David L. James’s “Lessons”

Parents, this one is for you.

“Father and Children” by Lautir
by David L. James

     "Is there anyone among you who,
     if your child asks for a fish, will give
     a snake instead of a fish? Or if the
     the child asks for an egg, will give
     a scorpion?"
          Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11
She asks for pop, I pour cold water.
He asks for Kool-Aid, I pour cold water.
She asks for toys, I buy gum.
He asks for the hammer, I tell him to look for it.
Asks for chocolate, I peel an orange.
Asks for money, I dish out chores.
They ask for help, I give them help.
She asks for ice cream, I fix lunch.
He asks for a sip of beer, I pour cold water.
Asks for understanding, I offer advice.
Asks for more time, I give excuses.
They ask for a later curfew, I say no.
She asks for a swimming pool, I take her 
to the beach.
He asks for it big time, I give it to him big time.
They ask and ask, I give and give.
So when they finally ask for answers,
I give them love.
When they ask for their freedom,
I give them love.
And when they ask for love,
I give them

~ from Poetry East: Origins (Numbers 98 & 99, 
Spring 2020)
“Reach for the Stars,” by Jenn Norton


I was quite moved by this poem even though I’m not a parent. Perhaps it’s because I was fortunate enough to have been lovingly parented, and now, with the wisdom of age, I can better appreciate the perplexing challenges my parents must have faced.

They did give me everything they possibly could with what they had, in light of what they knew at any given time.

The poet himself confessed:

As a father of three, I know I have failed my children in many ways. There’s no guidebook to read, no list of rules to follow, no set amount of prayers to say that will guarantee their future success and happiness. Parenthood is a crapshoot; we roll the dice and hope for the best. As parents, we stumble and plod along, trying to find the correct answers, trying to do the least harm, trying to shed some light in this big old world of darkness.

Granted, parenting is tough in the best of times, but what about during a pandemic? This poem got me thinking of how parents are struggling to cope with this new normal of working remotely, with virtual or hybrid learning for their kids, arranging for childcare if they work outside the home, juggling the usual dozens of other things — all while trying to maintain a somewhat steady routine and foster family harmony.

There’s also dealing with the stress, anxiety, and immense fatigue accompanying unprecedented demands, the huge challenge of simply staying sane one day at a time.

“Reading Together” by Jessie Rasche

My heart especially goes out to teachers who are also parents: how do you manage to teach your virtual classes with your own kids trying to learn remotely in the next room? Wow. Teachers, who have always been superheroes, are the new masters of learn-as-you-go, fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants improvisation and innovation. Make it work, keep the wheels turning, trial by error.

What was once unfathomable has become reality.

As the poem suggests, an important part of parenting is deciding what to give and not give, and being there to provide answers. And as kids grow older, their questions become more complicated, more consequential.

Art by Phoebe Wahl

With the pandemic, some of these difficult questions are being asked well before children have the mental and emotional skills to process the answers. These hard questions should never even have to occur in the minds of young people, while parents realize they simply do not have the answers.

What do you say, how do you make them understand when they ask and ask: Why can’t I go to school? How long must I stay home? Why can’t I see or play with my friends? What am I missing? Will school ever be the same again? Is the pandemic forever? Who will take care of me if you get sick or die? Are you going to die?

In this time of uncertainty, these questions can be devastating. Now, in addition to all the traditional roles parents fill as caregiver, provider, teacher/tutor, comforter, protector, and counselor, they find themselves having to be seer, sage, wizard, pioneers navigating uncharted territory.

And I think of the anguish of those who are unemployed and are struggling to feed their kids, healthcare workers on grueling 14-hour shifts who hardly see their families, or parents who have had to quit their jobs to homeschool.

“The Night Kitchen” by Catherine Nolin

I know mothers and fathers are finding many new and creative ways to answer their children with love — a unique brand of love that tempers grief and fear with reassurance and hope.

If this pandemic has taught anyone anything, it may be to show how parents have unselfishly given all of themselves and more for their children, however painful, however difficult, however self sacrificing. Not easy to do, when worry rules, the obstacles seem insurmountable, terror and dread are your constant companions, when you’ve been rattled to the core.

Circling back to James’s poem, perhaps the greatest lesson for humanity is that when it comes to parents and kids, love always was, and will forever be, everything.


The lovely, talented, and forever young birthday girl Mary Lee Hahn is hosting the Roundup at A Year of Reading. Be sure to wish her a Happy Birthday, then check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere this week. Enjoy your weekend!


♥️ Special thanks to dear poetry friend Andrea Potos for sending me a copy of Poetry East, “Origins,” (Numbers 98 & 99, Spring 2020), in which “Lessons” by David L. James appears. 🙂

*Copyright © 2020 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

35 thoughts on “David L. James’s “Lessons”

  1. Hold on, are you reading my mind, Jama? I can’t tell you how many days and (sleepless) nights I have thought about, spoken of and lived so many things you’ve touched on in this post. Both my girls (ages 17 and 23) are having a REALLY tough time with this pandemic for totally different reasons. Unfortunately, parenting doesn’t get easier as they get older. As James confesses, “parenthood is a crapshoot”, but at the end of every day, I do what all parents do, give my girls love in all its forms. 🙂


    1. Such a worrisome time but there is light at the end of the tunnel — new leadership in January and vaccines! Sorry to hear about your daughters’ struggles and challenges. That they have loving, well-intentioned parents makes a huge difference. I imagine there are households where the kids are adapting better than the adults . . .hugs to all of you.


  2. You’ve touched my heart today, Jama. I worry daily about those in terrible need and more seems to be on its way at the end of this month. When Imogene went back to school (only as it turned out for a week), she learned that I could no longer see her & Ingrid, and why. She was so worried that she would get sick, and they worked on a REAL plan to help her know that she would be taken care of. Now, after those weeks, we’re back together, but worry for a young child is terrible for parents to bear, and for those trying to make it through with so many other needs, I am in awe of their strength, and as your poem emphasized – love. Thank you for this poem, the national heartbeat!


    1. My heart goes out to Imogene — the worst is for children to worry like that, and for parents to try to figure out how to help and comfort them. Glad you’re able to be with the girls again. Times will get better, there is definitely hope on the horizon, and kids are resilient in some ways, but as you said, there are so many who are suffering and struggling with issues we can’t even imagine.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Linda and Jama, this makes me think of when one of my daughters was very young and suffering from some anxiety. We consulted a marvelous therapist who helped us with a strategy that we used for years (and it actually still helps me.) 🙂 We drew three columns on a piece of paper for our daughter and we could fill in her worries under the appropriate column: Hers, Mommy and Daddy’s, or God’s/the Universe’s. The things in her worry column were things like, “The chocolate or the strawberry ice cream?” or, “What should I get my friend for her birthday?” Bigger worries and decisions went under Mommy and Daddy’s column and then she knew she didn’t have to spend time on them. And of course, some things went in column 3 (oh, those big unknowns….) It’s obviously not a perfect system and it doesn’t relieve all worry and anxiety, but it was a concrete way to help our sweet, sensitive girl.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Jama, this is a stunning post! It really lands on the truths about parenting. The poem, with the opening detail, “She asks for pop, I pour cold water” says so much. This is one I will save and share. I think every day about parents with small children during this time. Thank you so much.


    1. Yes, I feel for parents and teachers, worry about how they are managing. It is sad to hear about increased rates of depression in teens and behavioral problems in younger school-age children who are falling behind through no fault of their own.


  4. Excellent and sensitive post. Jama, taking a breath in from reading it. How hard, difficult, and emotionally painful this time is for so many. Especially young adults and parents living together, we’re dealing with that now. And so many that have lost so much, lives, jobs, homes. Thanks for the spot on poem, your thoughts, and the lovely images sprinkled throughout.


    1. It sounds doubly challenging with young adults, since they already have some semblance of independence and certain freedoms that are hard to dial back. Different mindset when you’re that age, esp. for those who thrive on constant social interaction.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The unpredictability is likely the hardest part. Most can adapt to a new routine, but when districts change from in-person to hybrid to totally remote and back again (sometimes at the drop of a hat), it must drive them crazy. There’s also the agonizing decision of whether to send your kids to school when you’re offered an option. Take the risk or not? Feel guilty if they get sick or infect a teacher? The consequences are so weighty . . .


  5. Jama, this is so beautiful and moving — both the poem and your compassionate reflections. Such anxious times for all of us. My daughters are grown but one is a librarian and one is a 4th-grade teacher, and they are both physically at work, interacting with others on a regular basis, so that’s not always easy. With Atticus teaching in a fully populated school, too, we can’t help but wonder when Covid might hit our house. Thank you for these loving thoughts today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see why there would be constant worry about someone in your family getting infected at some point. You often hear about people “who did everything right,” hardly left the house, etc., but still managed to get sick. And both your daughters and Atticus working outside the home? Will pray for their good health and well being, and yours of course, too. xo


  6. Oh Jama, you are asking all the right questions…and the answers are being worked out one by one, minute by minute. It is hard. ‘Lessons’ gets to the heart of it. What is best for kids? Something they want or, something we think they need? The balancing act is constant. I always feel like I”m taking a quiz as a parent. As a teacher, I see the strain of the pandemic on the dwindling interest for learning. I look forward to new leadership that gives us all a feeling of a fresh start.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Doubly hard on people like you, a teacher and a parent. But as you said, minute by minute, day by day, is probably the only way to cope. The situation is fluid and if nothing else, we’ve all been taught to be flexible during this health crisis. I am optimistic about a fresh start, too, though we have to get through what everyone is predicting will be a dire winter first. Stay safe and well, and thank you for all you’re doing for your students and family!


  7. Jama, I really enjoyed reading this poem by David L James- a poet whom I have no previous knowledge. When I lived in the US I recall newsreader Lester Holt sharing some advice his father had given him- ‘Give your children all of what they need, some of what they want, and the desire to strive for the rest.’ Those words have stayed with me. The poem spoke to me as a parent, grandparent and educator. It resonated strongly. Thank you for the important reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Jama, thank you for this amazing post. This line touched me. “What was once unfathomable has become reality.” The pandemic has perpetrated our hearts and living space, making the role of parenting and teaching even harder than it is. While this thought is difficult, the essence of love gets us through the toughest times. The poem, thoughts, and photos bring me back to my childhood that was also difficult but the love of family and some amazing teachers helped me navigate through life. Your sensitivity and beautiful way with words and images pieced together a post that is worthy of attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful words, Carol. Love does indeed seem to be the key — and the beautiful thing is that love can expressed in so many different ways. Good to hear your family and wonderful teachers helped you navigate challenging times.


  9. So much truth in this poem. I’m struck by the repetition of the giving of “cold water.” That seems like a reminder that “NO” can be served up in a healthy, even refreshing way.

    Happy retirement to Len! Hope your Zoom party was loads of fun! (Mine was!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like your interpretation of the poet’s use of cold water — it really is a good way to say “no”! The coldness is sobering, yet water is elemental, life sustaining.

      Sorry to have missed the fun last night. Enjoyed Buffy’s pics — a bevy of beautiful faces!! Since you are so special, I propose you celebrate for at least another week (Paddington approves, as he has two birthdays each year).


  10. Love is indeed the bridge that spans between all those wants and needs, going in both directions between parent and child. This poem was lovely and thought-provoking Jama.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Such a rich post. Love the images. Love the poem. I am watching my daughters parent and while they are only just starting, I find myself trying to remember what we did. It’s a crapshoot, for sure. I think we were blessed with some sense of stability with their schooling. I don’t know how parents are doing it today. Some are doing fine. Others, well, I’m dealing with one who isn’t doing so great. (One of my students) But she wasn’t doing well before the pandemic. I think it’s the sort of thing that brings out the worst. The marginalized. The ones already struggling with poverty. And so on. It’s all too much to think about. I admire how you tackled this topic with such warmth and grace.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing about your student — and sorry to hear she’s struggling even more since the pandemic. You’re right — it’s overwhelming trying to imagine the degree of hardship people are going through right now, for a variety of reasons. As you mentioned, the stability of a regular school schedule is something we all took for granted before.


  12. So much wrapped up in that poem- so many feelings. The author is unfortunately right about there being no guide book, but we do our best and hope for the best, even when it’s the hardest- like during a pandemic. My kiddos are grown, and my job is not so tough at the moment, but I’ve seen so many incredible parents rise to the occasion, and they have my undying respect.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I love this entire post, Jama. I haven’ t read this poem before, but I can certainly relate to it and to everything you wrote. It’s such a difficult time for parents and children. Being a parent is always tough, but the pandemic has really hit many families hard. Thank you for using your blog to remind us of the struggles so many are facing. xo


    1. Hopefully with the new administration, families and teachers and everyone — will get a break from all this madness and begin to heal, build, and move forward.


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