A Surprise for Mom and Dad


Happy birthday to me.

By Joey Kennedy

At the suggestion of a student, I play music before the start time of my English classes at UAB to get them in the “write” mood. As students walk in to take their seats, the halls are alive with the sound of music.

Some of the music is from my own playlist, saved in a file on YouTube. Other songs come from links my students send to me to share.

Indeed, the first song I played was the classic “No Scrubs” by TLC, sent to me by the student who wanted me to open American lit with song in the first place.

Madelyn is bright, sits right up front, and always participates in class discussions. She’s studying to be a nurse, as she will be one day. Madelyn is also a big seller on e-Bay, her specialty being books and toys, specifically, classic toys. She said older people (like me) collect those toys to invoke memories.

While cueing up “Stereo Love” on YouTube before a class one day, an advertisement preceding the video was for Depends undergarments for men. I skipped the ad as soon as I was allowed, but Madelyn caught me and giggled.

Before the next song, an ad for Boost adult nutrition drinks appeared.

Madelyn, who is not shy, asked: “How old are you, Mr. Kennedy?” I told her I was turning 63 on March 28. Madelyn offered that I was being targeted because I’m old, and she’s likely correct. Most of my students’ parents are younger than I am.

I don’t feel 63, whatever that feels like, but YouTube apparently isn’t convinced. Hey, YouTube, I’m not playing Frank Sinatra; I’m playing TLC and Pink and Rihanna.

Curious about birthday parties, I polled my composition students late last month about how they acknowledged their entry into the world and whether they had ever been thrown a surprise party.

Out of the 42 students polled, only 12 had ever been given a surprise party. That made me sort of sad.

One student said she didn’t have surprise birthday parties because she had several different friend groups who didn’t know each other. She was afraid if she had a surprise party and one of her friend groups was left out, they would be angry with her. Another student who also had never had a surprise party got two cars for her 16th birthday—a black Cadillac and a baby blue Chrysler 300. That beats any surprise party.

But I guess surprise birthday parties aren’t as common as I thought.

My wife had never had a surprise party until I gave her one on her 30th birthday. That same day, for our anniversary, which comes two days later, Veronica surprised me with my first CD player. I was thrilled, but only gave the future-and-past of music a quick glance before guiding her into our condo where friends were waiting. Veronica didn’t have a clue, and it was fun to see joy on her face when she was completely surprised.

But come to think of it, I never was given a surprise birthday party, either. I’ve had parties, lots of them, but they were never surprises.

Well, I did have a surprise birthday party when I was six or seven years old. But that party was a surprise only to my parents.

I went to school that late-March morning and invited all my friends to my house after school for my birthday party.

My parents were surprised because they didn’t know I was giving myself a party. I’m sure I thought it up on a whim, probably to get more presents.

My mother was furious when kids started arriving for the party; my father thought it hilarious, but Mom ordered him out to round up a cake, ice cream, and balloons. I was having fun with 20 or so of my friends outside; inside, my mother was fuming, frantically trying to straighten the house.

Dad got back with the party supplies, and we all had a good time, I think, except for Mom, who continued to smolder like a tire fire.

My friends sang “Happy Birthday,” and I blew out candles. After that, we ate the cake and ice cream, and I opened presents. As soon as she could, Mom had my pals’ parents come pick them up.

Yes, I did get lots of presents, all bought, I’m sure, in an after-school shopping frenzy.

And then I got another surprise after my buddies left.

Mom gave me a spanking, and it wasn’t the traditional birthday paddling, where the years are counted out and the spanking doesn’t hurt. She really was angry, and my butt paid for that party.

In later years, Mom laughed when she recalled that strange day and said she was more mad at my dad than at me, because Dad thought the whole thing was just too funny.

But I never had another birthday party while I lived under their roof.

No party this year, either, please. I don’t want some smart aleck giving me a box of old-guy diapers or a six-pack of geezer formula. That would make me a scrub for sure.

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