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.