Playing School

12 comments | June 28th, 2011

(submitted by Mir of WouldaCouldaShoulda.com)

A friend of mine recently lost her step-grandfather, and after reading her lovely reminiscences about him, I started thinking about mine. (My step-grandfather, that is. Not my memories of hers. That would be weird.)


I don't remember my father's father; he died of a heart attack when I was three, and I have some vague memories of phone calls and murmuring adults, but even those may not be real memories, but placeholders my brain erected where I have no genuine memories to fill the gaps. My grandmother later remarried a gruff and eccentric man by the name of Ira. Ira had never been married before, and while I don't know how old he was when my grandmother came along, I know they were both senior citizens and Ira had traveled beyond "confirmed bachelor" into "staunch curmudgeon" territory. He didn't have a lot of experience with kids. What he had experience with was vaudeville (which, I suppose, is not all that different from dealing with small children).


Nevertheless, as the only female grandchild to a grandmother who'd raised only boys, I was presented to this man as the little princess my grandmother (and I, frankly) believed me to be.

I don't know if it was just that he really loved my grandmother or if he truly found me amusing—a little of both, I suspect—but Ira and I quickly fell into a goofy lockstep. Ira knew singing and dancing and cracking jokes; I was always happy to perform for attention. Ira taught me snippets of songs and punchlines to jokes I often didn't understand, and for some inexplicable reason he would often look at me and declare, "Moo Goo!" to which I was to respond, "Gai Pan!"

What I remember most about Ira, though, was his endless willingness to play school with me. I believed I was going to be a wonderful teacher when I grew up, see, and I needed to practice. When we went to visit my grandparents I always brought workbooks and other supplies both to keep me occupied solo and to provide fodder for our school sessions. I'd get Ira to sit down at my grandmother's table and I'd give him, say, a page full of math problems.

"Now Ira, you need to do all of these problems, and then I'll grade your work."

"I don't know how to do these," he'd say, peering over his glasses at a page of addition problems.

"Just add them together," I'd say. "You can do it!"

"Well, okay," he'd say. "But I'm not sure I have enough fingers and toes for this."

I'd giggle and give him a few minutes to do his math. Then he'd give the paper to me, saying it had turned out to be pretty easy, actually, and of course the answer to every single problem was wrong. I'd sit down with him and try to "teach" him where he'd erred, and he would have some ridiculous explanation of why each wrong answer was actually totally correct. (Like, twelve plus seven was zero because in his family there had been seven kids and twelve donuts would've disappeared in an instant. Stuff like that.)

Other times, I'd give him spelling tests. He'd insert random letters in his words, or insist that cat really was spelled with a K in some countries. By the time I gave up trying to "teach" him, it was because my grandmother and I were usually too busy laughing at him to continue.

I led a pretty charmed childhood in terms of losing loved ones; by the time Ira passed away, I was 16 and his was the first loss I feel like I really experienced. I looked back on all those times he played school with me and remember laughing a lot. As an adult, I remember something else, too, though. Even though he was being silly, and even though he was bowing to whatever game I insisted he play with me, Ira treated me like I was an adult. Sure, we were playing roles. I was the teacher, he was the student. It was temporary. But he let me be in charge. He called me Missus and did what I said and listened to me.

A lot of people loved me, growing up. I'm not saying Ira was the only one. But whether it was purposeful or not, his willingness to step into that role reversal with me was incredibly empowering. I felt like I mattered in a way I didn't feel, normally. He may never have been a father, and he may have parked his clunker of a car sideways across three parking spots to "protect" it, but he was a heck of a grandfather to me.

Is there someone from your childhood who made you feel just a little more important? Do you think it was intentional or a happy accident?

Read more from the amazing Mir at the equally amazing Woulda Coulda Shoulda here: WouldaShoulda.com



  • Randi

    Posted on June 28, 2011

    Awww – how sweet – and made me tear up. My grandmother sounds like she was very similar to Ira. She took care of me a large percentage of the time and she would always make me feel special. On the way to school she would play “diner” with me (even though she worked at one of those old time countertop bars in a pharmacy and did stuff like this all the time) and would let me take her order and serve her food. Pretend food, of course. She passed a few years ago. I’ll always be grateful that she got to meet her great-grandchildren, but I miss her every single day.

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  • Pris

    Posted on June 28, 2011

    That’s what I’d call having respect for the person, despite it being a child. It’s the approach I take with the students I tutor privately, and it seems to be working well. I even practice it with babies, rather than go snuggly-woogly-poo.

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  • Tenessa

    Posted on June 28, 2011

    My Mom’s parents were fairly young when I was born considering that my mom was their third child. They still had kids at home (with my uncle being only 7 years my senior) and worked full time jobs.

    We lived in Arkansas and they in New Mexico for most of my childhood and when I was old enough to fly alone, I was allowed to spend several weeks of my summer with my NM Grandparents (at which point my aunt and uncle were grown and out of the house). Most of the days were spent at the “shop”. My Grandfather was a second generation plumber and did various types of construction work and owned his own business. My Grandmother ran the office at “the shop” and brought me to work with her. I, and usually my younger cousin, would play in the office supply closet. They had all kinds of pads of various forms and stacks of CARBON PAPER and boxes of pens. Oh, man, we had a blast creating our own office and appropriating a typewriter to use in our business. She even let us use the cash register. It was one of those older kinds with rows of buttons for differing dollar amounts and cent amounts and lever you pulled to press the numbers into the paper. It was grand.
    We played in the plumbing supply closet where there were hundreds of little drawers filled with all sizes and kinds of washers and nuts and bolts and larger bins of differing pipe sizes and we played in the attic/loft space where they kept the new, as yet unused, toilets and freestanding bathtubs. Our imaginations went wild with all these amazing places to play in this serious place of business. Some of my favorite memories of those summers and there are quite a few.

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  • Tanya

    Posted on June 28, 2011

    I have an Aunt Pat who I always thought was very lovely to look at. We only saw this family about once a year but she would single me out, put her hand on my shoulder, look me right in the eye and ask how things were going for me. And then she would listen as I told her about boys and school and friendships. She always made me feel special. . .

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  • HL

    Posted on June 28, 2011

    My Aunt Marilyn made me feel this way. She never talked at me, she always talked with me. To this day, one of the most nurturing people in my life. I’m getting a little choked up just thinking about her.

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  • dad

    Posted on June 28, 2011

    I was with Ira once on the Florida Turnpike and while paying a toll he asked the collector if he accepted tips. The reply was: “Sure!” Ira knowingly told him:
    “Buy low, sell high.”

    Somewhere in heaven, you just made a raspy voiced song and dance man smile.

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    • Mir

      Posted on June 28, 2011

      Dad, oh NO! Ha! I can totally see him doing that.

      (Hey, at least he didn’t say “moo goo!” and sit there waiting for the right answer.)

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  • Jan

    Posted on June 28, 2011

    My grandpa was the one. He let me “help” him build things, starting when I was about 3. Real things, too, like a dock at their lake house. He taught me to row a boat when I couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5. I couldn’t reach the floor, so he built me a seat with a back and a foot rest to prop my feet against. And we played this great game when we took walks where I got to run up ahead and hide behind a tree or something and he’d walk along “unsuspectingly” (whistling and looking around) and I’d pop out and “scare” the skin off of him (after he jumped, he’d put it back on, one leg at a time, then arms, then zziipppp it up the front).

    There’s a great book on the power of connecting with children through play — Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. I’m not totally aligned with his whole parenting philosophy, but there are some really great ideas in there about how to use playfulness to make connections with kids in very specific ways. Worth a read.

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  • Em

    Posted on June 28, 2011

    Ira sounds wonderful!

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  • Megan

    Posted on June 28, 2011

    Three of my grandparents died by the time I was six (and yes, my family medical history is always a BIG hit with a new doctor!) and my one surviving grandfather lived far enough away that we only saw him now and then. I do have very fond memories of the man we were told to call Grandfather – not Gramps or Grandpa – who was the highly respected dean of an Episcopalian cathedral greeting us every time with a solemn declaration that ‘you grew just enough so your feet touch the floor’ (as a very small child I worried that if I grew more I would end up wading around in several inches of earth) and then telling us his latest collection of very bad, very silly jokes.

    I also enjoyed as a teenager driving with him and my step-grandmother, she giving him an endless stream of instruction and advice, he serenely driving on, his hearing aid turned completely off. One memorable day she began complaining loudly – and longly – about how much she HATED the road he was taking, how horrible, dreadful, terrible it was, and it was her most despised road ever in the history of ever. When she drew breath for a moment he turned to my father and whispered happily, ‘she just LOVES this road.’

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  • MomCat

    Posted on June 28, 2011

    I loved this story! Ira sounds like a gem.

    Mine was my Great Grandmother. She was a tiny powerhouse who didn’t take life too seriously and would let me “help” with cooking and cleaning. She let her grand and great grandchildren be kids and didn’t fuss at us for making a mess. I believe that she passed on a little joy to everyone she met.

    When my mother went into the hospital to have my little sister, I was six and my brother and I stayed with Great Grandma. My father came to pick us up the next day and there we were, eating vanilla ice cream for breakfast. My father said, “Grandma? What’s this?” and she replied, “It’s good for them – it’s got MILK in it!”

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  • Mom101

    Posted on June 30, 2011

    My mother always said that somehow we choose the people we’re born to. Well maybe, in a way, that applies to the awesome step-people of the world. This is so lovely Mir.

    And I think I love you more now knowing you have a little Vaudeville in you.

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