|I'm the bald one.|
My classmates never missed an opportunity to point out that my choice of words made me sound like a queer. Initially, I felt clever by replying, "Is that the best you can do? I mean, come on! The double standard is obviously in my favor!"
That clever feeling rarely lasted more than a few minutes before morphing into a kind of semi-violent frustration and I would be left alone, wondering what the hell was wrong with my classmates as I drew pictures of them in my notebook and poked holes in the eyes. Who wouldn't want to say, "Mum?"
"Oh, screw 'em," my mother said when I told her, "Do you even really want to hang out with these kids? Because I really don't want them coming around to the house. They'll get things dirty."
"It wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't... pretty much... everyone in school."
"I'm going to fill you in on a secret, kiddo," she said, plopping down in the chair and turning on the television, "the dumb ones breed faster than everyone else. It's going to be like that for the rest of your life."
My mother had been putting up with "Mum" for months by that point. If it had annoyed her in the beginning then she never let on. She always encouraged the strange quirks that we developed as we grew up. If I drew pictures of the aliens in our house, she'd still pat my head and stick them on the fridge. If I wanted to press my face against the car window and convince myself that the other passengers couldn't hear me act out little scenarios to myself, she didn't even bat an eyelash.
Whenever I became angry with my mother as a teenager or reminded her of the girls I knew who were practically best friends with their mothers, she would reply,
"I'll be your friend when you're grown. But right now, guess what? You're a kid. You're a kid living in my house and it's my job to make it so that you aren't an unbearable adult."
My mother was never afraid of tough love. She was also never afraid to go to bat for us if the occasion truly called for it. As a liberal parent raising two offbeat and stubborn daughters in a redneck infested public school system, she ran into several of those occasions. In second grade, I got a zero on on my coloring sheet because I colored my pilgrim house pink.
"What's this?" Mrs. Arnold, the second grade teacher, asked me as she handed my pilgrim sheet back to me. "Do you honestly think the pilgrims lived in pink houses?!"
I took it home and showed it to my mother, who snatched the paper away and told me that it was the best pilgrim house she had ever seen. The next day, Mrs. Arnold gave my coloring sheet back to me - only this time, a gold star covered up the cumbersome, red zero.
One of my favorite examples of this happened when I was in the sixth grade. This is a pivotal year for many children as they begin to sweep through puberty and realize that life will, for lack of a better word, suck for an indefinite amount of time. Sixth grade teachers at Madison County High School contributed to this process of elimination by identifying the more desirable children using the following questions:
A. Does this child smell suitable?
B. Does this child look like their parents groom and take good care of them?
C. Does this child say 'ma'am,' 'sir,' or 'ya'll' in an adorably southern fashion?
D. Did I teach an older sibling of this child in the past and, if so, did I enjoy them?
D did me in from day one. Unbeknownst to me, Mrs. Plamer, my sixth grade home-room teacher, had taught my older sister three years before. She identified Jennifer as an odd spirit, effectively making her an adversary.
"Watch out for her," Jennifer warned me when I received my official schedule, "She's a bitch."
Mrs. Plamer could practically smell my fear the second she began to take attendance and assign us our permanent seating arrangement.
She paused, shifting her eyes to my place in line.
"I had a "Sams" in my class, once," she said. Then, never shifting her glance, she added, "You have an older sister?"
"Yes," I gulped.
"And what was her name?"
"Uh-huh. Well, I taught your sister, you know. She was a different bird, that one."
With those words, Mrs. Plamer effectively doomed any hope of a formidable relationship. She also placed me in the very front of the class - the worst place someone with my apparent reputation could sit.
At first, my mother did not believe the stories I would tell her.
"Oh, come on," she'd reply, "I just don't think that your teacher is treating you differently."
"But she rolls her eyes at me."
"No, she doesn't."
"She totally does."
"I don't know!"
"Well, if you don't know then what am I supposed to do about it?"
One time, Mrs. Plamer caught me going through my desk during a test and accused me of cheating.
"Why were you going through your things?" asked mom. "You know how that looks to teachers."
"It doesn't matter because I wasn't cheating," I replied, "Why would I need to? We were being tested over the same problems that we were assigned for homework!"
"So your homework sheet just happened to be where you could see it while you rummaged around your desk?"
The incidents piled up. Mrs. Plamer's incessant picking on me had caused me to dread going to school every morning and returning to her for an hour at 6th period. I stopped answering in class. I stopped asking questions when mathematical concepts confused me because she would treat my question as if it burdened her to no end. I avoided any and all interaction with her and, for the most part, ignored her when she made condescending remarks toward me or my other easy-target classmates. No one could seem to catch her in an act of evil that she could not spin back on us - until one Thursday in February.
The subject for that day was long division with decimal numbers and I felt completely lost. For the first time in a month, I raised my hand to ask a question.
"Jas, just see me after class, alright? We can't hold up the entire lecture for one student."
I put my hand back down and tried to focus. I couldn't. I turned to my classmate and tried to whisper a question. I didn't get far.
I snapped my gaze back to the front of the room. Mrs. Plamer stared daggers in my direction.
"What in the heck is wrong with you? Are you stupid?"
I stayed silent.
"Huh? Can you tell me why you can't pay attention? Can you explain to me why you feel the need to do distracting things like tap your feet against your desk or drum your fingers? Stand up!"
I stayed seated.
"And you don't listen, either? Stand. Up."
"Look," she said, her voice growing louder, "You are a shining example of what's wrong with kids today. Everything about you says that you don't care about learning or making a good impression on people. How do you expect to get a job?"
I remained silent. I was supposed to get a job? I was four years away from getting a learner's permit to drive.
"Exactly. You're not. Keep it up and you will never have a job, be successful, or have friends that aren't headed straight to jail."
I went to my mother that evening and told her exactly what had happened in class. This time, she looked at me with stiff expression and asked,
"Did you do anything to provoke her?"
I explained the situation again.
"This is the teacher that you have been having problems with, right?"
"Yes," I said.
"I need some kind of proof," she said slowly, "because right now I want to go into your class and tear this woman's ass up. But if I do this and you are exaggerating or lying to me -"
"Celia!" I suddenly yelled, "She's in my class. She was there."
I knew that calling upon Celia for validation was a shot in the dark. A fellow Girl Scout in my troop, she was tier two middle school royalty. This meant that while she wasn't a regular in the the most popular crowd in school, she at least wasn't slim pickings like me. Once, I had invited her to go to the fall fair with me and she claimed that she was busy. I ended up going with my parents - only to find her with more desirable company, instead. Regardless, she was my only option as her mother, Dina, and my mother were friends. I held my breath as mom fished their home phone number out of her address book.
"Dina, hi!" my mother said. "Oh, you know. Not bad. How are you? Oh, wonderful. Listen," she said, turning on the loud speaker so that I could be privy to the conversation, "I was wondering if you could do me a favor. Jas just told me Mrs. Plamer said some pretty nasty things to her during sixth period today."
"Oh, no! What kinds of things?"
"Things that make me want to rip her a new one. Can you just ask Celia if she remembers anything weird from math class today?"
"Well, sure!" replied Celia's mom. We heard her take foot steps through the house. "Sorry, ya'll, she's in the bathroom. One sec!"
We heard the sound of a door opening followed by the unmistakable sound of a running shower.
"Celia!" yelled her mother. I heard a short, startled scream from in the bathroom.
"Calm down, girl! It's just Mama. I have to ask you a question."
"Do you remember anything weird happening in sixth period today?"
Swiftly and without any pause for thought, Celia blurted out,
"Oh man, Mrs. Plamer said that Jas was stupid and that she was never going to get a job!"
"Thanks, Sweetie," replied her mother. Then, after the door was shut, I heard my mother turn the speakerphone off and say,
"Thanks, Dina. Oh yes, I know. You have a good night, too."
The next day, during sixth period, Mrs. Plamer was called to the office via the intercom system.
"Work on page 44 and I'll be right back," she said, annoyed.
She was gone for the entire class. I thought little of it until I was called into the hallway during seventh period and saw her waiting for me outside her classroom.
"Look," she said, clearly flustered, "I don't know what I have done to upset you. I don't know what I have done to offend you. But we are about to take whatever has gone on between us in the past and forget about it. Ok? I am sorry for whatever it is that I seem to have done."
She never admitted that the problem was that she was a complete and total bitch, but it didn't matter. I saw fear in her eyes. I realized at that moment what must have happened. My mother remained tight lipped about the matter, saying that she had merely gone to the school and "had words."
I knew better and, eventually, found out that Mom had swiftly taken the office hostage and demanded that Mrs. Plamer be brought directly to her to deal with. After threatening her job, she left with the solemn promise that if Mrs. Plamer ever so much as dared to treat me, "or any other child, for that matter," that way again, she would personally see to it that she never taught in public schools again.
"And you will apologize to my child," she said during what I can only imagine was a ferocious and fiery exit.
I never had any trouble with Mrs. Plamer after that.
My mother was right to hold off on taking action until things got bad enough. If you are lucky enough to have strange children, you have to let them learn to take a beating and hope that it forces them to take care of themselves. However, when things get too rough for a child to handle, it is your duty as a parent to see to it that the offending parties get what's coming to them.
And my mother, the fiery, red headed badass, personally saw to it that no teacher in Madison County Middle School treated me like that again. If I am ever responsible for the upbringing of young people, I can only hope that I can take care of any offending teachers the same way that she did for me.
Happy Mother's Day, Mum. You are awesome!