"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Are You a Mom?

In the barely contained chaos that is the end of a school day this time of year I reminded the kids to be nice to their moms this weekend. Even though it was a testing week, and a getting-ready-for-more-testing week, I had found some time for them to make Mother's Day cards. Many kids were still tucking away the construction paper, glitter and glue confections into backpacks when someone asked over the general hubbub, "Are you a mom, Mrs. Shucka?"

It was one of those rare times when, despite the noise, everyone heard the question. A small chorus of voices piped in: Are you? You never talk about kids. Are you a grandma? You don't have pictures like the other teachers do.

It's funny to me, but not surprising, that we're five weeks away from the end of the year, and this was the first time the subject came up. Kids accept what is offered of a teacher. In my case it's stories about my brothers and Walt and Toby and Bunkie, and that gives them enough to feel like they know me. Every year, though, someone asks about motherhood. Every year I tell a version of the truth. Every year I wish I had a different story to tell.

I always say, "Yes, I'm a mom." Sometimes that's all the kids want to know. This year they wanted more. So I said, as I always do at this point, "I had a daughter." A weird thing happens here. More often than not, the kids hear "have" and not "had." At which point they'll ask if I have grandkids, I'll say yes, and their attention spans reach the limit which sends them somewhere else.

This year this class heard the "had" part of my response. They wanted to know what that meant. We were talking at the end of the day on a Friday, and pictures ran through my head of kids going home telling their parents on Mother's Day weekend that their teacher had told them a story of her dead daughter. How was I going to give them a story that would satisfy their curiosity without causing pain?

I love these kids. I love all my kids, especially at this time of year, but I love these kids especially. I think it has more to do with who I am in my sixties than who they are, but regardless of the reason, I love them. It could be because as a group their childhoods most resemble mine. This is a class full of kids who know pain that no one should know until much later in life, if ever. Their collective story is heartbreaking: Abuse. Weird physical illnesses. Homelessness. Mental illness - both kids and parents. Deaths of parents, uncles, grandparents, beloved pets. Drug and alcohol abuse. They are highly sensitive to adult energy, and to what's true or not.

So maybe it's not a surprise they connected to the past tense of my motherhood. But still, to send them away on a Friday with that new information - I'm never certain how much truth is fair to give a child. So I said, "My daughter died. It's a sad story, and not one I want to send you away with. If you still want to know next week, we can talk then."

Most were satisfied, and eager to get out into the air and weekend freedoms. One boy raised his hand despite the fact that at that point everyone was talking at once. When I called on him he looked me right in the eyes and said, "I'm sorry for your loss."

A couple of girls came up after I dismissed the class, clearly wanting more information. And just as clearly having missed what I'd said. They wanted to know if I'd miscarried or had to give her away. I repeated that my daughter had died, and added that she'd been an adult. They somehow seemed relieved, gave me hugs, and bounded out of the room like puppies through an open gate. I wondered, and still wonder, how they came to a place that they could ask those questions of their teacher without batting an eye. Even more, how they, at eleven, know a world in which those things exist as normal.

Tomorrow they will come full of weekend stories, wanting to hear my latest Bunkie story, and overflowing with their lives. If they want to know more, I'll tell them, as I have told kids in the past, that Kathleen was ill. It's a truth. Enough of a truth to feel honest.

Just like saying I am a mom is a truth. Enough of a truth to feel honest. A truth that breaks my heart every time I remember all the stories that spin out of that one small fact. Stories that I wish had different endings. Even so, I'm grateful I can say yes, I am a mom. I'm grateful to be creating stories with kids that allow my mother-heart to continue to grow. I'm grateful that, even if I couldn't save her,  the story Kathleen and I wrote together was one of love.


BLissed-Out Grandma said...

You are a mom, and always will be, but it's sad that we don't have a linguistic way to honor your reality. Speaking of which, I've been hearing that boy's phrase enter common usage. I never heard it before the police shows began to use it. It sounded a little distant at first, but now it seems like a natural thing to say. I wonder about that. Still, I too am very sorry for your loss.

DJan said...

Both of my beloved boys are on the Other Side, and I have also had to deal with this question. Today is one of the first Mother's Days that I have felt quite content with my state. The phrase "I'm sorry for your loss" is one of the few responses that feels real to me. That, and a simple "I'm sorry" are the only things I could bear to hear for years.

Thinking of you today, Deb, and how much we share in our lives. Sending you a big virtual hug. Yes, you are a mom, still, and ever shall be. :-)

Linda Myers said...

I am sorry for your loss also, Deb. And grateful that you share yourself with these children.

Teresa Powell Coltrin said...

Being a mom is both a blessing and, frankly, a curse. There's only a short time that you (think) have control over a small creature's life that you call your child, although this is a lie. Motherhood is difficult. Maybe that's why it is so rewarding.

tricia said...

You are the second best mom I've ever had. Love you!!

kario said...

That was so beautiful. And I am always comforted by the knowledge that these students are also your children and they get so much of you. They are so lucky to have you as their teacher/mom for a year. I hope you had a lovely Mother's Day.

Retired English Teacher said...

Yes, you are a mom. You are a mom with a heart full of love for your beautiful daughter. My eyes are full of tears, and my heart wishes your story could have been different. Oh how I wish that.

You are also a wise and sensitive teacher. Your students are so fortunate to have you. That one boy, the one who knew what to say, and how to say it, caused a bit of me to just want to breakdown and sob for his beautiful spirit of knowing that a few simple words can bring such comfort. I wonder what path brought him the insight to know what to say, when to say it, and how to get the message across to you.

I also am sending you hug. I hope the children didn't come full of questions today.

yaya said...

Your influence on those sweet kiddos will last a lifetime and I'm sure you will never know how much...that's a story only they will be able to write. I too am sorry for your loss. I'm sending out a hug to you Deb...from one Mother to another.

Deborah Barker said...

I think you handled those children's questions well Deb. Aged nine I was continually questioning life and death (I think I had lost several relatives in quick succession) by 11 I had developed my own way of dealing with the whole concept. A teacher who tells the truth kindly should be prized and it is clear your children value you highly.

Stacy Crawford said...

I love when students really know you. It is sad to see the state of knowing them come with. Sometimes I feel like I am teaching mini adults.

I hope you felt all the powerful influence of your mothering this past weekend.

Dee said...

Dear Deb, no words, just a leaden feeling like the one Emily Dickinson speaks of in her poem, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes . . . " Peace.

Terri Tiffany said...

I'm late in getting here but blessed again to read your touching words. You are a mom not only to your daughter but to those special children. I hope your last day of school is memorable and wonderful!

Midlife Roadtripper said...

As always, beautifully written and from you heart.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

You and your class share a very special bond that comes with complete trust. What a marvellous achievement.
I am sorry that you lost your daughter. Nothing will ever change that you are a mom.