Last Sunday I was sitting at Pacesetter Park on a sunny afternoon, eagerly awaiting the final game of a soccer tournament. Earlier in the day, Satish's mom had called to say his team had advanced in the rankings and if I was available, he'd love to have me come and watch him play. Usually I spend Sundays catching up on paperwork, editing, and preparing for the week ahead. But I'd watched Satish's team compete the day before and was delighted to see how well they worked together. So, I kicked myself into high gear and in no time had finished most of what I needed to accomplish so I could hightail it over to the park.
When I arrived, Satish's older sister, Neela, was sitting by the sidelines working on her geometry homework. "Satish kept asking if you were coming," she brightened. "He's been watching for you."
"I'm so glad I could surprise him," I smiled.
Just then I saw him warming up on the soccer filed. He turned to look my way and I gave him a little wave. Satish was too focused to wave back, but even in the distance I could feel his delight in seeing me on the sidelines. Sometimes Satish and I don't need words at all to communicate.
But boy, oh boy...ten minutes later when the game started, I heard all kinds of choice words coming from the woman who stood inches behind my chair...and they weren't very nice at all. She loudly cracked her gum and shouted at her son to move faster...to pick up his feet...to stop being so lazy. She said she was tired of watching him play and threatened on more than one occasion to leave the game so she wouldn't have to suffer anymore. I won't repeat everything she screamed, but suffice it to say, with every syllable that passed her lips, my stomach ached a little more for her child.
Near the end of the first half I whispered to Neela, "I need to move or I'm going to turn around and say that parents like her are one of the reasons I quit teaching."
Neela nodded in agreement. "Aren't parents supposed to support their children?"
"That's the idea," I replied. "You and I certainly would." Just then my pal made a great defensive play and we both cheered, shouting, "Way to go, Satish!"
Even so, the woman behind me continued to verbally berate her son...and puke her vile energy all over me. At one point she shouted something particularly abusive and I turned around to glare at her, but she didn't notice as she was too busy snapping her gum while she hawk-eyed her child, tearing apart his every move. Never mind that the boys had already played three fast-paced games in less than forty-eight hours. Never mind that they were all pretty exhausted. Never mind that the kid was only ten-years-old.
I knew that confronting the woman about her behavior would probably cause a minor explosion and I didn't want to risk antagonizing her. Still, with every nasty comment that flew from her lips, every verbal slap, I shrunk a little more into myself.
At half time, while I moved my chair to the other side of Neela, the angry mother stomped to the other side of the soccer field where the coach was conferring with the boys. Crossing her arms, she stood on the sidelines, glaring at her kid until the coach came over and talked to her. He pointed to where the rest of us sat waiting for the game to resume, so she stomped back over and stood paces away from me. Thank God.
But still, she continued to chastise her son...again and again and again. Later, when I found out that she worked with children, I cringed. And while I have no idea how her child behaves at home or anywhere else, I can't believe he (or any kid for that matter) deserves to have his mother stand on the sidelines and trash talk him. If I saw that mother beat her son, I'd be law-bound to report it. What could I do but helplessly stand there and watch the invisible wounds she was inflicting with every sharp word...every insulting comment? Over the years I've learned that it's the emotional scars which take the longest to heal and it broke my heart that I could nothing about the poor, little boy's invisible injuries.
These days, when I chat with my former first graders, many of them will say, "When I was your student, you were firm, but fair...and you were funny."
I'll take that trifecta in stride and say that while I knew my kids needed reliable boundaries, I also knew they needed a teacher who was kind and compassionate. While most of my students had some pretty stellar parents, many of them came from homes in which they were yelled at constantly. Some were neglected. Others were an afterthought. Many of them arrived at school shrunken into themselves, and I could very clearly recognize the signs of emotional abuse.
So in the last several years I taught, I never yelled. I never screamed or verbally slapped my kids. In fact, they knew that if I became silent, I was truly frustrated and they needed to change some dicey behavior or there would be an imminent consequence. When a child struggled, as all kids sometimes do, I gave him/her alternate choices, and when that failed, I often took the kid on my lap and read them a book.
And that worked every single time.
Perhaps I'm a little more sensitive because I know what it feels like to be yelled at incessantly, to have spent the better part of my childhood on pins and needles, unsure if anything I did was to my father's satisfaction. Every weekend, my sisters and I were under strict orders to complete our chores before we could watch Saturday morning cartoons. Since neither of my sisters wanted to get sweaty outside, I cut the grass, and often completed the job on Friday night so I could sleep in on Saturday, then watch Bugs Bunny while eating a bowl of corn flakes. If my sisters were agreeable, I could talk them into washing both my parents' cars on Friday as well. We meticulously swept the carpet, scrubbed the whitewall tires with steel wool pads, and polished the windows until they sparkled.
When we were finished, our work had to pass my father's stringent inspection. If he found one drip, or even one speck of dirt on the sideboards, we were ordered to "get it right." Always he ordered us to move "faster, faster!"
One Friday afternoon I came home from school and immediately cut the grass, trimming carefully and sweeping the errant blades off the sidewalk. I went inside to take a shower and when I came back out, my sisters were sitting on the lawn playing.
"Get up!" I shouted at them. "You'll mess up the grass and Dad hasn't inspected it yet!"
They laughed at me, but rose to their feet. Even though I was clean from the shower and it disgusted me to do it, I got down on my hands and knees and fluffed up the grass where they had been sitting so it would look perfect for my father's painstaking scrutiny.
When I was reluctantly confronted by another parent's scorn for her child, it ripped the band-aid off the wound I thought I had already healed. I went home that night and thought about all the years I spent trying to live up to someone else's extremely high standards...standards that I've never felt were attainable - then or now. I sat in silence for a while, more fully recognizing the source of my workaholism, my past addictions to sugar and caffeine and over-the-counter stimulants that kept me moving at the speed of a whirling dervish for decades.
Sure I was productive...but at what cost? After years of never-ending approval seeking, I eventually imploded and all of the pain I had shoved aside while I worked my butt off boomeranged right back at me until I could no longer ignore it. Even now I find myself gently healing the dregs of old perfectionistic behavior that I thought had long since been swept away.
But it's been worth it.
Tomorrow afternoon I'll take Satish to soccer practice. His teammate with the angry mother will surely be there, although I don't really know what he looks like. It doesn't really matter. I'll send all of the boys encouraging thoughts of support and kindness, and pray that the little boy who has tried very hard to do his best will attract the most. I imagine he needs them.
And his mother does too, for I've learned that if someone is at peace with themselves, they have no need to berate or control another person. Her behavior wasn't born in a vacuum either. Perhaps she was pushed too hard as a child and doesn't know any other way to be. But I'll be the change I want to see on the soccer field and cheer for all of the kids, not just the ones I know.
After all, they're just little boys, learning how to be men.
After all, they're just little boys, learning how to be men.