2006.05.10 Eyeful of Silly Putty

Written by David Green.


MY SON, Ben, wasn’t too thrilled with his first day in school back in 1988. He came home from kindergarten and said it was boring. He complained that recess lasted only two minutes. He said the milk tasted like it came from a dead cow.

Things soon improved. He learned there was more to school than recess and it was only a couple of years later that he was gluing plastic ants inside his lunch box and generally enjoying himself. By then, the school routine was ingrained as a part of everyday life. He no longer wanted to bribe the recess aides with a dollar in order to stay out longer on the playground.

A few years have gone by since then—so many years that Saturday night marked the end of his formal education. It was finally time to watch him receive his fake diploma at the Breslin Center at Michigan State University.

When Ben’s landscape architecture class gathered for commencement, they were part of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources—a diverse group covering scholars in environmental economics, construction management, packaging, fisheries and wildlife, dietetics, animal science and more.

Even though there were about 550 diplomas to hand out, each student had a moment of glory when their image appeared on the big overhead screen—usually reserved for basketball players—as they shook hands with the dean and walked on across the Breslin floor.

BEN’S INFORMAL education, like everyone’s, began at home when he was a baby. I blundered through like any first-time dad. I taught him to bark long before I taught him to talk. He used to sit in his highchair in the apartment above the Observer and bark when he heard bluejays.

Within a couple of years, he had a sister to help him in his education. Much of his learning was self-taught. Here’s an exchange from 1986:

Ben: “You wanna see Rosanna? I’m putting it on her eyes, Dad.”

Me: “What are you putting on her eyes?”

Ben: “Silly Putty. She loves it.”

At six weeks of age, she probably didn’t have much say in that decision, but if she wasn’t crying, I guess she loved it. And he loved her: “I like to touch her lips. They’re soft like worms.”

Much of his education was a matter of his parents providing fractured answers to the dozens of questions such as these: Do bees have lungs? Where do deer go when they get sick? How do tongues get wet?

There was an entire class of unanswerable questions to which my response finally boiled down to a blanket reply: “It’s because of the molecular structure of the thing.”

Much of his education came through experimentation, such as when he poured water inside the vacuum cleaner (“I thought there might be fishes inside”) or when he experimented in the arts (“I drew an apple on the mirror. With spit.”)

He stumbled for a while in learning to deal with people. There was a day when he put on all of his winter layers to go outside and play in the snow, but when he learned that neither of his parents would join him, he decided to stay inside. Why? “Somebody might say ‘Hi’ to me.”

In other ways he was quick to learn interpersonal relationships, like when he poured us both a glass of “sugar juice” and then accidentally kicked mine over. His response was, “It’s a good thing that was yours.”

He learned the ways of the sports world first by playing volleyballoon in the confines of the apartment, but he switched to baseball when he had his own yard. He was smacking what he called “home-grounders” and worried that if he hit the ball too hard, it would get stuck in the air.

He later received a Mickey Mouse-endorsed golf club and went to work on a new sport. He would count his strokes, “eight, nine, twenty-ten.” Par was somewhere around forty-teen.

I CAN’T go on with this anymore. I’m running out of space, but I’m also running out of emotional stability. It doesn’t seem right that it should hurt so much to think back on good times. It’s been a wonderful 23 years, Ben, and now you’re about to leave us, heading off for your first job 1,375 miles away.

“Isn’t that an i-good-dea?” he used to ask.

I suppose it is. That’s the way life works. But aren’t you worried that someone might come up and say “Hi”?

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