A Teacher’s Regrets

I was 23 and had landed a job as a teacher in Skaneateles, NY, a village that sits at the northern tip of one of the pristine Finger Lakes. I didn’t know much, but fresh from college, I didn’t know that yet.

I learned quickly that there were village kids and there were the farm kids. There were deep pockets of old money. And just as many folks on the outskirts of town scraping by.

Marcus Pendell was a student in my first class, a third generation farmer. Of all the absurdities of life, it turns out that he has been a grownup for a couple of decades now, and I’m on my way to visit him and his wife and kids. You get to do stuff like this when you become a “teacher of a certain age” and you’re now part of the nostalgia that takes over 50 year-olds’ lives. And yes, my former students are in their fifties.

I picture what Marcus might look like, and realizing he farms so close to a village known for its good taste and style, I wonder if he’s turned into one of those celebrity farmers, the ones who talk about sustainable sourcing and charcuterie. They show up on glossy magazine covers. They wear suede jackets. They pose in a field of flowers, holding a jar of honey, or with both arms outstretched, full of chanterelles.

By the last turn onto his land, I can tell I won’t be seeing organic herbs or morels today. Just a hunch he won’t be wearing anything from the J. Peterman catalogue.

Two German shepherds announce us as the car pulls up to the house at the top of a dusty hill. Marcus’s wife is waiting and she shoos away the dogs from under our feet. This is a dairy farm. Cows. Milk. Knee-high rubber boots from Sears.

“He’s still a man of few words,” his wife laughs, “but he’s excited to see you again.”

We wait in the kitchen, and after a few minutes, Marcus bounds into the room through the sliding door off the back deck. He’s still big and burly, now with a dark beard. He wears one of those big caps farmers wear with the name of a seed company on it. We hug.

He says, “You look exactly the same except you have short hair now.” I laugh. Then we both laugh. He was 11 the last time I saw him.

We start our farm tour by climbing into his big pickup. I’m still processing the idea he’s all grown up. That he could — if he wanted to — shave. He may be processing that I need a hand getting myself into and out of his truck. I can’t tell.

And then, sort of out of nowhere, he says, “I never forgot the first day in your class.”

I’m surprised by this because I don’t remember much at all.

“Tell me,” I say.

Apparently I had written on the black board: Write a composition about what you did over summer vacation. Marcus tells me he looked at the instructions and thought, Well, I didn’t do anything over the summer — milk, cut hay, clean the barn, feed cows, deliver calves — nothing. He figured it was going to be one of those years.

He sighed. He began writing. His opening line was “I’m a farmer.”

He says I collected the compositions, sat down at my desk and started reading them aloud. The one I read right before Marcus’s was written by someone whose family owned a 30-foot sailboat.

Then I turned to his. I read his opening line and stopped. I said, “Where is Marcus?” He tells me this was the worst thing I could have said because everyone knew who he was, and everyone (even the ones I thought were nice girls, he tells me) had made fun of him somewhere along the way since kindergarten precisely because he was a farmer. He raised his hand, but he knew no one would laugh because it was the first day of school and they all wanted to get on my good side.

He tells me I looked straight at him and said, “A farmer! Wow. You’re a farmer.”

 

This is the life of a teacher. Once in a while, you get stories like the one Marcus is telling me.

But once in a while it goes this way: You send a friend request on Facebook to another child-now-grown-up who also spent a whole year with you. And the person sends you a terse reply, letting you know in his first sentence that his memories are not warm. They’re not pleasant, or inspiring, or even mediocre. And even though a Facebook friend is not a real friend, he has no intention of being yours. It was something you said, trying to be funny, maybe, but he heard it as unkind. Maybe it was.

You want to go back and make it all better. At the very least you want to remember saying it, but you don’t. He is all grown up, with children of his own. But he still remembers what you said. You write a long apology back, and you hope maybe he will forgive you. You never hear from him again.

 

“Watch your step here,” Marcus says.

He is about to answer a question I just asked about tractors, but he stops instead and says, “I was proud that day, that first day, when you read my composition and asked all those questions about being a farmer. Thank you for that.”

Even in this moment — pretty much a teacher’s dream — I think of telling Marcus about the other boy. I want to let myself off the hook, maybe, by saying, “Too many kids, too many moments, too many words for all of them to end well.” But I’m still too sad about the kid who hates me to even talk about him.

“We better get back to the house,” Marcus says. Lunch is probably ready.”

The year he was in my class, Marcus taught me about farming. He schooled me — the suburban girl who didn’t know field corn from sweet. Lots of times he’d arrive in class and tell me about the calf he’d helped deliver a few hours before. I was always breathless during his lessons. I took more than I gave. He was always the teacher, though neither of us knew it then.

I want to thank him for being a kinder one, a better one, but I don’t. We go inside to wash up for lunch.

13 Things I Once Heard (And Believed)

1. “Girls shouldn’t do that.”

2. “The Dave Clark Five are better than the Beatles.”

Dave Clark Five

3. “A tiny bit can’t hurt.”

4. “You look terrific!”

haircut

5. “It’s not you. It’s me.”

6. “Relax. Nobody’s gonna vote for Nixon.”

nixon

7. “If you breathe correctly, childbirth is not painful.”

8. “You’re the best mother in the whole world!”

9. “You’re the worst mother. Ever. Of all the mothers in the world.”

10. “I guarantee you’ll fall in love with running the way I have.”

running

11. “Buy it. It’ll make you happy.”

12. “You’ll get over it. Just give it time.”

13. “You look good in pink.” (This one actually turned out to be true.)

The Lessons You Learn from a Chocolate Pancake

pancakeOur friendship with Miss Susannah began five years ago, early on a Sunday morning, when she leaned over our booth and said what she says to everyone in her section, “What can I get you folks?”

I was new to the game of taking grandsons to restaurants. Austin was three and Brendan one, and I figured we couldn’t do much damage at our local IHOP, already a little worn around the edges. I was relieved when Susannah said she was a grandmother, too. I figured if some sugar packets got mysteriously opened or if we left the syrup bottles drippy from overuse, she’d understand.

I used to think the appeal for the boys was the restaurant’s go-to item for kids ─ a chocolate pancake made into a smiley face by chocolate chips, whipped cream, and maraschino cherries (the kind of breakfast only a grandmother would let happen). It must look a lot better than it tastes, though, because halfway through, Austin and Brendan usually push their plates gently to the middle of the table and sigh, “Ugh . . . I’m full.”

Even if I give them some alternative breakfast restaurant ideas ─ lots of places have fancy pancakes ─ they won’t hear of it.

“Miss Susannah!” they say in unison, every time.

On the drive over, the boys usually wonder aloud if she’ll be there (she is always there). If it’s been more than a few weeks since our last visit, they predict she’ll be surprised (she isn’t but pretends to be).

“Maybe she was thinking we wouldn’t come back,” Austin says, “and then she’ll see us and she’ll be all, ‘Where have you guys been?’”

Susannah may be in the middle of yelling at the cook, or squinting at her order pad, or rushing to get someone’s coffee to the table, but everything stops when the boys walk in. She hugs and kisses them. We never have to ask to be seated in her section. It’s the only place in my life where I’ve ever been a regular. I’m the Norm of IHOP.

“So, how is school going?” she’ll ask. “What do you think about this rain? Are you going to take swim lessons at your pool this summer?” They do their best to keep her up to date, sensing that somehow it’s important to her.

They’re too young to notice her age, probably 70ish, or that her work day started before sunrise, or that her tips are never going to buy her a retirement condo in Boca. They just know that the second she sees them, everything stops. She beams. They beam back. And for five years they’ve come here. For her, not the pancakes.

I try not to get ahead of myself about what this all means. I did that too much as a mother, always a few years in the future, predicting what every little milestone was telling me. When you’re a grandmother, it’s easier to live in the moment. No guarantees as I listen to their adorable little  boy voices, that I’ll ever get to hear their grownup ones. No need, as I watch them eat their chocolate pancakes and scan the room for their favorite waitress, to tell myself what fine men they’ll turn out to be.

They are kind children. That’s enough for today.

As we are leaving this morning, Susannah says to a couple at the next table, “They’ve been coming here since they were babies.” They don’t hear her, but I do.

As we pull out of the parking lot, it’s quiet in the car.

“She was really smiley today,” Austin says.

Then they lean back, and for a while we ride in a delicious, sweet silence.

To the New Mothers From an Old One

In 1978, when I was about to give birth for the first time, my mother-in-law and my mother were full of information I would never need. Motherhood had changed since their day, when babies were on strict schedules and parents believed that letting them “cry it out” was in everyone’s best interest.

We were the New Mothers, and we were reinventing the parenthood wheel. We had everything figured out by reading books, Lamaze breathing our way through labor, breastfeeding on demand, and raising children who might never know a critical word but would always have a room full of soccer trophies to call their own.

I know. I know. It’s a new day, and by now everyone knows that my generation didn’t make fewer mistakes than our mothers had —just different ones. Everything is again different when it comes to babies, and I wouldn’t dream of getting into a discussion about baby sign language or sleep training, because I’m just that far behind in baby trends.

But maybe there are a few things that never changed and never will. So because I can’t see any patent disinterest in your faces as you read this, here you go, New Mothers — truths from an Old Mother.

* You will be holding your newborn, maybe even your first day home, and you will have a flashback of yourself as a teenager. You’ll hear the exact vile words you uttered to your parents, and see yourself as you stomped out of a room, amazed by how truly stupid they were. When that memory comes to you, you’ll wish you could go back in time and smack yourself in your fourteen-year-old head.

* When you find yourself tacking a sign to the front door for the UPS delivery person: “Do NOT ring bell! Baby sleeping!!” you will recall all those conversations you had with friends that started with your saying: “Our lives won’t change after the baby.” You might wish you hadn’t been quite so specific about your plans to backpack through Colorado with your infant strapped to your chest.

* You will glance down at your beloved cat or dog, the one you bought Halloween costumes for and gave a pseudo baby name. Suddenly it occurs to you that it can’t talk. And it eats off the floor.

* Your baby will roll over or sit up for the first time, and you’ll say out loud, “That’s really early to do that, right?” You’ll search the Baby World Records Book to see if he is a contender. You will throw around the word “genius” more than once, even if it’s just in your head. The first Kindergarten parent/teacher conference might rein this in for you. (Okay, it did for me.)

* The word “poop” will grace nine out of ten conversations and you’ll wonder why you didn’t talk about poop more often before this. That’s how fascinating it’s now become. I am not kidding.

* Under oath, you will declare that you cannot possibly love a second (or third or fourth) baby the way you do your first. Then someone will place that new baby into your trembling arms, and you’ll realize that love can be divided in two without changing one molecule. It’s non-mathematical. It’s magical. And it will come over you that very first second.

* In the middle of the night with a screaming infant, you will long for that pregnancy heartburn you believed was the worst thing ever. And here’s a little sneak peek into the future: When your baby is seventeen and out somewhere driving with her friends, you’ll long for the nights she was in her crib, even if she was wailing away. In other words, there is always something coming.

* For the rest of your life, when you read a story about a person who has done something horrible — something despicable and beyond forgiveness — you will think, although maybe not right away, “That is someone’s child.” You will know at your core just what that sentence means.

* Some days will seem many miles long. But the culmination of them will whiz by while you’re looking the other way. Try to laugh as much as you can. It’s one of the few sounds your child will remember for an entire lifetime.

* You will ask, and you will ask this a lot: What did I do before this? How did I love before this? Why didn’t someone tell me?

You just couldn’t hear them until now. Welcome to motherhood.