Tongue Tied

Author: Reggie Henke ’12

My dad was the vice principal at the public high school I went to and he made me wear a tie every day. I had a one-man dress code, and he was there to enforce it. I hated it and hated him for making me stick out like a sore thumb when I desperately wanted to blend in. Actually, hatred is an understatement. I seethed and pouted and shuddered with fury every day. He doesn’t regret it and would do it again, he says. He wasn’t trying to be my friend.

My dad is predictable. Every morning, he tied my tie. I didn’t know how. Every morning, he delivered the school announcements and every morning he ended on a catchphrase of sorts: “Do the right thing, at the right time, because character is your destiny.” Sitting in homeroom, I’d roll my eyes right out of my head. “Oh yeah, Dad? Is slapping a scarlet letter on your son the right thing? Is my burgeoning adolescence the right time?”

My dad is opaque, a stoic mystery. He doesn’t like to talk about himself or his motives. The Rule was as hard to explain back then as it is now. I feared being caught breaking The Rule. I feared disappointing him. I never fully understood the rationale. I can’t say I fully understand the man either. Makes it hard to buy him a present. Birthday, Father’s Day or Christmas, he’s always getting ties.

My dad didn’t care about fashion or looking cool. The Rule wasn’t about that. A tie was sharp, professional in of itself, even when paired with ugly wrinkled dress shirts, baggy cargo shorts and dirty sneakers. I looked like a doofus, not Don Draper. After school, I’d rip off that J.C. Penney tie like a leech from my jugular and toss it with disdain into a messy pile behind my bedroom door.

My dad also made me serve as an altar boy at church. Those scratchy white albs caused me equal misery to the ties beneath. I barely had Saturdays to let my freak flag fly (to wear T-shirts). During football season, I was granted a waiver to wear my jersey on game days in solidarity with my teammates. We sucked, but those nine Fridays every fall were a welcome respite, a breath of teenage normalcy.

My dad was vigilant, since I had other strategies to weasel out of The Rule. Some days I brought extra clothes and changed between periods, avoiding the hallways he liked to prowl. The school’s new camera system put a stop to that. I started layering hoodies to hide my tie underneath. It could’ve been 90 degrees in August and I’d look Dad dead in the eyes and say, “I’m cold.” I lied to him a lot back then, which hurts to acknowledge. There’s still stuff to unravel.

My dad’s tie policy debuted in junior high. I guess that delineated my crossover from business casual boy to tie-wearing man. It continued until I turned 18 and threatened to move out of the house unless I was granted some sartorial autonomy. My bluff worked. Suddenly, a polo was perfectly acceptable. That last semester of high school was my favorite, by far. My acceptance to ND freed me from the need for perfect grades. My dad’s acceptance of my impending departure freed me from those satin nooses.

My dad recently retired. For as long as I can remember, since back when all he made me wear was a diaper, he worked the same job at the same high school. He was the senior employee in the district, but left with little fanfare. He hates the spotlight. Maybe he’ll hate this essay.

My dad chaperoned my dances. He coached my teams, led assemblies. Like God, he was omnipresent. Like mankind, I disobeyed him, and often. There’s a word limit to this, which is a shame, because I could pour hang ups and regrets onto the page until kingdom come. Dudes talk about their dads. It’s what we do. Especially near closing time, when emotional walls come tumbling down . . .

I own just one tie these days. It is in my car’s glove box for some reason. I don’t know a St. Andrew knot from Adam. I should know how to tie a tie by now, but then he’d win. He used to make me keep my hair short too, above the eyebrows. It’s been shaggy and long for over a decade. I’m turning 30 soon. Occasionally, I still wake up sweating, fists clenched, pissed off that my dream-dad dared try to make me do something.

I just wanted to be my own man. And yet, here I am, defining myself in opposition to another. I still feel my dad’s gravity from afar, half the country away. But why? The guy loves me, supports me, asks nearly nothing of me except my happiness.

I am happy, thriving even. I’m good at what I do, successful. Got great friends, a great partner. Someone set me on the right path, I can’t take all the credit. Someone gave me the space to experiment, try things, find myself. Someone co-signed some huge student loans. He may have been a strict steward of my childhood, but that austerity has long since slackened. The harbinger of my daily doom is now just a pleasant retired guy checking in once in a while.

I’m well aware it’s not healthy to wallow in bitterness this long, not over something so stupid. I know there are issues of far greater magnitude in the world, but we can’t pick what sticks with us. All I can do is steer toward self-awareness.

I’m not unique. Hell, he made my brothers do it too. And lots of people have beef with their fathers. Google this guy Freud if you don’t believe me. I suffered embarrassment, sure, but there are true tyrants out there, real abusers, real manipulators. My dad’s only sin was caring too much. I got braces, vacations, guidance. My dad got four fake teeth — a gift from my late grandfather’s fist.

I only craved the comfort of the herd. I wanted to be ordinary, to fit in, to disappear. My dad dared to drag me kicking and screaming to the front, pushing for more, for extraordinary. He saw a potential in me I was too shy to chase. Does that mean I’ll make my future kids dress like mini versions of me? Hell no. But, I think I get the instinct now.

I love my dad. My dad loves me. He’s not my principal anymore, or anybody’s. He’s approaching 70. He finally got a cell phone, he’s figuring it out. Maybe I should finally move on, figure it out. Cave in, buy a nice suit. I’d look a hell of a lot more handsome at weddings.

Reggie Henke’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2019 Young Alumni Essay Contest. He is an award-winning comedy writer living in Los Angeles, who most recently worked on Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot and Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave