I first saw my daughter almost 18 years ago. The image will never leave me.
She was barely in this world, but her eyes were wide open. She peeked between nurses, around a doctor’s hand. She was, it seemed, impatient at the nine-month delay. She wanted to see the world, and she wanted to see it now.
The image of those eyes — inquisitive even in infancy — slammed me Thursday night. There was my daughter in her graduation gown, once again impatient to leave one world and to learn all she could of the next.
As a father, I know I should have been teaching my daughter in the intervening years. It didn’t work out that way. She, instead, taught me.
That wide-eyed moment when she began her life was the beginning of the education I received from my daughter, a foreword to the textbook.
My education is terribly incomplete, but as she walked across the Austin High School stage, her lessons returned to me.
She taught me to seek understanding. That is the subject at which she excels.
The pursuit of understanding, of course, is part of what gave her the right to participate in the ceremony, wide eyes showing annoyance at the pompous display, hand flicking the gold tassel that blocked her vision. Her appetite for academic knowledge is selectively voracious, consuming history and literature and music. Chemistry and math, not so much.
What she craves, though — and what she tried to pass on to me in a generational reversal — is an understanding of others. While doctors tell me it’s impossible because I was more than 18 inches from her in the delivery room, I know when our eyes met at her birth, she already was seeking an understanding of her awe-struck father.
At age 3, when she rescued an earthworm from my cruel shovel and kissed it tenderly, she was seeking both to understand it and to affirm its rightful place in the world. Her love of Disney’s Bambi turned into a horror that I would try to kill Bambi’s friends. My shotgun has not left storage since, although that could change depending on her next boyfriend.
Her empathy with animals never left her — she’s a vegetarian, except when the temptation of buffalo wings overwhelms her — but she eventually applied her quest for understanding to more complex subjects.
She would give my wife and I detailed accounts, almost psychological profiles, of her elementary classmates. What struck me was that her detailed analyses completely omitted what struck me as the preliminary observations. Black, white or Hispanic? Rich or poor? Good grades or bad?
Her eyes were still wide, but that’s not what they saw. She saw her friends’ fears or triumphs, their insecurities or strengths. She strained to see their soul, not the trappings that obstructed her dad’s cynical vision.
A child who can love earthworms and bullies alike is not well-equipped to live in this world. Survival requires a hard edge. I watched her develop it.
The first inkling that this sweet girl had the capacity for righteous anger came when two of her friends got in a middle-school tussle. One, who was white, shouted a racial epithet at the other, who was not. My daughter, neutral in the dispute until then, erupted in fury. She knew intuitively that race did not define either friend. Her wide eyes saw their character, not their color, and she was horrified at the blind cruelty of racism.
She knew and knows that stereotypes destroy understanding.
Soaked up stories
Many of her high-school friends are undocumented immigrants. She soaked up their stories, tales that usually involved a parent who overstayed a visa or sometimes entered the country in more dramatic fashion. But what she saw in those stories — what she relayed to me as we sat at the kitchen table — was the character of parents who would risk everything to find a better life for their children. She tried to understand the source of her friends’ courage as they faced prejudice and condemnation from classmates. She did not notice their hesitant English, but marveled at their proficiency in Spanish.
It was not long before the state Legislature began considering a law, which it eventually passed, targeting undocumented immigrants. She understood the legal issues. She comprehended the economic arguments. What she saw, though, was the character of the classmates that Alabama had condemned. She, a wisp of a woman, sought to protect them from the shovel that once threatened her lovely earthworm.
Quest for empathy
She has tried to teach me that prejudice — premature judgment — is evil. From childhood to Thursday’s graduation, she has been on a quest for empathy, a quest that has infected her family and friends.
Her wide-eyed innocence has not left her, but with maturity she has learned anger. Hers is not the anger of categories that comes so naturally to adults, like me, who have spent a lifetime identifying simplistic stereotypes to make sense of a complex world. She tends to reserve her fury for those who judge without understanding.
She will leave for college soon. I love her, so I hate to see her go. My education is incomplete, so I hate to see her go. Yeah, I really hate to see her go. Her combination of empathy and strength, though, is contagious. If she finds others who share her quest for understanding and her courage to demand change — and I know they are out there, wide-eyed and waiting for her — the world will improve.
So get moving, girl. Your mother and I will weep, but you have work to do.
Contact Eric Fleischauer at email@example.com.