Dad's Briefcase

  • David Hoffman (So many beautiful memories have flooded my head since my dad’s passing last week.  Not surprisingly, most paint a picture of a man who,more than anything, was my first and greatest teacher. I respectfully share the following to honor him.)

    When I was a child, at precisely 5:30 each evening, my dad debarked from an Omaha metro bus at the bottom of our hill where Comings Street met Mayfield Avenue.  My brother, sister and I eagerly awaited his arrival from work, jockeying for the coveted position of being first in line to receive our evening hug.  Being a one car family, my mom was entrusted with the salt-rusted Plymouth Rambler to run errands while dad commuted downtown via mass transit along with other businessmen decked out in suits, fedoras and attaché cases. 

    Once off the bus, like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, my father would kneel down, give each of us a warm embrace, tousle our hair, plop his hat on my brother Paul’s head and clasp our hands while leading the way up the steep hill--a perfectly slanted slope for winter sleds and homemade go-carts.  With Paul holding one hand and Rachel the other, I was given the honor of guarding his briefcase.   

    His black, Samsonite case, half my height and twice my girth, bumped against my lower leg as we made our way home.  It had a lock on the top and two swivel clasps that, when turned perpendicularly, popped open the attaché. It was seldom heavy, an indicator of the dearth of homework my dad was assigned.  Occasionally, however, when my dad handed me the briefcase, I would feel a noticeable increase in its heft.  I knew that something wonderful was hidden inside, waiting to be shared and marveled at. 

    One time, dad’s briefcase concealed a speed-reading machine.  The battery operated contraption looked like a transparent Etch-a-Sketch. It was placed atop a book’s page.  A guillotine-like bar emerged from the top and, depending on the set speed, crawled or sped down the gadget’s window forcing the reader to race through text before the bar chopped off his line of vision.  It was good for increasing reading speed, not so hot for strengthening comprehension.

    Another time, dad opened his briefcase to reveal a replica of a Fort Knox gold brick. I wanted desperately to bring the heavy hunk of sun-colored faux currency to school to see how many hot lunches it would buy.

    Other items of interest contained in my dad’s brief case:  the lyrics to Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (dad helped us divide the word into discernable chunks as we tried to make meaning of the meaningless word), logic puzzles, a copy of the Constitution, and giant magnets. 

    But the greatest treasures found in dad’s briefcase were children’s books. Walking up the hill, I would gently agitate his briefcase with the hope of hearing the unique thunk of a book hitting its interior walls.               

    The first book that I recall my dad bringing home for me was Stuart Little by E.B. White.  I was mesmerized by the tale of a mouse-like son whose world adventures began at the age of seven.  White’s endearing story led me to his other classics, Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan.

    When I was bed-ridden with the chicken pox, dad’s briefcase made a much-needed house call and prescribed a copy of House of Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne.  I read the book numerous times its first year on my bookshelf.  Like Pooh and his friends, I spent that winter looking for Heffalump tracks.

    The most delicious literary contraband transported in my dad’s briefcase was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Charlie Bucket was my hero.  HIs quiet demeanor and good behavior (ignore the movie version) helped him inherit a candy factory. He remains one of my favorite literary characters.

    Over the years, it occurred to me that my dad’s briefcase was really a metaphor for the wonderful learning opportunities waiting to be shared with children. It contents suggest the following:

    READ, READ, READ!  One can never model the love of reading enough.  Whether you are reading to your children, listening to them tell you a story, or demonstrating the importance of perusing a newspaper, an e-book, or other piece of text—your kids will develop an appreciation of the written word that will inform, entertain, and enrich their lives forever.  And, while kids love receiving books as gifts, a goldmine of riches can easily be unearthed in libraries too. 

    Share interesting words with kids.  Expand their vocabularies.  Look at root meanings. Look up words you are unfamiliar with—ask them to do the same. A major factor in school success is vocabulary development (Hart and Risley, 1995).  The right (or wrong) word, be it on a college application, resume, email or in conversation can alter the course of history. Similarly, take advantage of opportunities that allow your kids to write. Ask them to keep a journal, write a story, make a comic strip, compile a shopping list, or acknowledge a gift with a thank you card.

    Find ways to bring math into their everyday lives.  One doesn’t need a bar of gold to initiate a conversation about measurement or currency.  Measure ingredients while baking or cooking. Start a conversation about investing or saving.  Explain how one figures a bowling or golf handicap.

    Share your fascination with gadgets—build things; take them apart.  Go to museums and marvel at the evolution of technology and its effect on civilization. 

    Of all the amazing things to emerge from my dad’s brief case, the most significant was the opportunity the contents created for his children to have meaningful conversations.  In a world of text messages, emails, and tweets, the art of thoughtful conversation risks falling by the wayside.  At school, we ask kids to listen carefully, justify their answers, respectfully question their peers, and politely advocate for their causes. What better way for your kids to practice these skills than to invite them to have important conversations?


    Like my father, I’m sure you have your own briefcase, backpack, blog or bag of tricks that ignites your child’s curiosity and love for learning.  While my dad’s Samsonite case has long since disappeared, its contents have remained with me forever. The light load I lovingly carried up a steep hill contained some pretty hefty lessons.  


    David Hoffman