Two weeks ago a friend asked me to write a few sentences about a moment that affected my life for part of an art project that she’s working on.
First, I sent her much more than a few sentences
Second, I was surprised at the moment that flooded to my memory.
I could have thought about my tales of unrequited love: the heartbreak, the listening to sad Avett Brothers songs on repeat, the walking around Paris on a semester abroad in tears over a boy 4,000 miles away.
I could have thought about meeting Tim, the moment that has come to be known as the-first-time-love-was-requited -and-thank-goodness-it-had-never-been-before-because-THIS-guy-was-worth-the-wait. Our wedding day, too, was certainly a life altering, things will never be the same again, type day.
Maybe even the day I realized how much of a happy feminist I am, because that certainly changed a lot about my life.
Instead, immediately upon reading her question, I thought about something kind my mother did for me in 4th grade.
In 4th grade I had a teacherr that books like Miss Viola Swamp are written about: mean ones who seem to hate children. She was short, had long nails that were often painted blue, yelled a lot, and on several scaring occasions snapped at me in front of the class to stop being so shy. This, by the way, is a terrible tactic and I feel confident in saying that it has never once worked on any shy student. If anything, it made the butterflies that fluttered around my stomach everytime I had to speak in front of the class turn into pterodactyls.
(this is the first time I have ever written out the word “pterodactyl”. It took a while and involved googling because my entire life I had been one thousand percent sure that it started with a “T”)
I can remember two days when I pretended to be sick so that I wouldn’t have to go to school.. and both times it worked. I figured that I was a pretty stellar actress, though it didn’t occur to me that maybe this wasn’t the case, considering that my mom never fell for my lies any other time, ever. Many days I simply cried over going.
During Christmas break my mom told me that when school started back up I would no longer be in the same class. There was a switch, she said, and I would be going to Ms. C’s class instead. Life was good for 4th grade me after that: I never pretended to be sick to get out of school and even though passing my previous teacher in the hall was a nightmare and I would very nervously look at my feet while doing so, I was thrilled over the magical switch that had taken place.
The reason for this change in classrooms, of course, didn’t occur to me for quite some time. Truthfully I was just happy it happened: I didn’t care what prompted it. I didn’t realize that this convenient arrangement came by way of many meetings with the principal, paperwork, a hard conversation with my former teacher, and a lot of love.
My mother knew I wasn’t sick (after all, I was her 5th child: she’d seen her fair share of genuine sickness, and “nice try” sickness by the time I came along), and she also knew there was something wrong with her daughter dreading school so much – for the first time ever. Lots of kids don’t like going to school, but there’s a line between just not liking it and being terrified of it. My mother had been a volunteer in my classroom and she knew my teacher well. She liked her on certain levels, largely because my mother loves people in a way that I one day hope to, but she too wondered how a woman who seemed so unhappy teaching kids ended up teaching kids.
I know now that on the last day of school before Christmas break, while I was gathering up my christmas crafts to bring home, my mother nervously pulled my teacher aside and did something she didn’t want to do. My mother is the text book example of what it means to be loving. She loves the unloveable (which sometimes means me) and wishes nothing ill on anyone – even those others might say deserve it. She is always so careful to not offend or belittle other people, not because she’s passive (you obviously haven’t met my mother) but because she cares so deeply for the feelings of others. And yet, being this way and caring so much, even knowing that it would likely cause hurt, my mother told my teacher privately: “I am truly sorry if this hurts your feelings, and I will still help in your classroom if you need, but my most important job is protecting my daughter. She is going to be starting back in a new class after the break.”
This isn’t the kindest thing my parents have done for me. As a matter of fact, there are thousands of stories of love in my childhood and for that I am more grateful than I can say. Yet this is the one that came to my mind at the question: describe a moment that affected your life.
I think learning the truth of this simple story -the way my mother had basically fought for me – was the first time I had a taste of the weight of motherhood and the incredible, beautiful, and welcomed burden of protecting your child’s whole self. The business of parenting deals with all the facets: making sure your child has enough to eat, but also making sure their spirit doesn’t feel stepped on. Teaching your child to feel brave enough to speak what’s on her mind, but not allowing others to shame her shyness. And it means protecting all these facets even when it is wildly uncomfortable to do so.
If you’re wondering, my teacher didn’t take the news very well. She was offended and she was upset and she wasn’t at all blamed for feeling as such. Some time later she ended up moving into our neighborhood and wouldn’t you know it, she and my mom were able to kind of sort of be friends. My mom has used this as a life lesson before: always be kind and gracious even when it’s difficult. You never know who is going to move to your street.
This is similar to Beyonce’s advice of “always be gracious, best revenge is your paper“, but it’s way better because the best revenge is being nice to people who don’t warrant your niceness.