By JAMES EZEILO
It’s around 8 a.m. on Wednesday, and my son Miles and I have to be at his elementary school in exactly 10 minutes—me to coordinate the weekly school-wide recycling program, him to serve as an officer in the environmental club his mother founded. I’m hustling. Miles is dragging his feet. As usual. And for the entire five-minute ride to the school, he is quiet, not offering up any conversation. All I’m getting is short, forced answers to my questions. And now I’m wondering if the kid is up to rounding up his team and sending them out to the classrooms to pick up the recycling bins. It’s a job my brilliant 10-year-old admittedly can do in his sleep. But still. I need him to snap out of it.
And then, we arrive and Miles sees his friends and, in a heartbeat, he morphs into an adolescent Jim Carrey on steroids. Every movement is animated. Every sentence is delivered with theatrical emphasis. The kid’s got a comedic timing that would make Chris Rock backslapping proud. Practically every one of his actions is meant to make his classmates laugh and play along; he is the ringleader, they fill out his captive audience. Now don’t get me wrong, the work gets done. Miles influences and motivates his peers by entertaining them, and the other children fall right in line and perform their respective tasks without fail and the project is completed on time every week.
So I guess I shouldn’t complain.
But I worry—worry that in the not-too-distant future, the kid will no longer be laughed with, but laughed at. You know, when, regardless of his brilliance, his classmates are unable or unwilling to listen to him unless there is a joke involved. Now this could lead to Miles being the next Dave Chappelle, sure. But I’m his father, and I get paid the big bucks to look at the bigger picture, and all I can see is my kid being dismissed as the goof bucket class clown.
So I decide to sit down with my oldest son and have The Talk with him about how it’s all right to be funny, but now he’s got to learn how to be “cool.” It goes a little something like this: You really don’t want to be the class clown/that guy gets no respect unless he’s acting the fool/people only pay attention to him to see what he’ll do next/the moment he tries to convey a serious thought, he’s dismissed. With a quickness. “And then the new class clown comes along and the predecessor—that would be you—becomes a part of the audience, just another kid in class,” I say, leaning in for emphasis. “Next thing you know, you’re that kid, the one who sits at the table next to Hussein, the really smart guy. Just another kid.”
Now, the thing you should know about Miles is that he has no interest in being just another kid in the class. In fact, the mere thought of it nearly brings my son, who has enjoyed 10 glorious years basking in the center of attention, to tears. The look of horror on his face lets me know I have him exactly where I want him. But just to make sure he understands the words coming out of my mouth, I push the envelope just a little bit further. I’m his father. This is what I do.
“You do remember Georgia, don’t you?” I say, leaning in, reminding him of the daughter of a family friend who attended a dinner party we threw at the house a few weeks back. Georgia is sweet, smart, pretty, and very funny, but, unlike Miles, she doesn’t have to try as hard. At the tender age of 10, she manages to engage with electrifying conversation, and the humor comes naturally. Miles, not to be outdone, used all his best tricks to upstage Georgia, and they all fell flat. He did his dance moves. Told her about his position in the environmental club. Even tried a little Mandarin on her to seal the deal. But he just couldn’t steal the spotlight away from Georgia. She totally had center stage and there was nothing he could do but fall in line and cheer her on.
For Miles, this was a fate worst than death. Mediocrity.
I’d done my job.
Introducing “Cool Miles.”
(Please note: My goal was not to kill my son’s playful, entertaining spirit—no way! His infectious laughter and willingness to do whatever he can to make others laugh are the character traits that make Miles, well—Miles. But the boy needs to learn when to be funny and when to be cool without being predictable—to his own detriment.)
After weeks of intense training and study—okay, well, not really—the moment of truth arrived. We attended a Christmas party at my brother’s home in Atlanta. There were several other kids at the party and I could see Miles gearing up to lead the laugh parade. All I kept picturing in my mind was a gang of children running around my brother’s non-child-proof, multi-million dollar home, led by my kid, Miles. I immediately sprang into action, pulling Miles to the side and telling him that this should be a “cool” night, and this was an opportunity for him to lead the group in non-destructive play and activities.
The disappointment on his face was obvious. After all, what better setting to turn on the laugh machine? The absence of immediate adult supervision granted him the power as the oldest kid to have his comical way with the lot. Parents are off in another room, out of earshot of all those ridiculously gross jokes he couldn’t tell at school, and any crying that might be caused by the occasional neck slap.
But seeing the look on my face, remembering the past weeks of “cool” tutoring and, most of all, remembering Georgia, Miles agreed to play it cool for the night.
He was great! No leading the screaming kid parade. No piling on the little children to see who farts first. He conducted games that were fun and engaging. He coordinated the movie watching time, organized all the kids and ran the DVD player. He was still funny, but also constructive and authoritative.
On the ride home I asked him what he thought of the experience. He reluctantly admitted to having a great time as a leader and an entertainer, and was surprised that all the kids listened to him even when he was not joking around. “I like being cool,” he said simply.
I have to admit that as I negotiated the car through Christmas traffic, I was a little concerned: Had I taken it too far and changed my funny guy Miles into a starch, monotone kid?
The next morning, I awoke to a crashing sound coming from my 7-year-old’s room. I could hear laughing and there wasn’t any blood, so I wasn’t too worried. But I slowly made my way up the stairs anyway, and when I turned the corner to the doorway, I saw Miles sitting on Cole’s back, tickling him—trying to make him fart.
And instantly, all my concerns disappeared. He may be a little cooler these days, but Miles will always be Miles.
The boy can’t help it.
About our MyBrownBaby contributor:
A tireless advocate of land conservation, James Ezeilo is the Program Director of Greening Youth, LLC, an organization that helps develop greenways, preserve historic landmarks, and promote grassroots environmental advocacy throughout Georgia. The father of two is also effortlessly, beautifully, awesomely cool.