Sunday, May 10, 2015

Some thoughts on Mother's Day 2015

For the uninitiated: Mother's Day can never be the same again once you lose your mom.

For a multitude of reasons, mostly because we were hard-wired differently as individuals, my mother and I never had a close relationship. We just couldn't. But in her later years, we learned to be friends. I called her often just to tell her little things—stories about my cat or the wildlife outside or comments on my blog or what my kids were up to. While she was alive, our Mother's Day celebrations always centered around her. After she passed away, my children's focus became me, which is something I'm never comfortable with. I just don't think I did a good enough job to warrant all the praise and attention.

Still... I know I did do a couple of things right. My son was fifteen when he told me he was gay. He knew he could and that this would not be an issue for me because I never hesitated to let my kids know I have gay friends, and we talked openly about all things, including both gender and sexual orientation. We are also an integrated family, with several races combined, so that my kids grew up seeing people as people instead of people as colors. I have watched my adult kids now pass on this openness and tolerance to their own children, and it has made my heart nearly burst at times to see how comfortable my grandchildren are with people in all their shades and nuances. My oldest grandson will be twenty-one in October. (Yes, young Ben, whom I have blogged about in the past, is now a college student.) I swear this boy loves everyone in the world, regardless of shape, size, color, orientation or capacity to love back.

To celebrate Mother's Day, my son bought tickets to the Drag Queen World Series yesterday, hosted by Life Group LA, a charity which works hard to promote HIV/AIDS awareness, education, acceptance and support "for those infected and affected by HIV." The event itself was hilariously entertaining—drag queens playing softball with a tennis ball but taking the game very, very seriously (and no, no one was in heels; that's how serious this was), two drag queen announcers who composed a lovely combination of sweet but naughty impromptu commentary. (Admittedly, there was a lot of material here—gay guys, bats, balls, swinging, getting on base, etc., etc., etc.) The best part for me was just being there with my son, my daughter, her husband and the two teen granddaughters, laughing with them, realizing how much the world has changed in my lifetime... though apparently not enough. We saw one of my son's friends there. We'll call him Jason. Although drag isn't really his thing, as he explained, he had come because he believed in the work the group was doing, and he wanted to support that. He told us that last year he had worked the event as a volunteer, but this year he just wanted to watch so he could enjoy the fun. Later my son called to say that Jason had left a long post on Facebook about the event, mentioning that he had invited his mother... but his mom wouldn't come. It wasn't "her thing." "But I'm her son, and shouldn't I be her thing?" he went on to say. Yes, sweetheart, yes, you should be your mom's everything.

I made innumerable mistakes in raising my kids. But I tried to put them first in every decision I made about our future because I wanted them to have the chance to have something more than I had when I was a kid. And I wanted them to always feel loved, no matter what. Mamas, we can't give them everything. But one thing we can do is make damn sure they know we love them, just as they are. For all the "Jasons" out there whose mamas aren't equipped to offer you the love, support and acceptance you need, I wish I could just scoop you up and hug you. Be patient with your mom. She's trying to do her best with the resources she has. This is what I had to learn about my own mom. This is how we found our common ground in the last years of her life. I'm so glad we did. I'm really just so glad we did.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

What it's like to teach high school, Part 2

After a long, arduous day of working-while-sick, after scolding my Honors kids for not studying the handout I'd given them yesterday, after experiencing complete exasperation with a student I've had for TWO YEARS who simply won't learn to put the comma INSIDE the quotation mark, after that one beauty-queen freshman girl who has been told a thousand times "NO DRINKS IN HERE!" spilled some nasty sticky Starbucks liquid sugar on the carpet of my classroom, after all that, at the end of the day, when I was counting the minutes until the final bell, just trying to hold on by my fingernails, I checked my email. In my inbox was a note with the subject line: Teacher Appreciation Day. It was from one of my freshman Honors students, and it began, "I know this is a day late, but oh well"—classic attitude for this kid. But he went on to say:

On the first day of school when I walked into your classroom, I was a bit petrified, but at the same time I was looking forward to it. I had good English teachers prior to you, and I was hoping that streak wouldn't end any time soon. I was right, and I'm very happy that I was. I'm glad I had the opportunity to get a teacher who's doing her job, and ensures that her students have fun in the process of doing so. Also, I'm glad I had a teacher who isn't afraid to cuss. That's pretty bada--, you know what I mean. Unfortunately, I won't have you as a teacher again. That sucks, but I definitely won't forget you anytime soon. I appreciate everything you've taught me this year, and it's an added bonus that you rarely give out homework. So thanks for being an amazing teacher, and I hope you have a great day. 

Here's the thing: This boy has never given me any indication—not once all year—that he enjoyed my class. In fact, the opposite was true; given his saucy attitude in the few exchanges we had over the months, I was convinced he disliked me, my class and everything associated with it. That is, I was convinced until about a month ago. In a conversation with another student in which I was explaining to him how people who are hoping to fly under the radar, to go unnoticed because they are introverts or unhappy or afraid of having a secret about themselves found out, often lash out when approached. "It's a defense mechanism for self-preservation," I explained. And as soon as I said it, it brought to mind this student, this boy who had snarked back even in asking to use the restroom, and I definitely had a light bulb moment. I decided then and there to show him extra kindness but never to call on him in class again unless he volunteered. I can't emphasize this enough: We never know what people are going through. As Atticus told Scout, we need to climb inside the other guy's skin and walk around in it, something I've preached to my freshmen for a quarter of a century.

To say this note brought me to tears and turned my day around is an understatement. I've already printed out the email. It will go in my very special folder of very special student notes and cards. On those days in retirement when I question whether or not I really made a difference, I will pull it out and read it again.

One final note: I disavow any use of profane language in my classroom during the course of teaching a lesson. Ok, I might have said "badass" once or twice. That's not cussing, is it?