Photo by zenonline, via Flickr

She was young and pretty and sweet, and from the first day she stood up in front of my sixth grade class, I adored her.

I was at the height of my awkward stage, my self-esteem slipping on the shifting sands of hormones and changing social requirements. I didn’t fit in with my peers, whose movies of choice for sleepovers were Porky’s and Children of the Corn, who listed Duran Duran as their favorite band. I was a space adventure and Somewhere Over the Rainbow kind of girl, and even when no one was tittering behind their hands about it, I was painfully aware that I didn’t fit in. Mrs. L’s perfect acceptance soothed my spirit.

At lunch recess, while my classmates played “liberation” kickball, I attached to Mrs. L.  On gray, dreary winter days we stood with our hands in our pockets and talked. About what, I couldn’t say now; all I know is that when I was with her, I felt loved.

And then one afternoon, she met my eager approach with a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Kate,” she said, “I think you need to go play with your classmates.”

The shock went straight to my core in one horrible burst of shame. I was a smart girl. I instantly recognized everything she didn’t say. I was pestering my teacher at her much-needed break time. We were not friends, we were student and teacher, and I had stepped over the line. For one moment, I felt rejection, and then I recognized that she was right to banish me. By hanging out with her, I was solidifying division lines between myself and my peers, looking like a holier-than-thou teacher’s pet…which I already was; no need to make it worse.

For all the world I wouldn’t let her know how much it hurt. I skipped off, swallowing my tears, and I never again tried to chum with her. I only adored her at a distance. And although the next year of my life was perhaps the worst ever, by the time I graduated eighth grade, I had begun to connect with people my own age.

Everyone thinks they’re awkward in adolescence. I can already see it beginning in Alex, even in the first grade, and I wince. It hurts to see my children suffer; my instinct is to do everything in my power to fix it, to shield them and make sure they never feel shame or hurt or heartbreak.

But suffering is part of life, and a crucial one. Some of the most important lessons of my life were learned, not in joy, but in suffering; not in affirmation, but in shame. Pain is instructive. So I steel myself against the future, and even the present, and I try to temper my heart with my head, and remind myself that my role is not to protect my son from those tough lessons, but to stand by and love him unconditionally while he learns the lessons he needs to grow to strong manhood.

memoir writing, remembeRED, writing prompt

and continuing the practices of motherhood posts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

15 thoughts on “Mentor

  1. I can identify. I was aware enough to leave my teacher-mentor alone before she “banished” me. I see it happen with my children, too. The “cool kids” who don’t run up and make my daughter feel welcome when we arrive at a school event or the girl who tells my daughter she looks “funny” with her new braces. I am really cherishing Kindergarten with Helen right now and relishing in every moment of every student loving each other as God loves them (we have an Kindergarten teacher). The days will come all too soon when even Helen will notice that she is awkward and doesn’t always “fit in”.

    This was beautifully written.

  2. She was a caring teacher in the truest sense. She probably enjoyed your company, but knew it wouldn’t be best for you in the long run. I wish I had done less protecting and more “standing by” with my kids when they were younger. Great post.

  3. Can I ever relate, but my teacher didn’t banish me. I’m still socially awkward and have come to accept that about myself;the reality is I would rather be home with a book than at a party trying to socialize with a bunch of people I don’t really know. I will admit to taking certain pleasure in raising the daughter that all the kids wanted to play with–who was also the daughter who played with kids across the social spectrum. Now, as I watch another daughter navigate the social spectrum more from the outside than the inside, I worry about her and don’t know how to help.

    • I almost hate to call it a banishment–in adulthood, I’ve been the focus of such devotion, and it’s really tough to deal with; you get to feeling so worn down by the need to constantly affirm someone who can never be affirmed enough. I never once got the feeling that I wasn’t wanted, only that she knew I needed to connect with kids my age.

      And I can relate to what you’re saying, too!

  4. Genevieve @ Turquoise Gates

    I think we all have these fears for our children. Your story is a beautiful and authentic memorial to your teacher, flawed tho she was.

  5. “The shifting sands of time” is a brilliant line.

    Here’s what I LOVE about this piece…it’s about pain, and I feel the pain. And the shame. And also the deep, deep love.

    Your writing transports me. Right to that moment.

    • Thank you, Nancy. I think what I missed here is the sense that I never held this instance against this teacher, because I knew that she was right to do it. And that it’s an important lesson I value in my life. Which feels a little unfair to her, based on some of the sympathetic comments! :/

  6. “Some of the most important lessons of my life were learned, not in joy, but in suffering; not in affirmation, but in shame.”

    Well said, and so very, very true. This was beautifully done.

  7. Beautiful word pictures: ‘my self-esteem slipping on the shifting sands of hormones’ and ‘even when no one was tittering behind their hands about it, I was painfully aware that I didn’t fit’ — you set the scene very well. Oh, the pain and confusion — that was perfect, too. And your realisation, and the epiphany as an adult that she taught a hard lesson with compassion. You learned many things from her, and were fortunate. Beautifully done!

  8. CC

    Interesting how different people perceive things . . . even now. You thought she was doing it out of a need for her own space, a break in the day, but my first was that she was doing it because it was what was best for you . . . she knew being the kid that hangs out with the teacher at recess wouldn’t help any.

  9. Patti

    I am that awkward child. I knew I was different and didnt understand what I could do about it. I found solace in books and realized I could go far away as soon as I opened one. I missed those I met in the pages each time I closed the cover.

    My son, almost 12, is also different. We celebrate who he is at home. I tell him that the pain of middle school becomes quirky and charming in your 40’s.

    My heart aches each day as he rides off to school, knowing he will suffer. But keeping him with me won’t stop the teasing or awkwardness; only take away his ability to find his way.

    The older I get, and the more practice I have at being a mom, the more I discover that the only true thing I can do is love him. Love him a lot…dry his tears, talk about why kids are mean, pray for thier hearts to change.

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