I visited a fourth-grade class in a slum school recently. Since I'm a storyteller by trade, the teacher asked me if I'd tell the kids a story. Now I'm a good storyteller and an all-around charming guy, no doubt, but I wasn't prepared for the degree of fascination I inspired. Rambunctious mischief ceased on the instant and resolved itself into riveted attention and awestruck stares. I was awfully pleased with myself by the time I was done.
"Don't take it personally," the teacher told me brusquely. "It's just that they've never seen anyone like you before. A man—obviously tough—who's not a gangster."
I don't know how tough I am—they were fourth-graders; I guess I could've taken most of them in a fair fight one-on-one—but that's not what she was getting at. Her point was that you have to take just one look at me to see what, in fact, I am: an unapologetic, because-I-said-so, head-of-household male. They used to call us "husbands" and "fathers" back in the day. That's what these kids had never seen.
The teacher told me that she once had to explain to the class why her last name was the same as her father's. She dusted off the whole ancient ritual of legitimacy for them—marriages, maiden names, and so on. When she was done, there was a short silence. Then one child piped up softly: "Yeah . . . I've heard of that."
I've heard of that. It would break a heart of stone.
Read the entire article on the City Journal website (new window will open).