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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Mrs. Martin

I could tell something was wrong the moment the oldest got in the car. By the time we got home Monday afternoon, he'd blurted it out: it's neither of his teachers, but there's a grownup who he is convinced hates him personally, and he can't figure out what he's ever done to warrant it. I listened, and then I told him about Mrs. Martin, my fourth grade teacher.

Mrs. Martin delighted in being horrid to me for no reason I could fathom. The second week of school, she informed me that she had noted that I was the only student who had to use the bathroom more than once every single day. In her opinion that was too often, and I alone was therefore not allowed to use the bathroom except at recess. I was shocked and embarrassed and scared I wouldn't be able to hold it, given my sparrow-sized bladder.

When I told my mother all this on our ride home that day (my mother was a math teacher at the same school, my math teacher, in fact), she was flabbergasted. She said she would speak to Mrs. Martin the next day, but the following afternoon she regretfully informed me that she was unable to budge Mrs. Martin. To console me, she told me I could use the bathroom as much as I needed during her math class.

A few weeks later, Mrs. Martin took her campaign of torment to a higher level by announcing to the class at large that I was the messiest eater she had ever seen and that I alone among my classmates would thereafter have to use the carpet sweeper under my desk after snack and lunch. I was confused, given that I had been raised at my mother's table, where neatness and manners reigned, but I dutifully carpet swept invisible crumbs twice a day anyway.

On any given day, Mrs. Martin would comment negatively on my clothes, my hair, the cleanliness of my hands, my mouth of mismatched teeth, my bookbag, the contents of my lunch, or any other aspect of me she found offensive that day. I knew not why.

The only thing that kept me sane that year was math class. Once a day I escaped Mrs. Martin for an hour, to a room where I was allowed to use the bathroom, to a mom who would give my shoulder a secret squeeze of love while she leaned over my shoulder to check my work, who'd most days slip me a Tic-Tac as I headed back out the door to the personal hell that was fourth grade.

It was not until I was an adult that I finally talked to my mother about that whole, horrible year. And she told me what would have been inappropriate and unprofessional to share when I was a child: that Mrs. Martin was angry at her, not me, that it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the politics and dynamics at that very small, private elementary school.

The oldest listened intently as I told him all this, then told me how sorry he was that happened to me and that his experience wasn't nearly that bad. I stopped him and said, "Nono. That's not my point. My point is that if you know you've done nothing to make someone dislike you, then it's not about you -- it's about the other person."

He thought about it for a minute then said, "So I shouldn't feel bad."

"No. Because the flat truth is that not everyone is going to like you. And you never know what else is going on with someone. Maybe they are losing someone they love to cancer. Maybe they have an awful headache."

"Or maybe they actually are just mad at my mother." He grinned impishly.

I grinned back. "That's entirely possible."
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