A time I said no


Picture of a 5 Deutche Mark Coin

This is a sometimes and ongoing series of 100-word writing and conversation prompts I give as weekly homework to my students. I try to share my own answers to the prompts during class, and to write at least some of them here.

The prompt for one class last week was to write and talk about a time you said no, which was a new topic for me; when I was putting together my syllabuses in February, there was a new requirement that I list the activities for each week of classes, and so I finally decided it was time to get organized and create 30 distinct prompts, 15 for the spring semester and 15 for the fall semester. However, I had one outlier class, a 2nd year class that has the potential for students I taught in their 1st year to enroll in it, and a criticism I’ve received from those second comers in the past was that the writing prompts were the same as what they had done in their first year. The class is primarily for transfer students, who won’t have seen my 1st year writing prompts, but ‘traditional’ students particularly interested in English or who are low on credits can also enroll. I decided to take into account that student feedback and created a 3rd set of 15 writing and conversation themes, hence this new prompt that I myself hadn’t tackled before: A time you said no.

This story came drifting back to me through the fogs of time as I was going through my students’ writing, as they were telling their stories to one another.

It comes from Germany, back in the early 1980s, when we were living there, my father an army dentist stationed at Germersheim. I attended German kindergarten in town where we lived and then first and part of second grade on the army base where my father worked. It comes from an age where in my own mind fact and fiction were still intermixed, where a morning’s imagination could feel more real than an afternoon of schoolwork, not unlike the kind of world that Calvin and Hobbes depicts, and so I can’t account for the veracity of the memory, although the core of the story definitely did happen in some form.

We were visiting a castle town, and like many of the towns in Germany, there was a river running through it, not a particularly wide or deep one, but wide enough and deep enough to justify corralling it in stone and building a fence on each side of it to stop children, like me at the time, from falling in. It was built so that the fence was up on the sidewalk, where we were, then there was a short drop of a few feet or inches, a slight ledge, and then the plummet to the water below. In my mind’s eye it was quite a fall to the bottom, but I can’t imagine it really was all that far. Perhaps ten feet, while in my memory it looms at 20 feet or more.

My father has spent his life looking at the pavement in front of him, searching for coins dropped on the street, and a dutiful son, I had taken up a similar past-time. So imagine my excitement when I spotted a 5 Deutche Mark coin on the small ledge just on the other side of the fence, a short distance down. Thinking about it, it may have been my dad that pointed it out to me, but in my memory I found it and told him about it. 5 Deutche Marks was around $10, a small fortune to five or six year-old Theron.

But when I tried to grab it, it was well out of reach, and when my dad tried to get it, it was just out of reach. Then he had his Idea. It was that he would hold me upside-down on the other side of the fence so that I could grab the coin. But what if he dropped me? I protested. He got that disappointed I said something I shouldn’t have look on his face and replied he wouldn’t drop me. I retorted with but what if. He said the clock was ticking and I had to decide. I said no, and he looked disgusted and started to walk away. I felt bad I had let him down and shouted that OK, I would do it. He replied that it was too late, it was time to go. At that point I almost definitely cried, running after my father in that German castle town.

While the conversation may have been different, longer perhaps, that’s the end of the memory. Thinking about it now, he probably realized it wasn’t a very good Idea in the first place. If his wife, my mother, saw him doing that, he would be in all kinds of trouble, no matter how successful we ultimately were in getting the coin, and their relationship was rocky at the best of times.

Having a son myself puts the interaction in a new light for me. I see in my son the child I once was when he decides he wants to make breakfast for his parents and we end up with sliced ham, carrots, and cabbage on a plate, lightly pan-seared, with a dollop of mayonnaise on top. I can see in his eyes the same desire for approval that mine must have once held, the hope that I’ll say it’s the best breakfast ever. And I watch myself reacting to the actual breakfast in front of me, thinking about the indigestion that will follow if I really do eat what he’s put in front of me.

That’s another time I said no.

I’ve read Iron John. I know it’s not possible to raise a child without at some point letting them down, but knowing that and feeling the disappointment, from both ends, as the child and also as the adult father, carries with it a pain that can’t be reasoned away.