I have a big mouth. This is nothing new to people who know me, whether in real-life or only through this blog. I think that’s kind of a requisite trait of a blogger. You have to have a lot to say, even if it’s only to yourself. And I…well, I definitely have a lot to say. About a lot of things. And sometimes I write a lot (this is one of those times–fair warning) because I need to puzzle those things out by writing about them.
And usually, when I need to say something, I just say it. Sometimes I should probably think those things through more thoroughly (wow, alliteration alley! Although, now it seems I’m all about assonance, not alliteration), and often, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to phrase something diplomatically, even though I fail at that…a lot. I’m loud, I’m opinionated, and I’m sarcastic. And I’m so jealous of people who can be diplomatic about things. I know a few ladies who are just amazing at saying exactly what they think without being obnoxious, and I admire them more than I can say. Obviously, I never developed that trait.
But lately, I don’t worry so much about what I say to grown-ups. I mean, I intend to get around to focusing more on that, but in terms of personal character aspirations, that’s not my first priority. No, I worry about what I say to Lavender. As a former kid (such an exclusive club, I know), I know that sometimes the most innocent remarks stick in our memories for a lifetime.
When I was in second grade, I went to Catholic school, and my teacher was Sister Bonnie. Sister Bonnie was not a fan of me. During my time as a student, I had teachers who were indifferent to me, teachers who disliked me, and teachers who liked me, or at least made it seem like they did even if they didn’t, which I have to say, as awful as it sounds, I respect and appreciate even more. Being able to pretend you like people, even when you hate them, is a necessary trait for any person of any age, but in no field is that skill more crucial than education. As an adult, you can dislike whomever you please, and you can choose to conceal or display that dislike as it suits you. But as a teacher, especially a teacher of little ones, you must make each and every one of your students feel loved. They spend at least eight hours every weekday with one teacher. How are they supposed to learn–and love learning–when they can tell that the person teaching them despises them? You don’t have to like them all. You just need to make them feel like you do. Seriously, that’s the least you can do for them.
Anyway, Sister Bonnie did not like me. That’s okay, because like I said, there’s actually no law that says a teacher has to like all of her students…even though I do wish she had been able to fake it a little better, if only for the benefit of my learning. I’m sure I learned a lot in her class, but I don’t remember any one moment where I learned something new and was thrilled about it, the way I did in other classes. Still, Sister Bonnie was never openly mean to me, and I’m sure she was a fine teacher. She just didn’t like me much, and I could tell.
One day, in the middle of the year, Sister Bonnie announced that we were getting a new student in our class later in the day. Of course, in an elementary school classroom, a new student is a very exciting thing, a fascinating disruption in what is often absolutely mind-numbing routine. We started asking questions about the new student. Was it a boy or a girl? Girl. When would she be here? After lunch. What was her name? Frances.
Nowadays, I think Frances is a beautiful name, but as a second-grader, Frances was the name of a beloved badger who made a bad bargain, not a potential classmate. It had never even occurred to me that a kid could be named Frances. It was like telling me that we were getting a new student named Elmo. I kinda screwed up my face and repeated incredulously, “Frances?!”
Sister Bonnie pinned me with her darkest glare. Of course, looking back on it, I now realize that I must have sounded like such a little brat. I’m sure she thought I was making fun of Frances’s name, even though that wasn’t my intention at all–I’d just never heard of a kid named Frances. She replied icily, “Yes, Frances!” Then she turned away.
For some reason, that reply really stung. I was hurt, and surprised, because at the time, I didn’t understand why she would respond that way. I have never forgotten this exchange. Two words, and that’s all it took. Sister Bonnie’s look, the way she pronounced her S sounds, where my desk was located in the room–in my brain, it’s all as clear as if it happened yesterday.
Now, I know that overall, this incident has very little significance in the course of my life. Even though the memory of my bruised feelings is as clear as day, the experience certainly didn’t damage for life or anything like that. It was just a tiny moment, one that Sister Bonnie herself (wherever she is) has probably long since forgotten. Still, that makes me all the more nervous about parenting Lavender. Which of my forgettable moments with Lavender will be the ones that sting her enough to stick in her memory? What will I say to her that she will remember for the rest of her life? What will be her Frances moment? (Side note: the Frances that joined our class that day was one of the sweetest people I have ever met in my life. I mean, you know how there are some people you meet and you can’t imagine not liking them because they are just so sweet and so gentle and so kind and you know you will never, ever be as good a person as them but you never want to say or do anything to hurt them because you know they would never, ever say or do anything to hurt anyone? Frances was one of those people. She was in my class from second through fifth grade, and I really wish I remembered her last name so I could try to get back in touch with her.)
I learned the Frances moments lesson as a teacher, too. When I was teaching ESL in a primary school, I worked with kids in small groups all day. All year long, I implored my students to walk, not run, whenever they come to my class. Since they walked to my class on their own, they were on the honor system to follow the rule…which means they never did. Every day, before they left the room after my class, I would remind them to walk back to their classroom. If I caught them breaking into a sprint before they even left my eyesight, I would make them come back and try again. Now that I look back on it, I totally wish I hadn’t been such a stickler about it. I mean, the school had an “outdoor hallway” design, and every kid knows that you can run outside, and walk indoors. Well, coming to my classroom, they were outside. And God knows they probably had endless energy to burn off. If I had just let them run, maybe they would have learned a bit better in my class, and hey, I would have had more time to work with them.
Still, I worried that one day, one of them was going to fall or twist an ankle or something on their way to class. So every day, I would tell them, “Please walk and be safe. I don’t want anyone to fall down and get hurt because they were running.” The “use walking feet” rule had been beaten to death—every kid knew about it, and pretty much every kid ignored it. What was especially hilarious was when a kid would get to my class, panting due to the Olympic-caliber sprint he just made, and then promptly point to the kid arriving behind him and yell, “She was running!”
Anyway, so one day I heard one of my chronically running groups coming to my class right on time. In the hallway, I heard some loud talking, rapid footsteps, and the sound of the water fountain running, since they just came in from recess. I expected the door to open in about five seconds. But it didn’t. I jumped up and headed for the hallway. Right as I was about to open my classroom door, a loud screech came from one of the kids. I knew right away which kid it was, but I thought he had discovered something funny—it sounded like his long, drawn-out laugh. But when I opened the door, there was the boy I knew it was, clutching his forehead and crying his eyes out.
“He falled,” one of the boys standing next to him informed me.
“He hitted his head on the wall,” another offered.
Finally, one of the kids was brave enough to confront the elephant in the room: “Miss Hunter, he was running.”
I sat the rest of the boys down while I looked at the injury. As soon as I saw it, I thought, “Wow, so that’s what a goose egg looks like!” It looked like his forehead had swallowed a golf ball, and there were red speckles all over the bump. I got the other boys busy on an activity and took the injured party to the nurse’s office. As we walked, he didn’t say much. I tried to get him to talk.
“So let me get this straight,” I said. “You were running to the water fountain. You tripped and fell and hit your head on the wall.”
He looked at me like I might be asking him a trick question. Then he nodded sadly.
I shouldn’t have said anything else. I should have let it go. I knew he knew that he shouldn’t have been running. I knew he knew that if he hadn’t been running, he wouldn’t be on his way to the nurse’s office, and his head wouldn’t be hurting. I knew all of these lessons were learned. I didn’t know that he would be a faithful follower of the “no running” rule from here on out, but I did know that he finally understood why that rule existed.
But it was like word vomit. I couldn’t help it. I felt guilty even before I said it. I felt myself turning into the mean version of Miss Hunter. But I couldn’t bite back the words. “See, this is why we tell you not to run when you come to my class.”
He looked up at me with eyes that clearly said, “You just couldn’t resist that jab, could you?” Guilt smacked me in the face. I wanted to grab those words and stuff them back in my mouth. I felt awful. Somehow, I found myself realizing that I was turning into my mother and at the same time feeling like I would be a terrible mother someday, which was a strange quandary, because my mother is the greatest that ever lived. Still, I felt like such a horrible person. Here I was, rubbing salt in the pride wound of a five-year-old. What kind of person does that?
That was over five years ago, and I still remember that day like it was yesterday. I worry if my remark to that little boy was a Frances moment for him. And I feel guilty. I really hope it wasn’t. I really hope he still remembers me as a fun teacher, not as one who rubbed his nose in it when he fell and smacked his head (he was okay, by the way).
And I worry that I will say these things to Lavender. I worry that I won’t be able to keep my big mouth shut when I need to. I worry that when she gets older, my words will cause hurtful moments to be burned into her brain. I don’t want that for her, if I can possibly avoid it.
I know I can’t save Lavender from every emotional wound. People will hurt her feelings, and she will grow from those experiences. She will have memories of Frances moments. But I just want to do my best to make sure I don’t center in any of them–or at least, as few of them as possible. When she does something that makes me react strongly (example: she toddles into the bathroom and tries to put the toilet plunger on her head–it makes a great hat, don’t you know? “Lavender, NO!” I yell, grabbing the plunger away from her. She is startled and she cries), I try to immediately follow up with a hug and an explanation of why I reacted that way. She’s only 16 months old now, so it’s not like she’s old enough to have a tremendous amount of intention behind the things she does, nor does she really understand my explanations. But practice makes perfect (even though there’s no such thing as perfect parenting), and I’m hoping that this practice will serve me well for when she’s old to know better than to do that stupid thing with her friends but she does it anyway, just because, hey, that sounds like an interesting experience.
However, I’m sure at that point, Frances moments will be the least of my worries. And hers.