Yesterday, I drove to the job that my dad retired from last year. I took all the same turns that he did for so many years. I passed the gas station where he would fill up his tank and the diner that my dad would stop at for a breakfast sandwich and a coffee on his way to work.
I buzzed at the gate to get in and heard the gate lock behind me as I buzzed the next door, I traded in my car keys for a key tag, and signed the guestbook feeling all the weight that comes in sharing his last name there. My father taught at a maximum secure juvenile prison and yesterday they dedicated the college program he started to him, naming it The James J LeCain School of Liberal Arts.
When Jim, and his friend Marcia, told me last week that I should speak at the dedication ceremony, I told my dad no, I explained that it was too much pressure. I told him that I didn’t mind to speak publicly, but how could I write a speech that conveyed all the emotion I wanted to convey about my dad in a week? How could I tell a room full of strangers how much my dad means to me? He told me not to write about him, to write about education and what it means to him. I told him no.
But, something funny happened. Everyday as I would drive home from the hospital, I would practice that speech I refused to deliver in my car. I hadn’t written anything down yet, but everyday I would practice a new section; I would recite it over and over again until, one night I pulled into the driveway, ran through the backdoor and grabbed my laptop knowing that my speech was ready, that I could finally write it down.
Yesterday, as I practiced one last time, the speech that I had memorized before I even wrote, my uncles, my aunt, my cousin, and her newborn baby pulled into the driveway. I realized as I looked at them in the crowd of faces of people who respected my dad, that as much as I’ve lost in the past year, I’ve gained something I didn’t really have before, family.
You see, on the drive to the prison I wasn’t alone, I followed my uncle’s truck, who followed my aunt’s sedan, who followed my mom in my father’s Lincoln, and my cousin followed me. The doors didn’t lock behind just me, they locked behind us, and there we stood a united front. After the ceremony, we sat at a plastic table with plastic chairs and ate cookies, and pasta, and curried chicken, and even though we were in a prison, we sat in my dad’s classroom, as a family, and something about it felt like home.
This is the speech I wrote for my dad:
I know that most of you know my father, Jim LeCain, as a teacher, and I wanted to tell you that we already have something in common, because I do too. My dad was my teacher. Of course, he taught me life lessons, to measure twice cut once, that a job worth doing is worth doing well, but literally when we first moved to upstate New York he substituted at my elementary school; he was my gym coach, and taught my music class before ending up here, where he was supposed to be.
I think about everything he taught me and everything he continues to teach me.
I can remember sitting in a 9th grade science classroom, with a teacher who seemed to be pushing a very far left agenda, and my father, although I closely mirrored his political opinions at the time, encouraged me to ask questions, to think for myself, and to be steadfast when someone thought that I couldn’t have an opinion or shouldn’t have one. I took a book from his collection: Lies My Teacher Told Me and sat front and center in that class every single day, and when that teacher stopped calling on me, stopped noticing my hand was raised, or when I disagreed with what my teacher said, I would hold that book up under my nose. Lies my teachers told me.
I had an art teacher once, who challenged us to paint something political, I chose to paint multiple paintings, one about voter’s rights, one about affirmative action, and one my opinion on the economy, what can I say? What Jim talked about in class, we talked about over the dinner table.
In my 12th grade history class, my teacher asked, “Can anyone here name the first two political parties?” I listened as people said things like liberal and conservative, democrat and republican, left and right, and then when the room was quiet and the teacher smiled thinking he had won, I shouted out, “the federalists and anti-federalists” half bored by his question. He asked me, how on Earth could I know that. Silly question – “my father is a Constitutional scholar” I retorted.
But he is so much more than that.
If I am anything, I am my father’s daughter; I have to admit, sheepishly, it made me somewhat jealous when my father would refer to his students as “my kids,” but after years of reflection and growing up a bit I’ve come to the absolute realization based on hundreds of Father’s Day cards that my father wasn’t just my dad, or the father to my brothers, but the father figure of countless students who’ve walked through these doors and in honor of my father I have realized that the students here needed him more than I ever did.
Thank you for bestowing this honor to my, or should I say our – father – founder of the Brookwood College Program.