As it turns out, I lied to my high school students.
I, who prided myself in being a straight shooter, who felt my gentle but honest way was the cornerstone to who I was in the classroom, blatantly lied.
At 23, I was named the director of Student Activities at the high school where I coached and taught, not because I was mature and wise or supremely capable, but because I was 23 and school administrators figured who better to give up her nights, weekends, spring breaks, etc to put on pep rallies and pageants, travel with the kids around the southeast to conferences, work football and basketball games, you get the picture. But I loved these kids, loved being with them and learning from them, and, maybe just maybe, I’d be able to impart something on them along the way. So I was in, full-heart.
It was on one of those out of town conference trips that I told that whopper of a lie. We were eating lunch at a Wendy’s en route from here to there. We’d played the customary practical jokes on each other along the way and were now just talking about the days ahead, and, like any teens, they wanted to know what they’d be allowed to do.
And like anyone caring for someone else’s kids, I was pretty protective. They were probably hoping that I’d be lenient because I was 23. But it was because I was 23 that the opposite was true. I knew way too much about what could befall them if my expectations were low or unclear. I tightened my grip on them.
“You’re stricter than my parents,” one of them groaned with both affection and annoyance.
And that’s when I told the lie- though, back then, I was so certain that I was right. It would take me more than a decade to realize how poorly I knew myself, how cavalier I had been about my heart.
“Look,” I answered. “You are somebody else’s kid, and I’ve been entrusted with your safety. I’m not messing around with that responsibility. Now, if you were my kid, I’d tell you to have at it and not even notice if you were playing in the street. But you aren’t my kid.”
There are goats near our house whose job it is to eat the kudzu along a beautiful trail. Happy loves those goats, and we go to see them often. To keep the goats accounted for and safe from coyotes, they are enclosed in an electric fence. Happy knows that he cannot touch the fence; he seems to understand that he should stay away, and, yet, every time we go to see the goats, panic licks my stomach. As he tries to assert his independence by drifting away from me, I reassert my mother-ness by stepping closer. He steps away, I step closer. We do this dance already, and he is only two.
Before I became a mother, I rarely- if ever- suffered anxiety of any kind nor was I sentimental. In fact, I would have probably answered that I was fundamentally unsentimental. Now, the outfit Happy wore on the day we met is packed away for posterity. I nurse a stomachache more often than I care to admit. This isn’t to say I have generalized anxiety, anxiety is really serious, and I don’t want to belittle its diagnosis or treatment at all. What I do wish to say is that motherhood has changed me. It has given me the most precious thing I’ve ever experienced. And it has made me profoundly aware of how much damage, how much devastation loss would cause. It has made me even more sensitive to suffering. I send him off sometimes, without me, and I think, will they love him like I do? Will he make good choices? Will they recognize his inherent sweetness in the midst of all that in-your-face energy? Will he be safe? Will he be treated kindly? Will anything break his spirit while he’s away? Will he remember that he is loved and cherished? Will his needs get met? Will he be able to meet his own needs? Can he do it?
There will be a day when Happy pulls away from me as we walk downtown- where my firm YOU MUST HOLD MY HAND grip and voice will no longer hold muster (just so you know, I am imagining this day will happen when he is 18)- and my heart will soar into my throat. It will pulsate there; it will vibrate to me with an emphaetic SAVE ME, SAVE ME, it will simultaneously laugh at and scold that cavalier 23 year old who said she’d let her kid dance so dangerously close to the edge. And I will be holding these words on the knife-edge blade of my tongue: COME BACK! COME BACK RIGHT NOW! YOU CAN’T BECAUSE I CAN”T HANDLE IT. I will cover my mouth with my palm, clamp down the terror, and I will say to myself, “It’s okay. You are screaming these things to protect your own heart, but to build his heart you must let him go.”
And I will think of my sweet, once 17 year old students. How they were more ready than I realized. How loving them was a gift I gave them but protecting them forever was not my right. I will remember how they each blossomed. I will marvel at their continued loveliness. I will seek comfort in the truth that it is the foundation you lay down that matters. Not the walls you create from fear.