John-Francis graduates from High School tomorrow. Even though I’ve been reminded of this reality every day for weeks, it still seems highly unlikely since, only yesterday, I was dropping him off at The Galloway School for his first day of kindergarten. I remember how he matter-of-factly climbed out of his carseat and introduced himself to the teacher working carpool that early morning. Another kindergartner overheard that John-Francis was a new student. She firmly grabbed his hand, and the two of them headed off to begin the adventure of learning – hand-in-hand. That’s how we do things at Galloway, eyes forward and hand-in-hand.
Of course, I was having trouble watching this beautiful moment of camaraderie. I was too busy sobbing – something I continued to do for the hour-long drive back to our house. John-Francis and I had stayed home together for almost six years. Nearly every minute of every day of his life I had answered his questions, laughed at his jokes, cleaned his cuts, and held him when he needed a hug. Suddenly someone else, an institution was going to take on that role for part of each day. I was terrified of the possibility that he might become conventional, that the convenient norms of a children’s academic setting would somehow stifle the uniquely thoughtful and creative spark that I had watched come to life in him.
When he scheduled a protest on the playground – complete with rally signs and a rhyming chant – for the return of peanut butter to the classroom, I realized I had nothing to worry about. (He informed me that, after a rather contentious circle time, “The man won.”) John-Francis was at a school that valued four pillars: fearlessness, community, mastery, individuality. These were the very things I wanted him to learn to privilege in his life, and, rather than undermining them as I feared any institution might, Galloway nurtured them and allowed them to take deep root in every aspect of his education.
I watched John-Francis’ journey in awe, as he moved down the long hall of the Early Learning building, through the floors of the Middle Learning building, and then to the old, brick classrooms of Upper Learning. It was like having a front-row seat for an epic performance where the lead character is exceptional in every way. Looking back on the individual scenes, they form a consistent pattern – a biography of integrity, courage, and genuine wisdom that may be hard for him to see as he lives it out, but that is abundantly clear to those of us who have been watching, dumbstruck, since the curtain rose.
I saw him fight back (verbally and, sometimes, even physically) against bullies of all kinds, including a (no longer at Galloway) middle school principal who battled him tooth and nail on the LGBTQ Day of Silence observance. When the day came, the involved grades had 85% participation, under the leadership of a ten-year-old John-Francis.
I listened, with genuine admiration, as John-Francis refused to tell even the tiniest lie, even the smallest mis-characterization of the facts, for his own benefit. If an assignment was late, he took responsibility. If the rules said no looking at your textbook, he wouldn’t even glance at it. And if he was being irrational in an argument he would stop, look down for a moment, and then concede, “You’re right. I’m being irrational about this.” Even as a teenager, he wouldn’t lie to himself.
Nor would he let me lie to myself, which can be terribly inconvenient as an adult. Self-deception can make life easier, albeit much less worthwhile, in all sorts of ways. Nevertheless, John-Francis – even at a young age – has demonstrated the confidence and the insight to hold me accountable to my own principles in everything that I do. I am certain I am a better person, because of the extraordinary person he is.
The conventional wisdom is that a child can’t be that person, my friend, someone to whom I am accountable, and also be my son. My experience as his father has been just the opposite. From the moment he was born, when I warmed him up with a blanket, put his first diaper on him, and told him, “You and I are going to have great fun together,” I have been his Dad with a capital “D.” I am responsible for him, and growing into that responsibility has had a larger impact on me than all of the other things I have done in my life, combined. But – as my own Dad has taught me every day for forty years – fathers and sons can be best friends and still understand that Dad is in charge. Friendship is not about an equal dynamic of authority, it is about an equal dynamic of loyalty, trust, and respect. I trust and respect John-Francis as much as I do my own Dad, which is to say completely, and my loyalty to him knows no limits.
John-Francis has earned that loyalty. As he was growing up, we rarely talked about what he had to do, we talked about what his goals were, what kind of person he wanted to be, what kind of impact he wanted to have on the world. Together, we mapped out ways to work toward those goals, and then he took it upon himself to do the hard, challenging, everyday work to reach them. When, at the age of 12, he wanted to start taking classes in the high school at Galloway, he went – by himself – to meet with the Principal and request the opportunity. From that point on, if he needed an advocate with the administration, he took the role upon himself.
Fearlessness: a young man who stands up to bullies, even when they have all the power, and who advocates for himself rather than relying on others to do so.
Community: a young man who creates a space for LGBTQ students’ voices to be heard, and who earns the trust of his friends through his loyalty and kindness.
Mastery: a young man who seeks out every opportunity for learning, and who passionately, relentlessly engages his peers, his teachers, and his parents out of a desire to understand.
Individuality: a young man whose integrity is such that he speaks the truth as he knows it, regardless of the consequences or the expectations of those around him.
That is the kind of man Elliott Galloway was. That is the young man I hoped John-Francis would be when he left home to find his path.
In every way, by every measure, John-Francis has exceeded my wildest hopes in every single one of these categories, and in countless more. Tomorrow he will get a diploma that is meant to represent over a decade of accomplishment, but there is no single piece of paper that could sum up all he has done – and all that Galloway has done for him – in that time.
For me, the words of his achievement are not writ on the parchment, they are carved deep into my memory by the sound of his voice saying, “I love you, Dad” and by the knowledge that this son whose love I have earned is a person who has earned my respect and my admiration a thousand times over.