days. But I hope in this moment, his legacy gives you a bit of encouragement. Thank you all very much.

This article is adapted from his 2021 Zena Sutherland Lecture, delivered virtually on May 7, 2021. From the September/October 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Jason Reynolds

Jason Reynolds, the 2020–2021 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, is the author of Long Way Down, a 2018 Newbery, Coretta Scott King, and Printz honoree; Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, 2021 winner of Britain's CILIP Carnegie Medal; the Track series (all Dlouhy/Atheneum); When I Was the Greatest (Atheneum), for which he won the 2015 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award; and more.

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