Momma Bear [Part VII]

By Haven Lindsey  in  blog  on  11.26.2022

When I was in the fourth grade we moved to a new town. My mother took me to the school and introduced me to the woman who would be my teacher. Always consumed with making good impressions, my mother was perpetually concerned with her image and what people thought of her.

Soon after starting at the new school, I was having lunch in the cafeteria when a student a few tables over threw food. I cannot remember if he was aiming at someone else or at me, but the food hit me. Already self-conscious about being the new student with brand new glasses (they called me names but at least I could see), I felt somewhat frozen. I’d never been in a situation where anyone other than my father had called me a derogatory name and now, they were throwing food. More food hit me and within minutes, a group of kids was throwing food. When the teacher who was overseeing the cafeteria that day – who also happened to be my teacher – asked what had happened, someone blamed the new kid. Me. I hadn’t thrown any food. I wasn’t even sure what was happening.

It was what happened after that when I was introduced to a side of my mother I had not remembered meeting before. Granted, she had left me plenty of times with a babysitter and not picked me up until days later. I spent summers (thankfully) with her parents, my Grand and Granddaddy. She made it easy to have distance between us – for as long as I can remember, it’s what she wanted. For as long as I remember the words she would utter at home, “I never wanted you.”

When the teacher at my new school called to tell my mother I had started a food fight (which wasn’t true), my mother showed up. Far too young to understand at the time, and I suppose I still don’t, a different version walked into the room. Her anger scared me, the look on her face was one I would grow to fear, but what really resonated was that she didn’t have any interest in hearing my side of the story. I had no voice. I had done nothing wrong but that didn’t matter – not to Ms. Hoffsinger, my teacher, and certainly not to my mother. All my mother knew was someone had said I had done something wrong and that was the gospel. She didn’t believe me.

It was then when she said something to me that I would hear hundreds of times, probably thousands. It was one of the last things she ever said to me, “You embarrass the hell out of me.” If there is an award for embarrassing the hell out of one’s mother, I undoubtedly should win.

That night, instead of joining the family for dinner, my mother told me that we didn’t have enough food to throw in our house and so I wouldn’t be eating dinner. I was made to write sentences – 500 every night – a sentence I remember to this day and still, cannot make myself write it again – all these years later in my healed state, I don’t want to say that sentence out loud, and I don’t want to write it. She made me apologize thousands of times in writing for something I didn’t do. She made me take it to Ms. Hoffsinger who acted like she was some kind of savior – preventing me from going down the road of sin and failure. By the 7th night of having only lunch to eat (because my mother took breakfast away too), my father actually stood up to her for perhaps one of the only times in his life. He grabbed me by the arm from sitting there writing the sentences as they all ate and sat me down at the dinner table. I remember being hungry but also feeling how it had sort of passed – the hunger had somehow felt like a new friend. Despite the food in front of me, it was hard to eat. That new friend would show up years later, familiar and oddly nurturing.

The circumstances in Justin’s life resulted in him missing far more dinners than those seven consecutive dinner-less nights I experienced, but the difference is it was never on purpose. His mother wasn’t angry at her son or cruel to him. My god, she loved her son and didn’t hesitate to talk about that. Yes, she was sick with addiction and her kid missed a lot of meals because of that but not because she was trying to prove a point she had latched onto. Jackie was fighting a disease whose side effects were societal stigma. I knew what it felt like to be in a house with the neighbors all thinking things were butterflies and Cracker Jacks when they weren’t. I continued to be wary of being the same type of mother figure that I had experienced, yet it was becoming clear that despite not knowing all the right things to do and say, I had love – a lot of it – to share. There was full-on Momma Bear in me and I wasn’t afraid to let Momma Bear come out.

Turns out, you don’t have to have experienced a Momma Bear to be one.

By the time Justin was starting high school, Jackie had signed all the permissions the form-filler-outers required. I was his contact and if there was a parent-teacher conference, I was generally the first one there. In my experience, the thing about advocating for a child you love but is not yours is teachers and administrators and seemingly every Tom, Dick, and Harriet felt like they could say anything to me. I often wondered if they spoke to “real parents” like they spoke to me but I knew the answer.

The first teacher I talked to was a bored, burnout time-to-change-careers math teacher and apparently didn’t care what he said – at least not to me. Justin’s grades had continued to improve and he had blossomed. “I think he’s doing just fine for what we can expect, the bar isn’t too high with these kids – let’s just try and get him to graduate.” Truth be told, I always hated math – still do. It was easy to dislike Mr. Bored, Burnout, Math Teacher.

Momma Bear had come out before. Momma Bear wasn’t fucking around. Her cub may not have had a voice but she sure as hell had one. She had come out when we bought a winter coat and much later when we shopped for shoes – both times the salesperson asked if I was volunteering to help the poor or some bullshit. Momma Bear came out at a doctor who made a snide comment about Justin’s diet and why he was malnourished, “these kids are raised on junk food.” I didn’t wait long enough for that asinine comment to land. Perhaps Momma Bear came out her biggest and gnarliest with a school administrator who was lucky I didn’t claw him in his face when he referred to Justin as a, “Section Eighter.”

I knew I wasn’t a mother but I damn sure knew I was motherly and it was becoming increasingly clear to me that I had the capacity to love – I needn’t have worried. Some things skip a generation – my guess was the loving and nurturing capacities of my Grand skipped past her seed, my mother, and landed squarely with me. In some ways, I was indeed my mother – fearless, unafraid, ready to travel and discover all the things. I once asked her if she liked sushi, “I do now!” she replied, despite never having tasted sushi and I loved that part of her. She was ready to embrace the unknown – it was like she was offended by limitations. No one’s mother was like that but mine was and I fucking loved it. But, at no time in my life did she ever take up for me or have my back as the kids say these days. And I was the opposite of that – I could not imagine not supporting a child. All the marketing slogans in the world could whitewash our world about not leaving kids behind but the truth was, they were being left behind. They were slipping through the cracks. I wasn’t going to change the world, but I was going to do everything I could to change the world for one. Justin. With Jackie’s permission and her repeated “thank you’s,” we loved our baby cub and you don’t get in between a Momma (and Momma’s) and her cub.

“Excuse me?” is one of two things I remember saying to Justin’s teacher, as I knew I was there for someone who didn’t have a voice. As he proceeded to droll on about the limitations of generational poverty or some bullshit pontifications in his little reside-in-the-box world, he perceived simply because of Justin’s demographic, I interrupted him. As a Momma Bear, it was one of my finer moments and likely why I remember my words, verbatim. Words I later shared with Jackie who could not have been happier – because she could not have said those words and we both knew it. I turned to the weasel teacher who seemed more interested in his tin of Altoid mints than talking with me and embodied my Momma Bear voice, “Listen to me right now and you might want to take notes. (That was my favorite part, telling the teacher to take notes. To this day, it still makes me smile.) I will be here for every parent-teacher conference held at this school and I will talk to every one of Justin’s teachers – including you. If you think I’m going to miss one – you’ll be wrong. I’ll advocate for MORE of these conferences if I have to. If I ever hear you or ANYONE at this school say that Justin doesn’t have potential I’ll be speaking to the School Board about you.”

The teacher’s face turned every bit as red as the Altoid’s tin he had begun to nervously fondle. We continued our conversation in a cordial, new realization way, despite the fact that my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my body and land on the desk between us. He never stopped playing with the Altoids tin but to give him credit, he changed his tune and he changed it on a dime.

I drove home way too fast, because it felt good, and yes, the thing Momma Bear inadvertently taught her cub as he learned to drive because it’s fun and feels free. Justin met me at the door as I came in from the garage. “How did it go at my school?” exuberance in his youthful, full-of-potential voice.

“It went great, Kiddo. You’ve got a great school and amazing teachers. You’re going to do great in high school.”

After that Momma Bear moment, Justin’s teachers welcomed me – and more importantly, him – with open arms. They say it takes a village and I do believe it does. But sometimes, it takes a big, onery Momma Bear who isn’t afraid to growl.

The cub, by the way, graduated from high school with honors, at the top of his class.