There are hundreds, if not thousands, of things I could write about my dad. He was both feared and admired, abhorred and adored, and at times predictably unpredictable. There are stories about camping trips (real men use tarps) and motorcycle rides (yes, I fell asleep), anecdotes about how he made my friends do yard work (no wonder they never wanted to come over…) and plenty of tales that take place in restaurants (“WHERE’S MY ORANGE JUICE?!” – “Right there, sir.” – “OH!…THANK YOU!”). He had a quick temper but an even quicker desire to help others who needed it. All of these things would be appropriate fodder for a father’s day post about my dad.
But the one thing that I remember most when thinking about my dad is something he did almost every day. No matter what was going on, no matter how busy things got, he always asked me and my brothers one simple question:
“What did you learn today?”
Usually we got this question at the dinner table. It often came somewhere between showing us the unique colors of a partially masticated mouthful (“Does it need more green? I’ll add some peas.”) and his pride at how perfectly he had apportioned his meal so that a single bite of each item remained on his plate. Depending on the activities of the day, however, the question could come in the car, at church, in the driveway while playing basketball, or pretty much anywhere at any time.
Growing up, more often than not the question annoyed me. It wasn’t until much later that I realized my annoyance had less to do with the question than my frequent inability to answer it. Even though I should’ve anticipated it, whenever my dad asked the question, I tended to fumble around desperately, trying to think of something I had learned that day. Not answering was never an option, and attempting to reuse previous answers was tantamount to requesting a slap upside the head.
Which is to say that as a kid I thought my dad asked this question as a way to torment me. Upon rumination, I doubt this was the case (or, at least, it wasn’t wholly the case). Rather, my dad’s question signified something about his personality that could be seen in so many other less direct ways. It demonstrated his belief that life is not only to be lived daily, but to be improved daily, and that the improvement should be progressive, building on the things we’ve already learned and experienced. To live, a person must not stagnate, but rather he must continue to learn more about the world we live in. Furthermore, he should know what it is he learned, and be able to explain it to others.
This is not something I’ve always remembered in my adult life, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit. There are periods of years where I’m not entirely sure I learned much of anything. I don’t mean this in a “oh, you can only see what you’ve learned by looking back at it” sort of way. I mean that there are times where I’ve passively allowed days, months, years to go by where my answer to the daily question is an astounding:
Now, perhaps that’s not entirely true in the most technical sense. Certainly there are temporal things I learned in those dry periods, such as how many emails I had in my inbox or minor details I needed to know to write whatever I was writing on a particular day. But acquiring facts isn’t necessarily learning, and replying with those sorts of trivialities wouldn’t have satisfied my dad.
But here’s the thing. Even when I couldn’t answer the question one day, my dad always asked it again the next day. And the question was never, “What did you learn yesterday?” It was always, “What did you learn today?” The past was done: It’s impossible to travel back in time to learn something on a previous day. The focus was on the present, because if the answer for today was “Nothing,” guess what — it’s always today. There’s still time to learn something today.
It wasn’t until recently that I began to appreciate the consistency with which my dad asked this question. He died in October 1998, when I was still in college and well before my own kids were born. He never got to ask my girls his daily question. I have taken up the challenge to ask what they’ve learned each day I see them, but it’s frequently difficult to remember to ask it amidst all the other things going on, between trips to soccer practice and swimming lessons, my own writing and classes, the daily glut of tasks that need to be done, etc. and so on. Still, I continue to ask the question as often as I can remember.
So, what did you learn today?