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A Difficult Childhood Inspires A Dad To Do Better

Feb 24, 2017
Originally published on February 24, 2017 11:32 am

Michael Ryan, 45, is a juvenile judge in Cleveland, Ohio. And like many of the kids who end up in his courtroom, he didn't have an easy childhood.

He adored his mother, he tells his son — also named Michael, 19, at StoryCorps in Cleveland, but she was addicted to heroin.

"My mother and my stepdad, they were more concerned about that next high than necessarily whether or not we were going to school," he says. "I saw a lot of things that kids should not ever witness. I saw your grandmother being thrown up against walls, slammed on the floor, slammed outside on the concrete."

He tried to escape by playing outside and going to the library to "read every single book that they had in there — to find a way to escape from reality."

As a parent, he says, he has tried to do the opposite of what his parents did.

"When you were born, aside from the doctors, I was the first person to hold you, and kiss you, and talk to you," he says. "I would give you the shirt off my back, my underwear, my socks, I would go stark naked just so that you could be clothed. And I make sure that you eat before I eat, no matter what."

His son asks whether that's why he gets upset when he skips breakfast.

"Oh yeah, because there were many times when I was little that we just didn't eat," he says. "And I think that is why I'm probably tougher than some other parents."

"You're sometimes overbearing, but I know where you're coming from, Dad," he says. "I have your name, so I have to set a good example. Only times I want to see you is at home, at my games. I don't want to see you in court."

"I've told you many times, I want more for you than I do for myself," father tells son. "You have been a wonderful son, and I love being your dad."

"I love being your son."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Von Diaz and John White.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That music means it is time again for StoryCorps. And this morning, we are meeting Michael Ryan. He is a judge in juvenile court in Cleveland, Ohio. And because of his own childhood, he feels a personal connection to many of the young people who show up in his courtroom. Judge Ryan came to StoryCorps with his son, and you can tell from listening to the judge that his childhood also shaped how he approaches fatherhood.

MICHAEL J. RYAN: My mom was about 4-feet-11. She had big, brown eyes, a beautiful smile and soft lips. I remember those when she kissed me. I adored my mom, but she was addicted to heroin. My mother, you know, and my stepdad - they were more concerned about that next high than necessarily whether or not we were going to school.

I saw a lot of things that kids should not ever witness. I saw, you know, your grandmother being thrown up against walls, slammed on the floor, slammed outside on the concrete. And the way I used to try to escape is I'd go outside, played a lot by myself with the little football that I had - just throw it up and play just to stay away. And I could go into a library and read every single book that they had in there to find a way to escape from reality.

And so with you, I do just the opposite of what my parents did. You know, when you were born, aside from the doctors, I was the first person to hold you and kiss you and talk to you. I would give you the shirt off my back, my underwear, my socks. I would go stark naked just so that you could be clothed. And I make sure that you eat before I eat, no matter what.

MICHAEL B. RYAN: Is that why sometimes you get upset when I skip breakfast?

MICHAEL J. RYAN: Oh, yeah - because there were many times when I was little that we just didn't eat. And I think that's why I'm probably tougher than some other parents.

MICHAEL B. RYAN: You're sometimes overbearing, but I know where you're coming from, Dad. I have your name, so I have to set a good example. Only times I want to see you is at home, at my games - I don't want to see you in court.

MICHAEL J. RYAN: I've told you many times, I want more for you than I do for myself. You have been a wonderful son, and I love being your dad.

MICHAEL B. RYAN: I love being you son.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: That was Judge Michael John Ryan and his 19-year-old son Michael Benjamin Ryan in Cleveland, Ohio. Their interview will be archived at the Library of Congress. And you can hear more of their conversation on the StoryCorps podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.