Although they're probably just desperate, there are reasons for parents to choose a manny. Based on pure conjecture, a nanny's main job is to keep her charges safe and to make sure their days run smoothly. She herds them home on the bus, prepares a light dinner, and generally ensures that the children do not break loose all hell.
In hiring a manny, on the other hand, parents sacrifice a small fraction of this dependability to give their sons their first lessons in camaraderie. I'm going to assume that's why I was hired. I consider a large part of my job to show boys how to be boys. How to goof off, how to talk a little trash, how to roll your eyes and give somebody a light cuff on the head when they say something stupid. There are some things the Dad can't teach because the son idealizes him too much. In short, if a nanny is something of a surrogate mother, then a manny is at least as much a cool big brother as a father.
And there is definitely something rewarding about taking care of a kid over time, about watching his uncontrived emotions, his first touchdown dance, and his growth as a person (in both senses). That being said, this job has some great benefits.
I babysit two kids, B. and O. I pick up B. after school the first two days of the week and O. the latter three. They are 6 and 7, in first and second grade, respectively. B. is precocious without being obnoxious, clever and contemplative with a great imagination. O. is significantly odder. If I could use only one word to describe his typical expression it would probably be "slackjaw." His favorite things to do are to jiggle his tongue or lip between his fingers and to ask me to catalogue every comic book hero I've ever heard of. While I've pretty much gotten over my comic book phase (full disclosure: I haven't), pay me fifteen bucks an hour and I'll talk about Green Lantern 'til I'm blue in the face.
Before it got cold, B. and I would walk a mile back to his house (my mom made me, so now he's got to), and I'd ask him about anything I could think of, just to hear what came out of his mouth. Example:
"If you were a knight, what would your name be?"
"Sweet! What about mine?"
Ethically, I alternate between being a pragmatist and a Heidegerrian, so this delighted me to no end.
Other times, his brilliance just came along out of the clear blue sky:
"Did you know that dolphins are the same as whales only smaller?" he'd ask me.
"Really? Are you sure?"
"Uh-huh! They found whale fossils that looked just like human hands!"
(Skeptically) " How do you know so much about whales?
(Utterly deadpan) "They teach you entirely too much about whales in kindergarten."
We'd get home and invariably play school, in which B. assumed the role of snarling teacher and I the role of lazy, sleepy smartass. B. for some reason did not understand the concept of school, so each session mostly consisted of him handing out our grades, which were arbitrary numbers between one and a kajillion (I usually received a negative grade for my sass). Our performances were then judged on how close we came to guessing a random letter and a number between one and a thousand. Inevitably, I'd never be close, and some invisible girl would hit it right on the nose.
I might have protested the unfairness of it all if I hadn't been so busy reveling in being the coolest kid in school for the first time of my life. I had a girlfriend (Sally), though the teacher didn't know it, and, if I could make my voice high enough, I could have the principal give me the student-of-the-century award. And in reality, there was no principal and no boss, so if I wanted to extend the lunch period for a while, it was pretty much my prerogative. I may have been the first student chastised for reading The New Yorker during recess, and I was certainly the first to be paid for it. I did on occasion feel bad for the teacher. He seemed overmatched.
Meanwhile, my work with O. consisted mostly of taking him to various activities and then just sitting there while he did them. Thursdays were swimming and piano, Fridays were math tutoring, and Wednesdays were something called occupational therapy. While the benefit of getting paid to sit there and read a magazine is self-evident, there was an added, very pleasant surprise: these places were swarming with beautiful women. Although a plurality of nannies are middle-aged ladies from the Caribbean, a solid minority are just like me but prettier: fresh out of school, idealistic, confused. I started to really enjoy O.'s activities. Two in particular stood out. On Thursdays, his piano teacher, Ms. I've-got-a-little-Belinda-Carlisle-thing-going, would come over and do her piano-teaching thing. She was sultry and coy, and her milky-white skin and deep-set eyes intrigued me as exotically Caucasian. She had attended Columbia recently but had left under mysterious circumstances, and since she had a really strange-sounding name, I went ahead and assumed she was a gypsy. She was a great piano teacher.
The other activity where I always had a good time was occupational therapy, or OT. Mostly, I just sat in the waiting room, surrounded by beanbag chairs and books like My Bellybutton and All About Scabs. But from what I observed, OT is basically teaching kids to do stuff they should already know how to do by now: how to talk to other kids, how to make macaroni pictures, or how to run an obstacle course (for some reason, it's essential that kids these days know how to use the trapeze). O. is really lucky because his therapist is pretty much the most endearing woman in the whole world. She's the Platonic ideal of endearment. She's got long black hair and wide hips, and she wears the most adorable sweaters. When she looks deep into your soul and asks how you've been with the gentlest of smiles (Beatrice could not have been sweeter or more delicate!), you are compelled, despite the truth that you have been craptacular, to answer "OK" in your meekest, most awed and appreciative voice, because as of this moment you have been granted a reprieve. At least, that's what I've surmised from watching her and O. talk before their sessions.
So the job had its kicks. But it takes a certain moral maturity to enjoy the job's benefits responsibly while staying focused on the one part of the job that's really redeemable: the kid. The unfortunate paradox, which you're undoubtedly aware of by now, is that it is the lack of this very quality that causes someone to parlay an Ivy League education into a babysitting career.
And so my job became more about indulging my whims than about what was best for the boys. At B.'s house, I insisted that his comfy couch would do just fine as my desk and that I could learn just as well by reclining as by sitting up straight. The unwavering heater and my general malaise would weigh down my eyelids. But B. had such an active imagination that any groggy interrogative would keep him engaged. I used to always wonder how my Dad could answer my questions when he was taking a nap, but really, it's not that hard. While a small part of me gloated about being paid for this, another part was impressed that I actually could spell all fifty states half-asleep.
On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I was much more emotionally invested in how I greeted his two wonderful teachers than in getting him to open up about something other than the light-saber skills of Anakin Skywalker. The first smile was everything. If I could make it my warmest and most inviting, then, as Sean Connery might say, "the game [was] on." If it was flaccid and self-conscious, then I'd clam up, and the day would be lost. I plotted how I might make my next move. Although I never came up with anything for the piano teacher, I'm still quite proud of this: "I'm just going having a little trouble deciding what to do with myself after college. Maybe I could use a little—raise eyebrow—occupational therapy?"
Fall turned towards winter, and my babysitting standards continued to decline. There were days when I tried harder and days that were sadly slovenly, but overall I certainly wasn't giving my best effort. I was keeping the kids safe, and that's all I really needed to do.
But Halloween, my favorite holiday, approached, and I could definitely be counted on to get pumped and gussied up for it. I have a literally tailor-made superhero costume (basically an Ambiguously Gay Duo outfit with a "B" on it), and I let B. know of my intention to be the only babysitter at his school to observe the spirit of All Hallows' Eve. Obviously, B. was mortified, but I wouldn't be dissuaded.
"I'll be the coolest babysitter you've ever had!"
"No. You're not even my favorite babysitter."
(Crestfallen) "You have other babysitters?"
"Yep. You're my third-favorite, out of four."
"Well, you just kinda sit there and read magazines and you don't really play with me. And you're always falling asleep."
"And if you come in costume on Tuesday, I might just have to ask my mom to let you go."
I was stunned, impressed, amused, and a little ashamed. But I just nodded, because I couldn't disagree with him.
I was still thinking about B.'s threat when I picked O. up from school the next day. On the subway back to his apartment, O. scrambled for a seat next to the hand rail, and I sat down across from him. He immediately clamped his tongue and his gum between his thumb and middle finger. I started reading my book until a few minutes later when O. said something startling.
"You know, I see the way you look at her."
I sat up. "Huh?"
"At OT! Every time you see her, you get these goo-goo eyes!" he practically howled.
"Yea-huh! You always smile at her like this!" O. fluttered his eyelashes and preened, swooned heavily onto the seat, then snapped back up and fixed me with a hard glare. "You love her!"
I sputtered. He pressed on.
"And my piano teacher! You stare at her like this!" O. gazed at the wall, glassy-eyed. "You love her, too!"
Reeling, I responded the only way I could. "Nuh-uh! You do! You love her! You love all girls!"
O.'s eyes widened and appeared to go into some kind of fit. "WHAT?? "Nononononono! NuhuhNuhuhNuhuh! I do NOT! I HATE girls!"
The remainder of the ride was devoted to devising a conclusive proof of O.'s girl-hating (something like "I am, ergo I hate them), which was too crucial a matter for him to keep pressing his initial accusation.
I kept thinking about it though, kept laughing about it and about how much B. and O. had surprised me. I never looked at the job, or the benefits, the same way again. Even though there really wasn't anyone to watch over me or tell me what to do, there were people who depended on me, and understanding that was enough for me to give them my best. Most of the time. Sometimes I still fall asleep, and I still make greeting his teachers into an aesthetic exercise. But now I spend a little more time listening and a little more time on the ground building train tracks and re-enacting Star Wars battles, even teaching them something once in a while ("The Emperor is bad, O." "But he wins!") It's still a great job, if you don't really want a job.
Recently, O. asked me about my giiiirlfriend. We hadn't really had much to talk about a few weeks ago so I told him I had been on a few dates with a girl. After recoiling in horror, he spent the next week asking every question imaginable (save a few, thankfully). But she had decided not to go any further.
"Well, O., we decided to just be friends."
"You mean she dumped you?"
I shrugged. "Yeah, I guess"
O. paused for a moment. Then he broke into a malevolent grin. "You should give her a wedgie," he said.
Birk Oxholm, Columbia College '06, comes through in the clutch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.