I have two sons. My oldest is six and he is in elementary school. When I see him with his friends on the playground, I am reminded of how difficult it is to be a child, any child, and trying to find your place in the world. There’s a lot to learn. When I was a child in elementary school, kids seemed to belong to very distinct groups and, at times, I didn’t fit in with any of them.
My father was an interesting and sometimes confounding role model. He seemed to be someone who had found his place in the world and had done so early. He was never out of place. He did not seem to suffer from the least bit of self-consciousness. Ever. He was an accountant and a partner at a large firm. He could talk with anyone about anything. I had seen my father begin conversations standing in line for coffee or at the grocery store. He could talk about the weather, politics, sports, traffic, cars, money, economics, dance and more. Sometimes, he spoke in a loud voice in very quiet places. He told weird jokes. What I noticed most often was that people responded well to him. As a child I found this astounding. There were times when I felt embarrassed by his behavior in a way that all children, at a certain age, are completely and unjustly horrified by their parents.
When I was in fourth grade, my father came to my class for career day. He was coming to talk to ten year-olds about accounting. In fourth grade, I knew very little about accounting other than it had to do with numbers. Also, I suspected it wasn’t a scintillating topic. Worse, my father’s appearance had been preceded by the teacher’s nephew, a NAVY jet pilot, who had spoken the week prior. Anyone would have found that a hard act to follow.
On the day of his talk, my father barreled into class and sat on the teacher’s desk. He was beaming. As our teacher introduced him as my dad, I sank a little lower in my seat.
He began by discussing Al Capone, the notorious mobster. He noted that after many failed efforts by the police and the FBI to prosecute Capone, it was ultimately a group of accountants who brought him down – for tax evasion. He talked about his work and how he was an adviser to individuals, companies and governments – some of them quite local, and included the towns where my classmates played soccer and baseball. He was riveting. At the end of class the teacher asked who wanted to be accountants when they grew up and, both surprisingly and not, several kids raised their hands.
I wasn’t one of them. When the teacher asked me directly what I wanted to be when I grew up I said I didn’t know. I needed more time to figure it out. But, in that moment, what I learned from my father was that there were many paths to becoming who you would ultimately be. By his own happy admission, my father’s path was not a straight one but it was a successful one. In thirty minutes, thirty five years ago, he conveyed something that has stayed with me for my entire life. The answer wasn’t necessarily about finding what worked for everyone else. What mattered most was that you worked hard at something with which you could feel satisfied, whatever it might be. Be true to yourself, and in that way find delight in any number of things – apparently even in unappealing things such as accounting or standing in line for coffee. Then, you would find your place. That was what he did. That was something I could do.
These days I know who I am. Someday soon, I may have the privilege of speaking to my sons’ classes about my work. I can’t wait to give them a glimpse into what I do when I mysteriously leave the house in a suit every morning.
Happy Father’s Day.
-Adam Halper, Director of The Family Center’s Legal Wellness Institute