Talking During Recess

childhood lies, teacher punishment, child's honestly, truth and lies in childhood, second grade punishment,

collage by L.G. Weldon

“That’s not true,” the girl behind me said in a singsong voice. “You’re lying.”

I turned around and shook my head, hoping she wouldn’t attract the teacher’s attention. Judy’s hair was unkempt and dirty. Maybe her mother didn’t love her enough to take good care of her. I knew I should feel sorry for her, but Judy was as nasty as she smelled.

Rain rolled down the windows during indoor recess. Our second grade classroom was a neat rectangle except for the jutting wall where the door fit in. I preferred symmetry. At seven my mother’s mindset formed neat geometric spaces in my head. I adhered to her categories: clean and dirty, right and wrong, bad people and good people, truth and lies. Well, I had some trouble with the truth.

My mother often said that she loved us more than any words could say. She told us no one tried harder to have children than she did. Then she would tell us how many babies she had lost in order to have us.

Lost. The word resounded throughout my body.

When I was very small I worried that I too would be lost, as I often was in the grocery store. When I understood that her babies had died before they were born it didn’t help. My mother talked about the lost babies to express her love for us. She went through eleven pregnancies to have a family with three living children. I did the math. My brother, sister and I were conceived because those babies died. I tried talking to my sister about it once but she didn’t understand.

“They weren’t even people yet,” she told me. “They were probably smaller than a minnow. Don’t get all weird about it.”

But they were people to my mother. And to me.

Sitting at our desks during indoor recess, vying for attention, I casually mentioned to my friends, Jennifer and Stephanie and Julie, that I would have had a big family but lots of the babies died. I knew this wasn’t really true. My parents planned to have three kids, they just wouldn’t have had me. I also knew it was wrong to make family grief into a public tale even if it gave me momentary thrill of popularity.

“Oh, the poor babies,” Jennifer said.

“How many babies?” Stephanie wanted to know.

“Lots,” I said. “Eight babies.” I knew I’d gone too far.

Judy overheard, and she piped up, “I’m telling Mrs. Lauver.”

I felt my fate as tightly sealed as the braids my mother lovingly bound in colors to match my dress. I was in trouble.

After the tattletale got to her, Mrs. Lauver called me up to her desk. My knees trembled when she paid attention to me. I was a good student, but sometimes my teacher called me names and then pointed out that I was blushing. We had moved the year before and rules from my last school, such as rising when called upon, had been hard for me to break for the first week. Mrs. Lauver called me a “jumping jack” and punished me when I didn’t stop standing up right away. That started it. It seemed she was always after me.

But this time I’d brought it on myself.

Everyone watched as I walked up to the front of the room. No one got called up to the teacher’s desk during indoor recess. The teacher normally had that time off, sitting with her friends in the smoke-filled lounge, so she tended to ignore us and read a thick paperback at her desk, her chair turned slightly away from the class as if we weren’t her responsibility. We honored that inattention by keeping the hubbub down. After recess she would read a chapter of Charlotte’s Web to us.  She always threatened that if we got too loud she might deny us that privilege and go right to social studies.

I went up to Mrs. Lauver’s desk as slowly as possible. Anxiety made my senses acute. I could smell the awful geraniums she kept on the windowsill, their brown sickly leaves rotting away. I could feel my classmates’ eager curiosity—-cartoon watchers waiting for the silly wabbit to be shot. As I got closer I could see where the teacher’s too tight sleeveless dress cut into her flesh, the frighteningly hard texture of her hair and the orange-hued makeup on her face. I wanted my mother badly. Her dresses were loose, her hair soft, her face never anything like my teacher’s.

I should have been planning what to say, but a liar sticks to the story, sometimes makes it worse. I made it worse. I stood at the desk, unsure of what to do with my hands that twisted the ends of my braids. I insisted that our family did have lots of children once but they died.

“Oh, and how did that happen?” She had a tight smile on her face.

I thought about it.

I saw them inside my head, my unknown brothers and sisters. They would have been older than me. If they had lived, I would not have been born. To me, their deaths felt like a gift and a burden. Standing there at Mrs. Lauver’s desk I saw their lives pass without breath in the darkness of water, waves breaking over their heads in the distance. I could almost see their faces. So I said simply, “They drowned.”

Despite further questions I couldn’t get another word out.

“I’m calling your mother,” the teacher said. “We’ll see what she has to say .”

That awful outcast’s land. Wanting one’s mama, but being in trouble. Now how could I rush home to a welcoming hug when I would encounter anger? My stomach folded up and I had to remember what my face was supposed to look like the rest of the afternoon.

After school there was a scene. My mother said that only bad people were liars. Liars grow up to commit crimes and go to jail. Over and over she asked, “Just tell me, why would you make up such an awful story?

All I could answer was, “I don’t know.”

I didn’t. What I said about the lost babies couldn’t be explained. I took my spanking and went to my room. My parents had a conversation later and came up with a punishment—write an apology to my teacher for lying. My notebook paper was filled with carefully printed words, but they were just shapes. I didn’t feel anything I’d written.

When I stood there in front of Mrs. Lauver that afternoon I was being honest. I told her what I saw. A child may not have words for what she knows even on the day she begins to understand that there are no neat categories for truth and lies.

I haven’t forgotten those lost babies. I hope I live as a testament to the joys they never knew, like telling stories true as our shared DNA.

Are Your Past Loves Hidden?

telling all in a relationship, total truth in relationship, sexual honesty,

Flickr photostream of qthomasbower

I was a teenaged bride (really). I began dating a tall, open-hearted 16-year-old guy when I was 14. I had a few middle school boyfriends before him, as well as a crush on a Jesus lookalike named Joe (which ended before it began when I fell headfirst into his locker while trying to coolly walk by) but never a true “past love.” We married when I was 18 and he was 20. Depending on how you look at it, either we missed out on all the fun of falling in love with other people or we were spared the emotional damage of falling in love with other people.

Everyone else I know has been in relationships that ended, often badly. Many of them in marriages that ended, also badly. When they talk about these former partners they tend to emphasize the negative. Surely this is a necessary part of the healing process, helping them to recognize where they were wounded as well as where they may have done some wounding. But sometimes, from my very limited experience in this area, I wonder why pain and anger seem to weigh down the rest of their memories— the funny ones, tender ones, and ordinary ones—memories that are an integral part of their earlier years. In truth, every fully lived moment goes into making a person who she or he is today.

Until I talked to Kate Harper and Leon Marasco, authors of If Only I Could Tell You..: Where Past Loves and Current Intimacy Meet, I hadn’t given much thought to past loves. They told me when they fell in love they learned to share the stories of their hearts’ travels as well as the feelings those stories still evoked. Doing so brought their relationship to profoundly deeper levels of intimacy and acceptance. They didn’t have to close off or reframe any part of their emotional lives. For example, Kate only heard a certain song the time her former partner Ted tenderly sang it to her. One day while she and Leon were sitting in a café, that song came on. Her eyes filled with tears, tears she didn’t have to pretend weren’t there. Leon already knew about Ted and how much that song meant to her. He reached across the table to hold her hand and they sat together sharing those feelings safely within their own cherished relationship.

They acknowledge that there are reasons to avoid talking about memories, but find even more reasons for speaking openly. As they write,

We are forever changed through what we have felt and experienced within an intimate relationship. That in itself is worth knowing. In the light remaining from each previous love, we can better see our inner world, see who we are. No matter how the romance ended, it began in hopes and dreams and that mysterious spark, not all of it physical, that brings lovers together. All of this is true whether we find a new love or remain alone.

And why does it matter if we recognize this? It matters in that we are creatures who thrive on the natural flow of what sustains us, nourishes us, strengthens us. Past loves—the special and profound energy fields they still engender—are one source of our lifeblood.

Their book includes interviews with 28 men and women, each talking frankly about how memories of former loves echo in their current lives. They also write about what is important to consider before sharing, as well as ways to think about when, how, and why that sharing might take place.

I have no memories of past loves to share, beyond those first self-doubting and all too often klutzy moments shared with middle school boyfriends equally new to romance. So I ask you to help me out of this ignorance. Do you hide the tender, funny, ordinary memories shared with your past loves?

Ask The Most Powerful Question

wisdom of elders, ask the most powerful question, what should I know, is there something you want to tell me,

Image courtesy of dimkatm.deviantart.com

“I ask once or twice a year,” she told me. “But it’s a powerful question. It should only be used wisely.”

I was interviewing a woman I’ll call Ms. C. for an article on faith and spirituality. She was truly an elder. I don’t mean age-wise, although she appeared to be in her mid-seventies or beyond. By elder I mean the sort of person who lives deeply and gladly passes along what she has learned.

Ms. C. dressed up for our meeting. She wore a navy blue suit and dazzlingly patterned silk shirt, a tiny hat perched on her elaborately coiffed hair, and bright red lipstick that made her dark skin glow. The pants and sweater I’d tossed on looked pretty casual by comparison.

Ms. C talked about seeing the divine in all things. She spoke precisely, with poetic imagery, but also slid easily into humorous retorts. I felt a wondrous enlargement of spirit in her presence and was, frankly, reluctant to end our interview.

Then she mentioned that she employed the most powerful question of all.

I waited to find out what that might be.

She told me that it should be asked only when the questioner felt strong and ready for the answers. And it should only be asked of those who loved you and could be trusted to tell the truth.

She told me she asked her husband (of 42 years) every now and then. She also asked her sisters and close friends, usually when she felt prompted by some unknown impulse.

The question seems simple: “Is there something I should know?”

She said the answers it evokes are rarely simple.

When Ms. C. kept receiving important and sometimes surprising answers to that question it inspired her friends to take up the question too. She gave me a few examples.

~A neighbor was told by everyone she asked that she needed to seek medical help for a condition she thought was under control.

~A friend was advised to stop wearing clothes that were too tight and too young for her.

~A fellow churchgoer found out that his son was back on drugs.

~One person was informed that a long-standing habit of his infuriated his best friend.

~A former co-worker learned that she came across as haughty and cold, and needed to learn how to get past her shyness to let people see her warmth.

~A friend was told that a secret he thought had been buried long ago was out but no one had wanted to break the news to him.

Ms. C. says that she mostly listens to what the Quakers call the “small still voice” inside her but she has one ear open to what else she might need to know.

I tend to think there’s peace right beyond the need of answers but I won’t deny that Ms. C’s question has its uses. Nor will I deny that truth-telling feels wonderfully liberating.

Do you have a truth just itching to get free, if only a certain person would ask you?

And what about truth seeking? Will you be asking the most powerful question?

Do You Tell The Truth About Santa?

A few decades ago I indulged in some concerns about the likelihood of Santa’s existence while playing with a neighbor kid. A reasonably science-minded kindergartener, I wondered aloud how reindeer could fly without wings. I speculated about the chimney girth problem and the issue of children who lived in fireplace-free homes. And then, as if no one else had encountered these breaches in holiday logic, I asked how Santa could fly across the whole world in one night.

I was torn, wanting my friend to take me seriously but also hoping he’d prop up my fading sense of magic. I was disappointed when he dismissed every one of my speculations.

Later that day his mother called my mother. Her son was upset. According to her I’d ruined his belief in Santa. She said I wasn’t a nice little girl at all. That we were the same age didn’t seem to matter. My mother, who held politeness up there with God and cleanliness, insisted I apologize to Mrs. Barton right there on the phone.

After that particular trauma I badgered my mother for days until she fessed up. The truth stung. My older sister was in on the falsehood. Other kids at school probably were too, but by some twist of propriety they knew better than to tell believers, even if they felt superior to Santa holdouts. Clearly a victim of my mother’s politeness gene, I felt awful when it hit me that I’d been opening packages every year thinking that Santa owed me for my good behavior when all along those gifts were lovingly bought and wrapped by my parents. And I’d never even thanked them.

Fast forward a few decades. I vowed I would not follow the collective Santa lie with my own children. Sure, the truth might lead them right into the same minefield of logic versus belief with some other kid. That isn’t a bad thing, it’s how kids learn to think for themselves (as long as their parents don’t run interference). But I had no intention of killing Santa entirely. That’s because small children inhabit a different world than the rest of us. They don’t make clear distinctions between fantasy and reality. There’s probably something to that. Ever notice how happy little kids are? So I wanted an approach that kept wonder and excitement alive.

The philosophy I decided to use with my own four kids was based on the classic 1897 newspaper column titled “Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” written by Francis Pharcellus Church. It reads, in part,

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.”

I took the casual approach. I never hyped Santa, any more than I promoted the whole commercial side of Christmas. No “better be good for Santa.” No Santa at the mall (pretty easy with our mall avoidance lifestyle).

Sure, we still like Christmas carols that mention Santa. And my family cheerfully accommodates the thing I have for that early 60’s special, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, even welcoming my teary-eyed joy at the scene when hope returns to the Island of Misfit Toys. But we keep the holidays simple.

My reply to “Is Santa real?” has always been, “Everyone who loves children is Santa’s helper.” The few times I’ve gotten more questions, which happened rarely because kids like to keep that possibility alive, I explained that even grown-ups like to believe too. By the time kids reach a certain age, they know what my answer means. Either it means there’s no Santa or their Mom is a believer. Maybe I am. I’ve lived long enough to know that there’s magic everywhere. I just call it by different names: love, hope, faith, and compassion.

Oh yeah, and forgiveness. By the next day Mrs. Barton’s kid was already over it.