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Things We Miss

When your child is young, particularly as a stay-at-home Dad, you get to hear and see most of what they say and do, and you feel you have a pretty good grasp of what makes them tick, and how they behave.

Obviously in those early days as parents you try and set some boundaries for your kids to operate within – starting with what they eat, and when they go to bed, graduating over time to things like what is acceptable behaviour and language, what they are allowed to watch on TV, and so it goes on. If you have more than one child you probably take pains to try and ensure that the rules you applied to the first one will also apply to the next one when he or she comes along. We certainly tried to be consistent. So how the hell could they have turned out to be so different?

Tim, our first-born, was a model child from Day One. Like any kid, of course he had a tantrum now and then, and we had our occasional moments of conflict with him, but as time passed it became very apparent to us that his desire to avoid getting into trouble was way way stronger than any urge he may have had to test the boundaries we had put in place for him to operate within. In short he was a parents’ dream.

Then Ben arrived, and almost immediately began to put his own unique stamp on the household. What a contrast. The rules and guidelines that Tim had pretty much accepted without question were a matter for constant debate with our youngest – which mightn’t have been so bad if he hadn’t been such a skilled advocate for his own point of view virtually from the moment he could talk.

Don’t get me wrong. Ben, even as a small child, was an absolute delight to be around. He was inquisitive, active and intelligent ‑ and of course he had a wickedly cheeky and precocious sense of humour. But if things didn’t go his way, whether through his own failings or error, or as a result of Mum and/or Dad’s poor parenting choices (as viewed from his perspective of course), then look out; things just might get a little bumpy!

Once your kids start to spend more time outside of your house and your sight – as they head off to other peoples’ homes for playtime and birthday parties, then to pre-school and primary school – you start to rely upon the advice of others as to whether or not they are conducting themselves in the way you had hoped they might. Have they absorbed your parental wisdom, and are they applying it in unsupervised situations? You hope so.

Though reports of Tim’s behaviour were almost always effusively glowing, feedback on Ben could be remarkably unpredictable. Some parents and teachers would tell us Ben was an absolute joy to host or educate, and that his humour and intelligence made him a delightful play companion and/or student. But for others; well let’s just say Ben’s presence was not always as welcome as we might have wished!

The gist of the concerns and criticisms articulated to us through those early years were, it must be said, pretty consistent. “Ben can be quite loud can’t he?” “Ben doesn’t seem too keen on being told No”. “Ben sometimes has difficulty sharing with others”. That’s our Ben alright. But one thing no-one could ever dispute, right from those early years, was that Ben was someone everyone who met him remembered – a person who made an impact on every room he entered, and who influenced the world around him in a way that only the very special few can.

Ben’s love-hate relationship with authority was a feature of his young life. At the end of his very first day at primary school ‑ yes, the first day - we were informed he had been caught crawling under the doors of the toilet cubicles, and locking them from the inside. (Crawling around on the floor of the dunnies – come on mate!). Not too much later that year Ben committed the greatest offence known to infants students worldwide; I speak of course about ringing the school bell without permission. What 5-year old has balls that big for goodness’ sake?

Ben’s Kindergarten teacher had taught Tim two years earlier. Her comparison of our two sons set new standards in diplomacy: “They’re very … different, aren’t they?” Yet just a year later Ben’s Grade 1 teacher would award him a year-end Certificate of Merit for “academic improvement and leadership in the classroom”, and write in her final report: “Ben is a cheerful, intellectually engaging child who has been a delight to teach”.

A year later and the tables had turned yet again. In November 2005, just after Ben’s 8th birthday, we received a formal letter in the following terms from his Grade 2 teacher: “Mr & Mrs Cordner, I’m writing to inform you that Ben has been in our class behaviour book four times over a period of time [three of those in the past three weeks apparently]. Please discuss what is acceptable behaviour with Ben”. Like we haven’t tried that? Aarrgghh!

And no, you’ll be glad to hear, I’m not planning to summarise each one of Ben’s school reports right through to Year 12 ‑ although there are a couple more titbits that definitely warrant attention. Suffice to say that in those early years the reports of Ben’s occasionally erratic behaviour were far from surprising to us. That, after all, was the boy we saw at home too; but what we also saw, and knew without question, was that, along with those periodic self‑indulgent episodes, we were blessed to be able to spend our lives with a rare and wonderful human being.

High school of course is a whole new ballgame. Information about what goes on within the boundaries of that institution becomes progressively harder to come by as birthdays come and go, and hair begins to grow on your son’s body in places it didn’t previously exist. Attendance at school events is less encouraged, at least by your offspring ‑ indeed, actively discouraged on occasion ‑ so that a feel for where your kids sit in the grand scheme of things can become more difficult to ascertain.

Credit must be given where it’s due (ie to Epping Boys High School), because neither Ben nor Tim ever expressed any misgivings about having been sent there, and neither did either of them ever once complain about having to attend five days a week, 40 weeks a year.

Judging from Ben’s Year 8 reports his high opinion of the School’s merits may not have been entirely reciprocated. Comments included: “He is a willing participant in oral work but does not remain quiet when other students are having their turn”, “Sometimes he is a disruptive influence in class”, “Ben can be distracted by socialising with his peers”, “Unfortunately he has displayed an immature and sometimes unsafe attitude while in the workshop, and was quite often a distraction to other students”, “Ben is an energetic student who is easily distracted by his peers and distracts others around him”, “He is easily distracted and easily distracts others”, and “He can at times become distracted and therefore not participate to the best of his ability”. Is there a theme emerging perhaps? It seems that if Distraction were a subject Ben would have topped the class.

To be fair to Ben, his academic results during this period remained well above average. Imagine what he might have done if he’d applied himself we wondered. A familiar refrain from most parents with school‑aged kids I guess!

Over the next couple of years, thankfully, words starting with “distract…” appeared less and less often in Ben’s reports. At the same time he demonstrated a willingness to accept responsibility; successfully applying for, and/or voluntarily assuming, a number of important roles relating to all manner of school activities. Of course, for the reasons outlined above (see: Limited Disclosure) our appreciation of this gradual, but highly significant, transformation was, regrettably, not as comprehensive as it might have been.

So that when Ben informed us at the end of Year 11 he had not only been nominated as a Prefect for his final year, but was to be the School’s Vice‑Captain, we were caught off‑guard. No less proud of course. But surprised? A little.

Because although Ben had matured dramatically, both physically and emotionally, since achieving Honours in Distraction in Year 8, to our eyes the episodes of self-absorption, combativeness and moodiness, though far less prevalent, were still an essential element of his teenage personality.

What has become apparent to us in the years since is that Ben’s final years at high school were the making of him in ways we never fully understood at the time. To see the Principal of EBHS, and four members of the School staff, speak with eyes glistening, and lips trembling, at the Celebration of Ben’s Life – held more than three years after Ben had last worn the School’s uniform – was to fully understand not just what the School had meant to Ben, but what he had meant to the School.

Our boy had become a man before our eyes, the kind of young man the world needs more of, and we had only fully comprehended that reality once his short, but incredibly full life had ended.


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