My father has an uncanny ability with children.
More than once at family get-togethers I’ve heard someone refer to him as the “baby whisperer.” Dad, his silver hair slicked back and a bemused smile on his face generally doesn’t even hear the compliment, absorbed as he is in playing legos, wiping slobber, or murmuring some clever incantation to a screaming child that instantly converts even the most irritating of blubbering brats into a cooing bundles of joy.
“I don’t get how you do it,” I told him, watching him on a float trip as he settled his howling two year old grandson into a nap. On a raft. In the middle a the river. During a one-hundred degree heat wave.
Dad neatly flipped the baby into the crook of his arm, covered him in a blanket and patted the bottom of my nephew’s feet. Instantly, the screaming stopped. Had it been anyone else, I would have assumed that he had killed the baby with heat stroke. Since it was my father, however, I just figured he possessed the supernatural ability to keep his pasty-white grandkids cool, even when they’re wrapped in a blanket on the middle of a Midwestern river in July.
“That,” I gestured at the now still body of my slumbering nephew. “That whole baby-whispering thing.”
Dad looked at the blanket in his arms. “You just have to love them,” he said in his syrupy-sweet grandpa voice. “You just have to love their little hearts.”
I, in response, threw up a little bit in my mouth.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of my nephew. He’s related to me, for starters. Always a win. He’s also an obnoxious little imp with a knack for driving his own father right to the edge of sanity. Watching my little brother crack? Also a win.
Small children in general?
Oh hell, no.
Which is why I’ve intentionally left the teaching of the little boogers to others. People with warmer hearts, better understanding, and a mystifying ability to deal with snot, shoelaces, and tears. Thanks for doing your job. If you need me, I’ll be…somewhere children aren’t. Even in my free time. Especially in my free time.
Like halfway up the largest sand dune in a national park, gasping for breath, covered in sunscreen and sweat, but well above the flatland creek crawling with families and small children.
“Friggin’ idiots,” says my hiking partner.
“Huh?” I glance up at him, while trying not to roll off the edge of a sand dune into the pit below.
“Those kids. They’re being friggin’ idiots,” he says. I look ahead. A group of four teenagers, three boys, one girl, is about a hundred yards above us on the climb and making a racket that we can easily hear below.
“Awwwwww yeah, my nigga! That’s right! That’s how we do it, bitches!” The glowingly white boy dropping the N-bomb skids halfway down a dune on his heels, sandboarding, so to speak, without a board.
“Idiot,” my partner repeats. “Who does that white boy think he is, using language like that?”
I shrug. “He’s fifteen years old, at the most. He’s just trying on personas. Strutting his feathers. Trying to impress that girl that’s with him.”
As if to prove my point, the three boys motion the one girl onto an inner tube they’re using to slide down the dunes, then lift her over their shoulders and carry her up the hill.
“F–k yeah, that’s right!” struts the particularly obnoxious one.
“I hate kids,” said my hiking partner.
“Those…” I motion up the hill, “…are not kids. Those are entirely different creatures.”
One of the creatures suddenly launches a plastic water bottle over his head and down the nearest dune where it rolls to a stop, ignored by its previous owners, who continue their girl-impressing climb.
“Oh my god! They’re blatantly trashing a national park! I sure as hell hope we don’t cross paths with them, those friggin…” my partner sputters. I sigh. Inevitably,within five minutes we’re on top of the adolescent herd.
“Dammit…I’ve got a mind to…”
“Keep your mouth shut,” I tell my partner. “You’ll only make it worse.”
We reach the peak of the dune where the pack sits, catching a breather.
“Hi!” They greet us amiably. “Wazzup?”
“Not much,” I respond. “Except that I just saw one of your punk-asses toss a water bottle down the sand dune, so I’ve got five bucks for the first person who…”
Before the words are out of my mouth two of the three boys are flying down the hill.
“Good lord!” I say with mock surprise to the two teens left with us. “I figured I could bribe one of you punks into picking up your trash, but they are hauling ass! Don’t they know it’s too flippin’ hot out here to run like that?”
The one teen boy on the hill grins sheepishly. “Well, actually, it’s not even their trash…I was the one who threw it.”
“Ah…” I cock an eyebrow and regard him skeptically. “So you’re the little snot who just goes around littering up people’s national parks. You do have that ‘I’m a little shit’ look about you.”
The kid grins. “I knoooooow. Whatever. I was just hot and frustrated…and…”
“No worries,” I tell him. “Your friends are saving your ass. Good thing for you, or I’d have to kick it. But…” I glance at the teenage girl standing with us. “I get it. If I were hiking with a good looking girl, I’d want to impress her, too.”
The boy’s face turns three shades of red.
“Oh no,” he says in what may be the sincerest tone of voice I’ve heard, ever. “She’s my neighbor and she’s four years old than me. She’s way out of my league.”
The other two boys come puffing and sweating their way back up the hill.
“Hey, lady,” the more red-faced of them shouts “You better have those five bucks!”
“Of course,” I fish the money out of my wallet and hand it to him. “Thanks guys,” I tuck the blazing-hot water bottle into my backpack. “Have a good hike. And if I see you throw another piece of trash into this beautiful park, I’ll kill you.”
“No ma’am,” says the culprit. We like it here, too. We’re just out to do a little sandboarding.”
“Cool beans,” I tell him. “Don’t break your face.” And my partner and I are off. We hike quietly for a few steps, then he stops and looks at me curiously.
“How’d you do that?”
“That. You just walked up to them, insulted them, cursed a blue streak and they did exactly what you asked.”
I think back to eleven years in the classroom.
“You just have to love them,” I smile up at him. “You just have to love their little hearts.”
As we head back down the hill, I can hear my partner gagging.