I’m talking ’bout the bad girls

My mom, a classic hoarder, kept all my elementary, middle and high school report cards in a big binder. She also kept my shots records, my ballet recital programs, a few pictures of the embarrassing ballet costumes and some of the napkins that Billy Dee Williams used to wipe his mouth during the filming of some movie down in Chester.

“One day,” she said with a deep, prophetic, Moses-bringing-down-the-commandments voice, “you can show these to your children.”

A couple of weekends ago, I hauled out the book and presented it to the kids (mistake 1), certain they’d be honored to be offspring of a musician/ballerina/scout/French-speaking Baptist (mistake 2). They laughed at my first ballet photos (awkward with nasty shoes) and ooohed over my last ones (graceful with feathers and nice slippers). But they ignored the other good stuff and honed in on my report cards. They noted I made A’s in everything but math. Then they focused on the behavior part.

Back then, report cards had a grading system of A, S and U. A – prepare for sorority parties. S – prepare for shop classes, which was an insult back then, and U – Who the hell are you kidding? Go home and start over, girl. There also was a grid with boxes for behavior in general, attitude, cooperation, courtesy, self-control and study habits, which also used the A/S/U scale along with a system of checks. A – teacher’s pet. S – get some bail money ready because the teenage years will be rough. U – hellbent for jail and starring roles in Britney Spears songs about criminals.

When I was kid, I thought I had done a stellar job because a lot of my boxes were checked, but Mom finally set me straight. If nothing was checked, you didn’t have a problem. If the teacher checked a slot, then you needed to work on that area.

Ohhh…

I had not been a courteous, respectful, quiet little self-starter. I was a lippy, out-of-control hell-raiser who cheerfully, effectively, promptly and readily fought authority and rules at every turn and at the top of my voice.

Some of the comments: “needs to keep her mind on her seatwork.” “she still talks too much.” “she still needs to work on her behavior.” “sure to make a U in conduct.” Making a U meant you failed; an S meant you were just  doing ok. That teacher, 3rd grade, Ms. Daisy McDuffie, gave me an S—-. She had hope, bless her heart.

After all the time I’d spent in the Catholic School naughty corner staring at the crucifix, after the times I’d been sent to find my own switch, after all the welts from the belt strap – why was anybody surprised about my school behavior?

“What was wrong with you?” my younger kid asked. “That was just sad. Why couldn’t you just pay attention?”

I thought about it. What WAS wrong? Was I bored? Confused? Starved for attention? Just plain BAD? Face it. I was bad. I was the kid that very few parents wanted to see coming. I wasn’t horrible, just defiant. Always asking WHY? Didn’t care who I offended. At church meeting, I interrupted once to ask “WHY?” and got nasty stares and a pinch from my great-grandma for being insubordinate. After I wrecked my car with a friend in it (in high school), I told the friend’s dad, an Army officer, to step up and get his own son from band practice. When another friend’s parents told me my skirt was too short, I asked them why they were looking. I played with firearms. I raced cars. I cut class.

I worried every year up until college that THIS YEAR would be the one Santa threw in the towel.

The kids are still laughing, and it’s actually nice to have this part of my past in the open, even if it’s cold revenge for my Mom. We can discuss it with logic – when they stop laughing. And when they get lippy/resentful/defiant/bad/etc, I’ll add notes to their permanent records and patiently wait for grandchildren.

Dear college student: A letter from Mama

Sweet Penn State students, listen up: This is Mama talking.

I hope you realize that this is going to be the biggest lesson you take from school. It is partly about getting the whole story – and we don’t have the whole story yet – and partly about being decent human beings. It is about protecting the ones who need it, and it is about doing what’s right – no matter how hard or unpopular “right” might be. It is about emotions and life, choices and expectations.

It has taken me days to write this because I’ve been going from web site to TV station to iPad app to newspaper, just so I could be sure your sisters, who are news junkies and will not stay away from current events, had their questions answered about what’s going on up there and what they should expect from adults who are supposed to protect them (including their parents). And the news keeps coming.

Let’s pause for a moment and say this: nobody has been proven guilty. These are charges, which means people are accused. Incorrect accusations ruin lives. So can silence.

Have you read the accusations in the newspapers? Use that ABC news app on your iPad and call up some stories. Find out that a seemingly caring, committed coach allegedly stalked, primed, seduced – SEDUCED – children. Find out that he allegedly used his non-profit to find kids. Find out that the reports say he took them for rides and caressed their thighs while in the car. If this is true, he will go to jail.

I was worried about you Wednesday night. You were so upset, and I wanted to know what EXACTLY prodded you to push over a TV news van (worth about $300,000).

Was it the fact that children were reportedly stalked, lured, and raped?

Was it the fact that a grandfatherly man had the power to do more, but for some reason didn’t, according to reports? Was it the general “somebody else will take care of it” attitude that seemed to be pervasive before the meltdown?

Was it the fact that institutional avoidance and high-dollar entertainment, along with a state law that doesn’t require direct reporting of child abuse, seemed to take disgusting precedence over common sense, integrity and humanity?

Was it the fact that everybody who did any kind of reporting, telling, accusing thought they had done what they were “supposed” to do?

I guess you didn’t stop to think until Friday night, when you and your friends showed up at a candlelight vigil for abuse victims, right? And then you all decided to wear blue to the game to show solidarity with abuse victims?

When did it hit you that it’s not about anything that takes place in the Saturday sunshine? And have you figured out that it will take more than wearing blue for one day to move this mountain? Yes, it’s a start, and I’m so proud of you, but you can’t stop here. I’m not saying you have to change majors from environmental science to social work or give up your dream of hiking in Peru. But you do have to consider how, when you are a young person outside of a college setting, you will handle dirty situations. You will face them. What will you do?

By the way, have you read any part of the official paperwork? Do so. Call me when you finish throwing up.

And, dear offspring of mine, you don’t have to be parents to be angry at abusers. No, you don’t need to have children to be furious. You need only to have been a child at some point in your life. And because you still are children, the pure evil of these alleged acts doesn’t anger or frighten all of you the way it does people my age. But know this: plenty of non-parents  are in line with a baseball bat and a blanket, waiting for revenge on abusers.

So, this is why the board made the decision to fire the Penn State president and JoePa. When you are the boss, and you might be one day, YOU take the fall for the bad.

By the way, the words “slap, slap” have been mentioned as sounds that people heard during the alleged incidents. If you are in a sexual situation against your will and the words “slap, slap” can be applied, you, my sweets, are not having fun. If you can apply that last sentence to any part of your life, you have been raped and you need to tell somebody. Imagine being 10, 12, 16 and this happening to you. Imagine. If you see it happening, you need to tell. No, don’t put it out of your minds. THINK about it.

Lemme tell you something: You don’t get to be my age without dropping the ball. I’ve failed in many areas. Disappointed in many. I will fail again and disappoint again. But I TRY not to fail. Now it appears that many people dropped a ball that should have been simple to carry. Somebody should have kept talking and telling until somebody listened. And I’m betting that for years, tucked in the back of his brain, each one of those somebodies was thinking “I should’ve done more.”

You wonder why I don’t like scary movies? Because life has real monsters, and my worst fear is that one of them will get one of you.

Remember that. And remember these lessons. They are the most important ones you will have.

A kiss on my forehead

Younger Kid was cool from minute one.  When she was born, she opened her eyes for two seconds, SCREAMED, then shut her eyes for the better part of a week. When she opened them, finally, she looked at us and smiled, and I lost my heart.

Younger Kid is snarky, funny and kind. She has a soft spot for babies and older people; if you can take care of yourself, you’re on your own and she will tell you as much. She likes sitting with her adopted grandma in church because they share candy and watch the clock together. She calls both grandmas, her aunties and her great-grandma every Saturday morning. Her idea of fun is an afternoon trip to the Michael’s and a stop at the cooking supply store.

She asks me about my day and really listens. She steals my shoes. She speaks Spanish, Mac and PC. She despises snobs and people who mistreat the less fortunate, the not-as-talented, the ones who need more. She can discuss, quite well, music theory.

At 12, she still wants me to tuck her in and give her a kiss. Sometimes, I’m already in bed when she makes this request. I’ve been fighting what could be the onset of depression, so I’m tired early and can’t always get up immediately. But I do, eventually, and kiss her if she’s already asleep. I mumble “Mommy loves you.” On weekends, she stays up much later, and I will feel her kiss my forehead and tuck me in.

But …

The year before last, she spiraled downward. Grades fell. Her sensory processing disorder seemed to increase, reducing her to a shivering,wailing lump of misery almost daily. She couldn’t understand anything, couldn’t get any information from inside her brain to outside on her test paper, her theses. She snarled at us about everything: chores, homework, medicine, friends. She became obsessed with eating. She sniped at her pals, lost patience with everything, couldn’t follow lists of directions, couldn’t focus. She faked taking her medicine, which made her seizures increase from once every three months to once every six weeks and no doubt made the sensory processing disorder worse simply because of the toll on her brain. She talked about death and suicide. We looked for a counselor.

And she cut herself. One day, she took a tack and carved her initials into her arm. When she told me about it and showed me her arm, I couldn’t do anything but gather her into a hug and pray. A friend says the kid punked me. I say, ploy or not, she did something that screamed out for help.

We found somebody for her to talk to. We switched her seizure meds and her diet, steering us all toward an organic menu. The hubby began disappearing with her more often, taking her to visit his mom, his friends, giving her jobs to do with him. She came home with camera cards full of gorgeous photos. Slowly, her good days began to outnumber the bad; not one was perfect, but she saw a pleasing difference and leaned into the joy of feeling better. She talked to us more and more about her feelings, her thoughts, her attitude. She turned from needing negative reinforcement from us to wanting positive reinforcement from herself. She remained snarky, but she’s working on that. It’s hereditary.

Younger Kid smiled and meant it, a change because for a while, she was simply making muscle movements. Joy didn’t reach her eyes. And she cooked: Chicken cacciatore, red velvet cupcakes, fruit salad, strawberry trifle, rich chocolate brownies, banana pudding, salads, salsas. She tasted a bit of each and gave the rest to neighbors, who began asking for more, which meant that she cooked more – a great thing because it helped her with her sensory issues. She coached and played soccer like her life depended on it. I think it did. We stopped tip-toeing around her and breathed easier.

A few weeks ago, while the hubs was at a weekend gig and the older kid at a sleepover, she decided she wanted to bake something. She went through her stash of ideas, found a simple cookie recipe, and we set out for Target.

When we got back home, we cleared the kitchen counter and I let her take the lead on the cookies while I turned on my my iTunes. As she worked under the kitchen light, we began to talk about how much the evening reminded me of the Saturday nights I spent with my great-grandmom. Mother and my great-grandmom argued constantly when I was a kid – nasty fights that led to slammed doors, threats, police calls and forced me to keep a suitcase packed, just in case I needed to run. On Saturday nights, when Mother went out to party, my great-grandmom would let me turn the radio to the heavy metal and she’d cringe at the Ozzy, but she’d lead me through recipes: egg custards, sweet potato pies, tea cakes, pound cakes. She would talk about growing up in rural S.C. in the early 1900s. She told me about cousins long dead, farm that stretched into two counties, ghosts that lurked.

And I have told those stories to the kids, over and again. This night, Younger Kid listened once more as she measured, mixed and kneaded, dropped flour on the floor, then remeasured without having a meltdown.

“I’m sorry they argued,” she said. “Is that why you don’t like yelling now?”

“Yep,” I replied.

She turned the cookie dough onto waxed paper.

“You know,” she said, “I like having our family together, but this is a good night, Mommy. I’ve got you all to myself.”

She leaned over to kiss my forehead, and 12 years after meeting this smiling wonder, I lost my heart once again.

Mama’s on the run

A few winters ago, the younger kid asked us for an odd gift. She wanted to participate in Girls on the Run, a self-esteem program for elementary girls. The kid’s school participates, and they had opened registration.

We hemmed and hawed. She had soccer. She had golf (sort of). She had her seizures under control only sporadically. She needed rest. GOTR came at a not-small (for us) pricetag. We had one car on the fritz and a mountain of bills.

We told her GOTR would be her big Christmas present. She thanked us.

Her confidence, flattened somewhat by the nagging epilepsy and a then-undiagnosed sensory learning disability, shot through the ceiling after that first season. She came home after each session bubbling with ideas and advice. No gossiping. Stand up for yourself and your friends. Respect your teachers. Respect yourself. Do your homework. She asked for it again in the spring, and we agreed.

I decided at the last minute to run the spring race with her, as her running buddy. This wasn’t her plan, however. We got to the race and she and her buddy ditched me.

Incensed, I started to simply get a bottle of water and settle in at the finish line to fume and sweat in the humidity and wait for her. I didn’t feel like running or walking, hadn’t truly trained for it, was irritated that she had left me. Who would know, besides me, if I didn’t do it?

Who would care? And who would I disappoint, if I didn’t do it?

The night before, I’d listened to Molly Barker, the power woman extraordinaire who founded GOTR. She’d talked about being afraid to share the GOTR ideals with anybody, but when she did, the movement grew exponentially. She’s still – STILL – amazed that she started this wonderful program.

I realized we all have moments that grab us by the throats, when we realize that our words and wants and passions have somehow made a difference in somebody’s life, when we realize that our power within is magnified only when we decide to share it with the world. It ripples likes rocks tossed into water. The women in that room all had been touched by the ripples on the water, and their confidence and passions touched me. They all encouraged me to think about starting a Girls on Track chapter at Mack’s school.

The GOTR ideas for life are the same as for a 5K. Do your personal best. It’s not a competition. Be honest. Show respect. Expect good. Keep your word. Run as fast and as far as you can. When you get tired, slow down, but don’t stop. Set your own pace. Keep going.

So I wiggled through the crowd and took a place in the mob. Started off at a steady walk, upped it to a slow jog. I started the 2-minute run, 1-minute rhythm walk method, which had worked for half-marathon training, after which I tried the 45-second, 3-minute rhythm, which made me feel less likely to pass out from poor lung capacity. I downed too much tepid water, got queasy, and walked for longer than I’d planned. But I kept going, running, walking, running, walking.

When we neared the finish line, I heard the thump of “Brick House.” The perpetual party song and on my top 10 for best songs ever. Damn, I felt good. I still cannot believe how fabulous it felt. One of the GOTR staffers hugged me and said she was proud.

So was I.