It seems natural that in the order of things you come first, your kids come next, your grandkids after that, and so on if you live long enough to have great grandkids. In a linear world it’s the obvious way to arrange the family. Family trees go top to bottom—the old people on the top—the young people scattered below.
Living it out is different. When my kids came along I began getting the sense that they were out in front—that I was moving down the trunk and into the roots of the tree. Not when I was driving them to school, when dinner was ready or when there was chores to do. That’s when I was out in front dragging them along. In those days if I was behind them it was to edge them forward, to persuade them that they could do it. But I could feel the starting place in the chronological order of our family was the latest arrival not me, not my parents or grandparents.
When the kids were little it wasn’t so obvious but as they matured I realized that they “got” the world in a very different and much more current way than I did. What they brought to the world had a more immediate relevance. They taught me. Not in a platitudinous way but in an everyday, practical and essential way. I literally had to hustle to keep up.
This is not to say that I abandoned my role as teacher. I’m a historian and I believe that in order to go forward we need to know and understand the past. This also is not to say that I didn’t pursue my own learning. I didn’t go to university until the kids were half grown. I was in my late 30s when I got a BA. I got a Masters Degree in my 40s, almost finished another in my 50s and got a PhD when I was 61. I had and still have a lot to learn.
I’ve taught at the university for more than a decade and I still have a lot to teach. But increasingly my life has become less and less about me and more and more about the people who have come after me and who go out in front.
Like all families ours started with two, then there were four more and now there are eight more after that. Each one has access to what I bring to the table as well as what their siblings, cousins and extended family brings to the table along with their own unique contributions. It gets bigger. It gets broader. It gets better.
It’s a good thing that each new generation takes the lead and that my place is behind them edging them forward, persuading them that they can do it. Because they are pursuing things I never could have imagined; they are imagining things that are beyond my scope of possibility. And if ever we have needed new, innovative, extreme thinking it’s now. It is their minds and their energy that must lead us forward.