Dan and I enter Hoboken’s well known club where R.E.M. and Nirvana once played and where Bruce Springsteen filmed parts of his Glory Days video. We choose a spot on a set of stairs by the far wall, away from the speakers so the loud music won’t disturb Dan’s guide dog. A crowd forms and I stand on the top step for an unobstructed view of the band. As the guitarists tune up, I focus my attention on the cute blond drummer settling into his seat at the back of the stage.
“He looks great,” I tell Dan.
“Proud mama,” he says, giving my hand a squeeze.
Ethan and his middle school rock band have been practicing for months. The performance, originally scheduled to be part of a school assembly, somehow evolved into this solo gig. It’s a weekday afternoon and the audience consists of teachers, classmates, and families. Still, the significance of the historic venue isn’t lost on any of us.
“We’re playing About a Girl on a stage where Kurt Cobain once stood,” Ethan told us through a mouthful of bagel this morning.
My friend Lynne walks in, letting a moment of startling daylight into the dark room.
“I’m so glad you came!”
She shakes her head. “I’m surprised I made it.”
“Not so much me. Nate. You know what it’s like to have a kid who can rub teachers the wrong way. He tries to do something right and just gets shot down.”
I nod at the all too familiar scenario. As a teacher in his school, Lynne knows how Ethan’s struggles in the classroom mirror those of her own teenage son. Ethan does his work and his grades are good, but he’s impulsive. Around his friends he can get loud and silly, often at the wrong times. Teachers who genuinely like Ethan, and grasp his humor, are usually good at helping him temper it. But those with little tolerance for disruptions have a hard time with him. This is the case with one of his current teachers, and her impatience brings out the worst in him. It’s as though he’s compelled to prove her right about him. Now, when anyone in the class acts up, she’s quick to assume Ethan is the culprit.
His dad and I have heated arguments about the causes and cures of Ethan’s behavior. Richard talks about exploring medications but I’m strongly opposed. I know Ethan is capable of reigning in his impetuousness because I’ve seen it. He just has to work harder, and be reminded more often than other kids.
Recently, shortly after a difficult parent/teacher conference, Richard stunned me by blaming Ethan’s troubles on my long-distance relationship with Dan. I had emailed him with a scheduling question and he shot back a scathing message:
He needs to know you’re there for him even when he’s officially with me for the weekend. How can he count on you when you’re off in Philadelphia playing with your boyfriend?
After a long cry I composed my reply. First, I named all the ways I’m present for Ethan as his weekday parent. Then I pointed out that Ethan has his own deep relationship not just with Dan but with his family, reminding Richard that he spends most holidays in Pennsylvania. I described how Ethan taught himself Braille to make a Christmas card for Dan. As for counting on me, I wrote, Ethan has called me at Dan’s countless times in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep.
While I know everything I wrote is true, I feel a twinge of self-doubt. My life is a juggling act, and Ethan must sense that. Painfully I recall the one time in the early days of my commuter romance when I woke up in Philadelphia realizing I’d neglected to arrange for someone to pick him up from school later that afternoon.
That was a long time ago, I remind myself. Still, whenever a teacher reports something negative about Ethan, my first thought is, What am I doing wrong? Now that my ex-husband took it upon himself to answer that question, part of me wonders, Is he right about me?
“You okay?” Dan asks as the kids’ music teacher comes to the stage to introduce the band.
I take a breath. “I’m fine.”
The band opens with Metallica and the moment the first note is struck, I’m enthralled. Even as the room throbs with the coarse sound of heavy metal I can hear how good they are — vibrant and cohesive. They move on to the haunting intro to Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall and Ethan’s playing is soft and steady as it builds towards the chorus. Hearing this anthem of my high school years — We don’t need no education/We don’t need no thought control — I’m reminded that a little rebellion and misbehavior is actually age appropriate and healthy. Maybe I haven’t damaged my kid so badly after all.
“He’s good,” Dan says and it’s true. Ethan plays with confidence and control.
I’m sure some people expected a lot of raucous banging out of Ethan. But he’s grown into a real musician. I’m glad he has this chance to show what he can do.
Up ahead, Richard leans again a pole, grinning proudly. I know Ethan’s really happy that he’s here. As hard as it can sometimes be to co-parent with him, I also know how deeply he loves Ethan. He probably has moments when he questions how he’s doing as a father. But right now, we both get to marvel at this remarkable person who emerged out of our failings and best intentions.
“That’s my boy,” I reply.