I was in 5th grade and I turned my head to the side to look at the clock and that was when it happened. Three hard bangs on the top of my head with a fist. I’m surprised I didn’t have a concussion. I looked left and Dana LaBruciano, the little girl who sat next to me, just sat there stunned with her mouth agape. She whispered, “You OK? Tell your parents!”
And I did and it was one of the only times that I saw my father fill with rage. “Has he hit anyone else?” he asked.
Indeed he had. So my father began to call the father of another student who had been hit—or punched, I should say. Together, these fathers calmly, but firmly, went to the principal and asked for the teacher’s removal.
Eventually they won, but not before an final incident. The same teacher pulled me out of an assembly for talking and told me to go to the office immediately.
One problem: I hadn’t said a word.
I started walking home at the end of the school day, embarrassed that I had to sit in the principal’s office and mad that I had missed the movie we were watching in assembly. And then that familiar, old brown Chevy pulled up next to me.
Dad’s home early.
I told him what happened and he threw the car in reverse and pulled into the school’s parking lot where he parked illegally. Ken, the school custodian, knew my dad well since my dad was also a custodian in the school system.
“OK to park here for a second, Ken?”
“Sure, Mike, stay for a hour if you want! Nobody’s gonna move ya.”
My dad barreled through the doors. Even today, he’s not an imposing man at 5’9″ and 160 pounds or so, but this day he compared with Muhammad Ali. His chest popped out and the veins in his neck were visible.
I expected him to head to the office and give the principal a piece of his mind. But instead of turning right, he turned left, and headed for the stairwell. He then turned to me and said,
“This IS the way to your classroom isn’t it?”
I nodded, “Yep. Third floor.”
We reached the classroom and my dad wasn’t even winded at the age of 50 after climbing 6 flights of steep stairs. He walked into the classroom and got right in the teacher’s face.
“Did you pull him out of an assembly today?”
The teacher smiled one of those “I’m hoping you calm down” smiles and told him that he indeed had.
“Really? Because he says he was sitting quietly. And my son’s no liar. I can tell when he’s not telling me the truth.”
He was right. I’m a terrible liar.
Two of my friends were in the room with us and one said to me, “Man, your dad is mad! What’s he gonna do?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Just watch,” I said.
“Look, you smashed your fist three times on his head and I intend to do all I can to get you kicked the hell out of here. I’ve worked in these schools for 20 years and (he took a step closer) I…will….use…every…year… against…you!”
He walked out with the teacher pleading with him, grasping for anything. “Well you know Michael’s a bit sensitive. I just gave him a love tap that’s all.”
I got brave then.
“No sir, you had given me some small taps on my head in the past. But this time you POUNDED on my head. HARD! Dana even saw it.”
And when the principal called young Dana down the next day, who confirmed my story, that was enough.
My dad was brave enough to stand up for me. And often, I’ve not been able to stand up for him. Classmates would make fun of me because Dad cleaned schools for a living. I began to avoid the topic of what he did for a living to protect myself from the abuse. I’m ashamed of that today.
I loved when he would visit me in college, but perhaps my favorite day was when I got my master’s degree at Fordham. In my graduate school years, I got to know all of my professors pretty well including the dean, Fr Ciorra. I could see my dad beam with pride when I introduced him and mom to the dean. Dr. Kieran Scott, my mentor, and also a son of Ireland, had a long talk with him, sharing stories from the old country like it was yesterday that they were both there. Dr. Thomas Legere and Dr. Bud Horell shared a few laughs and talked about how they enjoyed having me in class and looked forward to my book’s publication. There he was, my immigrant father, talking with learned men and fitting in with ease.
We Irish, traditionally aren’t always good with praise. Studies have even proven that. My Italian wife can’t understand that as her family is quite generous with praise. But my Dad often bucks that trend. Fordham magazine did a spread on me once. The second my dad got the magazine in the mail he picked up the phone.
“That’s a great article. I’m so proud of you!”
The truth is that he should be proud of himself, because I do most of what I do because of him.
I try to stand up for the needs of the working poor, for immigrants, for the powerless. I give much of my time to the students at UB and to those who seek me for direction because my dad always had time for me and for others. Time is often not a factor for me when something is worth doing–my dad taught me that.
He’s now 84 years old and has cared for my mother and this family for 62 years. He tells a good story and can stretch the truth a bit, as we Irish like to do. He looks at my mother as if she’s the same 20 year old girl he met at a church social, approaching her because he saw a large spider climbing up the back of her dress. After he knocked it off, he was hooked on that beautiful woman, his Evelyn. And he has lived with her through her many illnesses, standing by her side unwavering. And my Marion has his dedication to be thankful for, because he taught me how to be a husband. And she tells me I’m a good one.
So today, Dad. Know that you are a well loved man. Though distance keeps us apart these past three years, I think of you every day and I am grateful that I had a Dad as wonderful as you.
Happy Father’s Day.