The end of the school year often brings about a plethora of evening gatherings and events, celebrating and showcasing the work that students have done for the entirety of the school year. At my daughter’s school, this was very much the case with their Annual Family Night presentations. They had worked hard for the entire semester perfecting their speaking abilities and mastering their knowledge on one topic. And this night, this event, was rather like the crown jewel in their efforts. The cherry on top of the sundae that was a strained and loathed curriculum.
My daughter, who was not too eager to step into the limelight, slunk through it all with the ease of any wallflower, wishing her part would come and go without notice, praying away the minutes until it was time to leave. And I would be remiss if I weren’t secretly admitting the same. Not from a shyness standpoint (though I am, painfully), but really from a boredom standpoint. Not boredom about her topic (which was the tropical rainforest, by the way – see, I do listen!). Really just distracted detachment due to the plight of being there as an unfocused mother of another child, one who was three-years old and headed for a meltdown.
After the first hour of doing everything in my power to maintain a wrestling hold on my little squirming monster, I was pretty well spent long before her grade level was even on the brink of stepping out. I kept checking my watch, hoping the time would magically whiz by in a rush of warp speed. All I could think about was the bedtime we would be late to catch, the punch-drunkedness that was starting to take effect on my little guy, and how to keep him from saying his new favorite word (poopy) at the top of his lungs. No small feat!
Of course, we were in the middle of the middle row, so I could neither escape quickly nor with any sort of grace. But, the time was coming. I knew I had literally minutes before the ticking time bomb of a toddler would go off. Countdown was already happening – it was just a matter of when!
I kept checking the exits, measuring whose legs were longest and which direction would be the best point of leave. I glanced at the back, looking for a safe spot where I could take my cantankerous son while still being able to watch my daughter. Ever hopeful that I could live in both worlds at once – like all good mothers. And, of course, it felt like I was the only one in the auditorium suffering through this sort of ordeal. Everyone else had older children, better behaved children. Silent babies. Mannerly toddlers. And they also had complete focus on the videos they were recording. Complete involvement in the world we were so focused on removing ourselves from.
Just as I could hear it, the start of my son’s soliloquy of potty words, I made a mad scramble for the exit. I jumbled through the legs of many, reciting a pitiful “sorry” and “excuse me” with intermittent bouts of eye contact and half-hearted smiles. In the moment of my passing, I was blocking parents from seeing their kids’ presentations. Snickers could be heard. And over that, my son’s loud voice was starting to cause a ruckus. We were both, together, ruining the moment. I felt like a pariah. Like the person who was responsible for wrecking the night. Like the one that all eyes were watching.
Though I know so many of the moms who were present had been in my shoes before, I couldn’t help but feel a little judged. If I were able to hear their thoughts, I was certain they would have sounded like: “Why can’t she keep her son quiet?” “Looks like she’s raising a brat!” “Where’s her husband?” “Why did she sit so close to the front?” “Does she even have a kid in this school? I’ve never seen her at a PTA meeting!” “One word, lady: babysitter!”
Just as I made it to the back, I saw her. You know, the mom that all the other moms talk about. As I passed, I noticed a faint smell of whisky looming in the air around her. Her dark, curly hair was a slight birds’ nest of a mess. Her clothes, ill fitting, aimed desperately to be professional in appearance, though fell short because of the small specks of food (or something) that had stained the corner of her lapel. I watched her for a moment, almost gawking that someone was more awkward than me – me with my over-tired babbling boy, screaming through the rows about his new found fecal philia.
This mom, she clapped ferociously after every child’s pause in speech. And sometimes when they weren’t yet done. She cheered occasionally the way that college girls do at Mardi Gras when they catch a string of beads. A long “WHHOOOOOOOOOHOOOO,” even raising up her hands as if she were on an amusement park ride. And toward the end, she started throwing out phrases like an eager and raucous church lady, saying “Uh huh, that’s right” or “You tell ‘em!” And to one of the boys she even stood up and said “You go, girl.”
In my prior haste to get to the back of the room, I had noticed the thick and steaming snickers of judgement pervading the air around me. Because I can be a bit self-centered, I had misinterpreted it to think that they were all aimed at me. But they weren’t. Not most of them, anyway. After watching for a moment, I realized that they had been directed at this mom. The mom that all the other moms avoid.
Finally, as it was time for her daughter and my daughter (who were in the same class) to make their presentations, I noticed the kids shuffling out with timid confusion. They each came out in a small groups, mumbling briefly into a dusty old microphone before scooting off into the shadows. I was able to catch my daughter’s presentation before she scurried off with the rest. She had been so nervous, but when she saw us in the audience, even though we had moved so far to the back, she smiled with ease and seemed to instantly relax. The juxtaposition between my daughter and her classmate, however, was profound.
This woman’s little girl seemed to have the opposite reaction when she saw her mother. Her otherwise fearless countenance flickered with a hint of panic. You could tell she was holding back tears – tears of disappointment, tears of upset, tears of sorrow. She seemed to have the whole weight of the world on her tiny shoulders, aware of all that could, and probably did, go wrong when her mother was in this “state.” And her mom, who was near us, rose from her seat to a standing position and projected louder her boozy pride from the distance. Clearly the daughter wanted to quickly hurry into the shadows, too.
The evening’s event ended as they always do, with a big heap of gratitude offered from the flustered and ever-perspiring Principal. I walked through the crowd, with my tired son wriggling in my arms, on the quest to round up my daughter to go home. As I did, I overheard a lot of people’s conversations. Most of them, sadly, were about the mom with the drinking problem. The one the other moms wish would just go away.
They talked about how unfortunate it was. How sad for the girl. How many days on the wagon she had been before falling off again. There were even a few guesses about how many drinks she had drunk before coming. And how many more she would have when she got home. Everyone was talking about her. But no one was helping. No one was even considering lending a hand.
Not that there was a lot anyone could do, right? Our culture is one that recognizes problems and then just expects the person to suck it up and move forward. But how? How does one do that if they are living with a debilitating mental condition? How can they get help if the “village” has moved to the other side of their reach, thereby cutting them off from community or the support needed to get such help?
I didn’t know enough about her to answer those questions. And I wasn’t a therapist (unlike one of the other moms, who should have known better than to be so…cruel). But what I did know was that she had not long ago moved here from another city. She was a little rough around the edges, sure. She hadn’t ever really folded into the mix in terms of the group of moms at the school, obviously. But then again, neither had I. We were kind of the same. Both subject to the scoffing of other more perfect parents. Both feeling outside of the loop. Both hampered by big, loud diversions that caused constant embarrassment. Yet, despite our flaws, both of us were here to support (loudly or otherwise) our daughters.
Maybe because I saw myself in her a little (minus the Jim Beam infusion), I decided later on that I would stop being one of those people whose actions and deeds didn’t match. If I spoke of concern, I would act on it. If I thought someone needed help, I would offer it. And if I presented myself as a friend, I would actually be one. Not like those other parents. The ones who sat and judged everyone else, wishing away all those things/people that weren’t perfect.
We can’t save the world. No! But we can be real and show real concern for people in our communities. And maybe that small impact can make a larger ripple in the lives of those we would have otherwise cast aside. Just offering to be that friendly hand in the crowd may save someone’s life.