I was 7 years old when I discovered that my mother, who had always been my go-to person for every problem, was not a superwoman. With Dad struggling to make a living, money was in short supply, and Mom went to work so we could afford the basics of food and rent. However, I was an incredibly secure child because Mom had always made me understand that she would always be there for me.
As a second-grader, I had the misfortune of being assigned to Mrs. A’s class. I was frightened because the word on the playground was circulating about Mrs. A’s meanness. She made it clear that her classroom would be a model of order and discipline, and that disobedience would not be tolerated.
Mrs. A had repeatedly warned us never to talk or raise our hands during our weekly spelling test, but in the middle of one test, two dimes fell to the floor. I reached out to tap the shoulder of the girl in front of me but pulled back my hand, remembering immediately Mrs. A’s instruction to remain silent at exam time. I bent down, scooped up the coins and placed them in the open drawer under my desk, intending to return them after the exam.
But I never got my chance. Realizing that her coins were missing, the girl raised her hand to report the loss. Before I could raise my hand, Mrs. A roared, “Who has stolen R’s money?” I panicked. If I raised my hand and said I had the dimes, I would be labeled a thief. Paralyzed with indecision and fear, I sat frozen in place. As Mrs. A moved up and down the aisles, checking desks and drawers, I believed the sound of my pounding heart would surely betray me.
Mrs. A found the coins and ordered me to stand in front of the room. Launching into a tirade about wicked children who steal, she reminded the class that prisons are filled with such offenders. I hung my head in shame as 30 pairs of eyes stared in my direction. The principal was summoned, and my mother was called from work to remove her thieving daughter from school.
Walking home, my mother listened as I related the events, sobbing. “Make this thing go away, Mom,” I cried. “Never let me see Mrs. A again!” Mom gently told me that she did not have the power to do that, nor could she dispel the agony of my experience. What an incredible blow to find that my strong, capable mother was powerless to fix my problem! Unable to wrap myself in what had always been the security blanket of my mother, I was overwhelmed with despair.
After a while, my mother reminded me that although I was only 7, I could help myself by retelling the story to the principal. All I needed was the confidence to speak and tell the truth. The next day, I returned to the principal’s office, clenching my mother’s hand tightly and, through tears, I repeated the tale, using my own words to defend myself. That accomplishment was even more satisfying than the principal’s reassurance that I could change teachers, that Mrs. A would be reprimanded for her handling of the situation, and that the class would hear the events as I had related them.
I came of age that day. I had been abused by a cruel individual. I had discovered that, although I was loved, my parents could not always solve my problems, nor speak for me in times of trouble. I also learned of my own strength to survive and work through challenges in an imperfect world. This was an enduring lesson that I hope I have passed on to my children, as well as to all the children I have taught.
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