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“Passing the Dad Test,” A September Heads Letter by Chuck Baldecchi

I have spent the summer thinking about whether there is a difference between a child jumping off a pier into the water for the first time and giving your teenager keys to a car.

I can argue both sides.

I remember when they were babies. I remember that first step. I remember their first day of school. I remember teaching them how to swim … how to ride a bike … I could go on and on.

Each milestone gave each child more confidence, more independence. Over my fifteen years as Head of School, my letters have told stories and discussed the issues of growth and independence—risk and failure – the benefits of making mistakes and overcoming life’s many obstacles. This summer I have been struck by the difference between raising a teenager and raising a child. When I see young families playing with their six year old it brings a smile to my face. I pulled out one of my old Head’s letters from September of 2007. I call it the Cowabunga Letter. It was the letter I wrote about teaching Alex to swim when he was still two. Teaching a child to swim is such a critical skill. Sure, swimming is a fun activity, and I hope your children enjoyed swimming all summer long. But that’s not why I taught my child to swim. I taught him because I didn’t want him to drown. I know that sounds morbid, but it’s true. I hint at that fear in the letter written 11 years ago.

Fast forward to the summer of 2018, and I find myself teaching Alex again. It all started with a request last April: “Dad, can I get my boater’s license?” In the state of Maryland you are allowed to drive a boat alone at the ripe age of 13. Alex realized that this was the summer! I grew up on the water and I love the water. If you were born before 1972, you actually were never required to take a test in order to get a license to drive a boat. I don’t remember my first time taking a boat out solo, but I was young, about Alex’s age. I never took a test. I had to get my parent’s permission, but not a test.

Can I state the obvious here? A boat is a very dangerous machine to drive. You can be the best captain on the water and that doesn’t protect you from some moron who sold his business yesterday and bought a yacht today. If he or she was born before 1972, he can take the boat out the day of purchase. In fact there was an article in the newspaper about that very disturbing fact. There has been an increased number of deaths on the Chesapeake Bay this spring and summer, and the author speculated it was due to the roaring economy and people buying a yacht and operating it with very little experience. I don’t know if it is true, but you can see where that overprotective parent voice in my head was going.

But like that little boy who ran off the dock with great exuberance and jumped into the deep end, Alex diligently studied for his boater’s test and had his license in hand by the time the summer began. He was chomping at the bit.

We have a 15-foot 1984 Boston Whaler. It isn’t fancy, but it is a workhorse, and with the throttle floored it can top 29 MPH – too fast for a 13 year old in my mind.

Caution and fear aside, I totally understood Alex’s enthusiasm. Going out on the water is great fun. It is freedom. After thinking about it for a while, it occurred to me that there was a similarity to learning how to drive a boat and learning how to swim. Just like I had the opportunity to teach him how to swim and respect the water, I did, once again, have that opportunity to teach him respect for the water and a machine. In fact, I had an obligation to put my stamp on that experience.

I came up with a plan. “Yes, you may in fact have a boater’s license, but you cannot take the boat out on your own until you pass a series of Dad’s tests.” And test we did. Every free moment he had, he begged me to take him out on the water: docking the boat multiple times—when it was calm and when it was blowing; docking in narrow confines; and docking without a single boat around. Driving up and down the river without a soul, and driving up and down the river on a Saturday afternoon with every yahoo around on the river. Honestly, if I could get him to dedicate his time to academics like he did to that boat, I have no question Harvard would be an option. As an educator, it showed how much a motivator passion and desire can be. He wanted to pass my test. As a father, I have to admit this: I loved every minute of it. No cellphone. No Fortnight. No distractions. Just the two of us, the boat, the water, and his full attention. A boy and his dad.

The irony was not lost on me. This time together was precious and special, and at the end my son would gain more independence, more freedom … from me! I milked it for all it was worth. He was ready about two weeks before I agreed that he could take the final test. And honestly what touched my heart the most was the fact that he loved every minute with me. What was the final test you may ask? Take his mother into downtown Annapolis alone, dock the boat, and bring her back. If Mom didn’t feel scared, if her knuckles weren’t white from gripping the railing too tight, if she felt comfortable being out there with him on the boat herself and with his friends alone— Alex would pass!

He passed with flying colors. And then came the question I dreaded all summer long. “Can I take my friends out on the boat?” It is one thing to worry about your own child’s life, and it is a completely different worry when you realize your child has someone else’s child’s life in his hands. It is terrifying in fact.

The answer was yes, but every parent had to contact us, understand that Alex was taking the boat out alone, and give us permission. Those parents had to understand completely what their child was doing and who was driving the boat.

You have to let your children jump off the deep end and swim on their own. That “Cowabunga!” moment comes in many different shapes and sizes. It is an ongoing cycle called parenthood. I have heard it never ends as long as you are alive. All one can do is teach them, coach them, respect their independence, let go a little more each time, and pray (lots of praying).

By the way, my daughter turns 16 in October…

With gratitude for a job I love,

Charles D. Baldecchi

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