Saturday I went to a local high school to watch my 14 year old niece, Kate, compete in a speech meet. I was a speech geek myself in high school (which is not to say that Kate is a geek, at all. I was, though. Oh dear, was I EVER), so I was really looking forward to seeing her piece.
As we waited in a small, chaotic classroom for the round to begin, I studied the surroundings. Classrooms all smell the same, don’t they? There’s some chalk/pencil dust/cleaning chemical ambience they all share. The smell took me back to my own classroom days.
I was always going to be a teacher. From age seven on, my plan was to teach. Actually, at seven I was torn between “teacher” and “forest ranger.” I remember telling Clay once that I’d always thought I would be a teacher, and he replied, “And now you are.”
I was startled, because oh, yes, that’s right. I do teach my own kids. But…I’m not a teacher. I’m a mom.
A teacher is something different. A teacher stands on the front lines, while children pour through her life.
I WAS going to be a teacher.
When I was twenty, I did my first teaching practicum. I dressed up like a grown up, I drew up very real-looking lesson plans, and for six weeks I played teacher. It was thrilling. It was exhausting. It was hard to come up with that many respectable looking outfits.
One day a little girl in my class came up to my desk on her way out the door for recess. She smiled – an awkward smile that I realized later was a child’s confused response to stress.
“Teacher, can I show you something?”
“Of course,” I smiled back.
Silently, she lifted the sleeve of her shirt to show me a row of bruises down her arm. Like the dots on a domino, I thought stupidly. She turned, quickly, as though to act before her nerve gave way, and pulled up her shirt to show me the bruises on her back. One smudged the hollow under her shoulder blade; one traced a line down the side of her spine.
And one was the outline of a large hand.
I stood, mute, for a moment, while she turned back and stared at me with that brittle smile.
“What happened, Maria?”
“My dad said not to tell. I fell.” Her voice was flat.
I took her to the social worker, of course, and that was the last day of my practicum, so I never knew what happened to Maria.
I remember calling my dad, who was teacher at the time, and telling him the story of Maria.
“It’s going to happen,” he said. “Every year some child is going to come along and break your heart.” I listened to him and cried silent tears that I thought would never stop.
I think that’s when I lost my nerve to teach. I blundered on toward that goal, because I couldn’t imagine what else I could do that was worthwhile. What else mattered?
Then one day, newly married and endlessly stupid, I found myself pregnant. I was terrified for every minute of Tre’s gestation, but that didn’t stop him. And when they handed me that slippery baby boy, it was as though a great blast of God Light broke through the clouds and illuminated my future.
I didn’t have to teach. I didn’t have to ache for anyone else’s child ever again. THIS would be my life, this little person RIGHT HERE.
I would make his life secure and good, and both of us would be safe.
Back in the high school room this weekend, Kate’s name was called, and she stood up to do her piece. She straightened her skirt. We went shopping last week and I found that skirt for her, so pretty with the ribbon flowers appliquéd on it. For a moment, as she picked her way through the desks, toward the front, she looked to me like a little girl, dressed up in a young lady’s clothes. But then she turned and took a deep breath and prepared herself to begin, and I saw she was wearing her own clothes, after all.
She did so well, nearly flawless in her delivery. I could see, because I know her hands and how they move, that nervousness was quickening her movements, just a little. I was so proud of her resolve, standing there and doing her best.
When she was done, she made her way back to where I was sitting. I sat there, grinning and clapping, and one of the other kids in the round waved to catch my eye.
Are you her mom? She mouthed.
I opened my mouth to answer, then stopped.
No, I shook my head.
Kate sat down, and I squeezed her arm and whispered, good job. She smiled back, shining in the afterglow of her moment. I looked at her, and my heart squeezed, hard.
In the years since Tre’s birth I have learned two very difficult facts.
I cannot make my children’s lives always secure and good.
And there is no keeping my heart safe from other people’s children.