A good friend of mine is disappearing for a few months while she attends to her maternity leave. My friend is special and smart and kind and beautiful and wondrous in many significant ways. She will make a fine and loving mother and that unborn child thriving in her belly is lucky to have her. It’s strange how news and events can bend time and propel you back to moments of your childhood and make them real again with temperatures and smells and tactile responses.

After learning the news of my friend’s maternity leave I was delivered back to the fourth grade as I overheard a conversation that was intensely intimate and not intended for my ears. Cathy — a fellow classmate and a “Straight D” student — was speaking to our teacher after school finished for the day. Cathy’s life was one of being mocked and one of intentionally inflicted peer torture.

She was labeled “mildly retarded” by the public school system and, at that time, that meant even though she had trouble learning and remembering some things she could “get along enough” in society to live at, or slightly above, the poverty level.

Today, Cathy would be put in a special program that would lead her to specific success and not denigrate her in a grading system from which she could never fairly compete nor escape. Cathy had few friends and lots of tormenters.

She was, however, always kind to everyone even if they didn’t deserve her generosity. Even though she was made fun of on a daily basis she never responded in kind or appeared to let any of the teasing get her down.

On the day I was rooted back to the fourth grade, I felt the humid summer air prickling my skin. The familiar smell of musty textbooks rose in my nostrils and Nebraska dust danced in the sun pulling between the slats of heavy metal blinds. I heard Cathy ask our teacher in a small voice meant for only for tender ears: “Do you think I’ll be a good mother?”

I averted my eyes from the conversation as our teacher rose from behind her oak desk and came over to kneel next to Cathy so they could meet at eye level. I picked up my books and headed for the door. I was blushing for Cathy. The moment was too intense. Inside I was laughing. Cathy? A good mother? She was too stupid for the job! Then I overheard our teacher’s warm voice trailing away behind me: “Yes, I think you’ll make a wonderful mother, Cathy.”

There it was: A moment of delicate truth so hot and so fiery-pure that it branded me in the flesh as I scurried from the room like a rat with its tail afire. The stupid girl we all mocked had taught her cocksure classmate that sometimes there are other forms of genius to be honored that go beyond book learning and memorizing multiplication tables.

Sometimes there is divinity and glory in merely loving your children and never speaking to them harshly and teaching them to ignore those who seek to hurt you just because you don’t share the same talents or abilities — and you get there by following a simple directive that guides you since the fourth grade: “I want to be a good mother.”

As I was rocketed into now from back then I realize I have learned to cherish Cathy’s question because it is a query that haunts us all every day but few of us have the guts to wonder it out loud. “Am I good enough?” “Can I measure up in this life to the promise of my birth?” “Will I be a good person?”

Even fewer of us are able to answer that question ourselves. I have wondered every now and again about Cathy and how her life turned and if she ever found the answer to her question in motherhood.

19 Comments

  1. What a beautiful story, and what a wonderful teacher to speak to Cathy in a supportive way. Perhaps Cathy looks back on that instance as a definitive moment for her, as a justification that she did have a purpose in this world.

  2. I agree with you, Carla — I think that moment did a lot of defining in Cathy’s life and in my life and, I’m sure, in our teacher’s life.
    It was a rare and raw moment of a person exposing the self so unconditionally that the memory of witnessing it still brings tears to my eyes.
    The only job or role or mission Cathy ever wanted in life, I later learned, was to be a good mother. That’s it. There is comfort in that kind of definitive simplicity.

  3. You’re right, Dave. The teacher was wise and I was surprised with her interaction with Cathy because that teacher was rough and she didn’t sugarcoat anything – she never told you what you wanted to hear – so her honesty with Cathy was compelling for me to witness.
    I never actively teased Cathy — I find that kind of behavior repulsive, too — but in my mind, as I admit in the story, she was labeled the “Stupid Girl” until that life-changing day when I finally knew better. It was wrong of me to only know her through others. I should have been smart enough to get to know her on her own terms.

  4. Oh, wow, Dave.
    So are you glad to know the guy who made the awful comment about Lincoln felt comfortable enough with you to reveal his true feelings — or would you have preferred to just be kept in the dark about that part of him?

  5. Hi Chris —
    You ask some excellent questions! I have written my reply to your comment three times and each time I click SUBMIT Firefox crashes and I lose my message. I need to copy and save more often!
    I think the reason the school bullies come wandering out of children is to test the values and behaviors their parents have put upon them. Some students shine in the light of independence while others become violent and others still hide from the horror of other people.
    The strong band together in survival and dominance and environmental control and the weak remain separate and undignified because to band together is to reinforce shared inadequacies that can only place you in an ongoing confrontation with a group of bullies instead of an individual experience that can be negotiated or resolved with a single fist strike to the braces.
    😀
    I love how you dealt your bully his death blow!
    You’re right Cathy didn’t have much of a peer support network. She was pretty much shunned by her classmates except when it was convenient to catcall her. Her extended family, and especially her mother, were all good to her and supportive of her needs so at least she had one safe haven at home.
    I agree our teacher did a great service to Cathy that day and it is the role and responsibility of every teacher to equally help both the great students and the poor students.

  6. I guess I should share my story here. I have three Children. They don’t live with me. When I lived with my ex partner, we had a huge bust up with one of our neighbours about our Dog being out in the back garden. She hated him and told us so – so in retaliation, we told her what we thought to her. Two days later we had a knock on the door – Social Services. They’d been given reports that we locked our children in their bedrooms all day, that we neglected and didn’t feed them, and that we went out and left them in the house on their own. All untrue of course, and of course I also can’t prove that our neighbour called them, although it seems pretty suspicious. Anywayz…
    That was the start of a year of hell. My two boys fought a lot as boys do, and my youngest was a biter. So the social worker saw the bruises on my Oldest sons legs and decided that we were beating the children up, and that it was time to apply to have them put on the Child Protection Register. The day before Christmas Eve, I was hauled up to the Hospital along with my son, by the Social Worker, so that we could have a children’s doctor “check him over”. At the end of a two hour session of dressing and undressing my 3 year old son, and a question and answer session, the Doctor told the Social Worker that she was confident that the bruises had come from Sibling fights and NOT from Myself and my partner “beating them up”. A month later they were placed on the Child protection Register anyway.
    Not long after that myself and my partner split up, and I met my partner. it was decided that I would move to Canada because he was in Film School and needed to finish to get his Diploma. I went to the Child Protection Unit and told them the situation, that I was moving overseas and wanted to take my Children with me. I was told no chance. I couldn’t even take them out of the county while they were on the register, let alone the country. So I did the responsible thing and signed responsibility of my Children over to my Ex, so he could have them treated if needed.
    From that day, I had insults thrown at me by my ex partner, by his cronies, and by people who seemed to know more about my situation than I did. Every single one of those people said I was leaving because I didn’t care about my children and that I didn’t want them anymore.
    Being a Mother is the hardest job ever. But it’s not one I would ever regret. The only thing I ever regret is not putting my foot down and taking my Children with me anyway. Social services got their claws in and refused to let go. It shattered my entire world. Those people made myself and my ex partner feel like criminals for doing nothing wrong, and because social services were involved. I found other parents literally trying to keep their kids away from my daughter when I took her up to school. We were shunned by everyone, and looked down upon as though we were scum. It leads me to wonder what sort of effect that has had on my Children as they grow older, and indeed if those same people still look down on my ex and my children now.
    To hear your story of the little girl and the school teacher was great, it’s nice to see something so heartwarming in a day and age where everyone is always quick to assume the worst. I’ve lost a lot of faith in Schoolteachers ability to look at a child and make a rational decision about how they got the scrape on their knee, or the brusie on their elbow. My childrens schoolteachers were always quick to point out to Social Services that they’d arrived at school with a bruise or a scrape that hadn’t been there the day before, and that they were “worried we were still beating the children up”. It makes me sick to my stomach.
    I’m sorry that this isn’t really so much what you were looking for in a reply, and I know it doesn’t pertain to your post as such. I just needed to point out that no matter how much someone may be a good Mother or a good parent, all it takes is for a word in the right ear regardless of it being the truth or not, and a parent can lose everything that means so much to them. I now have to wait until my papers to live and work in Canada come through before I can get a lawyer. My ex partner is the one keeping me away from my Children (although he hasn’t legally stopped me), but I’m determined I’m going to get at the very least Visitation rights in order to try and start a new relationship with my children.

  7. Hi Dawn —
    What a story! Jinkers! Where, exactly in the world was all this happening when your children were not allowed to travel with you?
    Your story ABSOLUTELY applies to the sort of reply I seek.
    You never know how or when someone will be inspired to go in a different way or provide a new angle on a post you write and the best moments when writing this blog are when incredible comments like yours appear and then move the whole discussion in a new area that still deals with motherhood and schooling and dreaming: Personal pain and yearning are powerful forces and I appreciate you sharing your life with us so we can learn from your experience and enlighten others with your hard-won wisdom.

  8. This happened 2 short years ago in the UK David. And get this also. Because I signed resposibility of my Children legally over to my ex, I will never get full custody of them, because although it was all done legally and above board, it’s still classed as abandonment.

  9. When I read this I was suddenly reminded of studying that poem back in school, how it had made me feel, and how eeryone had laughed at me. It also reminded me of how I thought I’d be the worst mother, and the only comment my own mother made was .. why? She is wise. It was the same thing she said again recently when I shared my terror about having another child .. this fear I think is common amoung all parents, not just mothers. But there is something amazing about being a parent, something that can’t be guessed or assumed, and can never be crushed.

  10. When I read this I was suddenly reminded of studying that poem back in school, how it had made me feel, and how eeryone had laughed at me. It also reminded me of how I thought I’d be the worst mother, and the only comment my own mother made was .. why? She is wise. It was the same thing she said again recently when I shared my terror about having another child .. this fear I think is common amoung all parents, not just mothers. But there is something amazing about being a parent, something that can’t be guessed or assumed, and can never be crushed.