I woke up on Thursday, national Take Your Child to Work Day, with a free-floating anxiety that I attributed to my plan to introduce my four-year-old son to my workplace. I’d already told my coworkers he was coming; had signed him up, in fact, for the program put on by the office. He was looking forward to seeing real fire fighters and their fire engine, so I suppressed my apprehension and buckled him into his car seat.
I’d been lecturing him for days on how to behave, to the point where I’m sure he tuned out my words and heard instead a voice like the adults on a Charlie Brown cartoon, whah whah whah whaaah. I was hoping that haranguing him to be good would pre-empt his tendency towards naughty behavior, which has lately been the norm at daycare. His daycare provider is a wonderful woman who updates me via email several times a day, and I’ve always considered that service especially nice since it gives me insight into his day while I’m at work. This last month I haven’t even wanted to open the dreaded updates anymore. She’ll start out her email with something like “Everything was fine until…” or “The kids were playing nicely until…” and then I’ll get a numbered list of paragraphs outlining my son’s infractions in excruciating detail.
As we drove into work, I briefed my son on what was expected of him, being sure to inform him that if he misbehaved I’d whisk him home so fast his head would spin (with no real intention of doing so, since it would involve actually leaving work).
He did very well for the first part of the morning. They separated the kids and took the younger ones into a conference room to do fun activities. Later, I got comments from the staff that included the descriptive terms “adorable” “entertaining” “enjoyable” and “sweet heart,” which gave me hope that the day might not end up a complete disaster.
Then thirty children trooped into the big conference room for the demonstration by the fire department. The tables were assigned by age, so my son was front and center. I stayed on the sidelines by his table since he seemed a little wound up. Because the group went in age from two to twelve years or so, the younger kids didn’t understand the terms the speaker, a fire fighter, was using. Most sat and listened anyway like good little boys and girls. My son discovered that his chair could spin and he began a series of distracting back and forth rotations. I hissed at him to knock it off, but he sensed, in the way that all children do, that I was helpless to stop him. The fire fighter was quizzing the children on Stop, Drop and Roll, a concept that I’d never presented to my son, since he’s so very interested in all things “fire and destruction” that I’m afraid to broach it in any capacity, when my son loudly announced to the room that he’d had spicy chips for snack.
Okay, that wasn’t so bad. Everyone smiled indulgently and the fire fighter went on to talk about dialing 911, another thing I’d never covered, since I’m not eager to give my son the go-ahead with the telephone. He’s a true “take a mile” kind of kid and I’m sure the very moment my back is turned we’d have emergency personnel at the door, not smiling indulgently.
Then the fire fighter asked the kids what they would do in a fire emergency if they were in their homes. One kid said “feel the door,” another said “crawl down low,” and my son, who still didn’t understand the topic, but who enjoys the spotlight and apparently felt the continuing urge to contribute to the conversation, said, in a loud, perfectly projected voice, “You take a shower! Or a bath! And you wash your BUTT!”
After a nano-second’s worth of shock, the entire adult population of the room burst out laughing, myself included. I felt my face burn in embarrassment, so much so that I broke into a sweat and my deodorant failed on the spot. Knowing how unsightly my blushes can be, especially coupled with my paroxysmal laughter, I put my hands over my face and turned towards the wall, so that I didn’t see what happened next. When I finally got control, I saw that my son was seated in a tall chair at the front of the room, facing the audience. Standing behind him with a hand on the back of the chair? The taciturn, hard-faced fire captain.
My son did not say one more word throughout the rest of the presentation, nor did he attempt to leave his chair or otherwise disturb the proceedings further. I thought maybe he’d gotten a “time out,” a concept he’s entirely familiar with, but his contented expression belied that idea. Surely his bottom lip would be sticking out about a mile if the fire captain had chastised him.
As the group of children excitedly went outside to tour the fire engine, someone told me that the captain had plucked my son out of his chair and invited him to be “Fire Fighter of the Day,” a brilliant move from one of America’s finest.
My early morning premonition had come true, but not in the way I’d anticipated. Now I have another precious memory of my precocious child, something particularly suited to share with his very first girlfriend…