Ria, a young woman in my writing workshop, struggled to
write a memoir of her childhood, but overt hostility to her father kept taking
over the piece. As we workshopped the piece with Ria, the horrific story of
sexual abuse by a relative when she was a toddler emerged. Ria directed anger
to parents who refused to believe evidence—who put family peace before the
well-being of their daughter. They did not protect her.
My brother Dooby was treated unfairly by our stepmother who,
for unknown reasons, took a dislike to 14-year-old Dooby and made his life a
living hell until he left to live with our grandmother during his senior year
of high school. For years Dooby resented the fact that our dad did not protect
him from the emotional abuse he endured at home.
Actually, our dad was unaware of the abuse. He worked long
hours and Saturdays and wasn’t home much. Dad was of the generation of rigid
gender roles: men earned the living and women cared for the children. In Dad’s mind and experience, mothers love
their children—it never occurred to him that a woman might feel differently
toward a stepchild than to her own. In Dad’s book, teenagers were obnoxious and
probably caused all conflicts with authority figures.
Dad cared about Dooby and all of us—but he suffered from a
failure of imagination. He failed to understand the complexity of parenting a
blended family. He trusted that nice, church-going people don’t have serious
family problems. He could not conceive of a woman in a mother-role treating a
Dooby, probably because he became a parent himself, forgave
our dad. I hope Ria can do the same. No parent can protect a child against
every evil in the world. We do the best we can as parents, and—knowing our own
short comings—we cut our parents some slack.
I should have learned long ago that it’s impossible to make someone like you against their will. On the first day of 5th grade, I was placed in Mrs. Swapp’s class. My best friend, Linda, was placed in Miss Huber’s class. Both teachers were equally old and unattractive, but Mrs. Swapp had the reputation for being more strict and requiring more work. Before school Linda had announced to all and sundry that her mother would change her class if she landed under Mrs. Swapp’s tutelage. Not to be outdone, I announced that my mother would do the same. My mother, however, refused to contact the school for no better reason than my desire to be in Miss Huber’s class. Never a quitter, I set about finding reasons why I should not be in Mrs. Swapp’s class. I magnified her every glance in my direction into a scowl. Since Mrs. Swapp never criticized me, I reported exaggerated versions of her discipline techniques with other students. My mother, as mothers do, bought my stories. My dad, wiser—as dads often are, refused to back me. Mrs. Swapp apparently sensed my hostility and tried to win me over—praising my work—even inviting me to dance with her at the school social—an ordeal I sullenly suffered through. The nicer Mrs. Swapp was to me, the more I hated her. I needed meanness to justify my dislike for being in her class.
When I became a teacher myself, my bad behavior came back to bite me, as bad behavior always does—karma, the Buddhists say. George and I moved to a new state and I was hired late in the summer to teach an overflow kindergarten class housed in a church near the elementary school. Children living nearest the church were placed in my class. Few parents were pleased to have their child placed in a less adequate facility, but most went along with the principal’s decision. Except for one father who was a teacher in the district and a longtime friend of the other kindergarten teacher. His child deserved the best—which was not a new teacher in a makeshift church hall. I worked hard to provide a good program for my students, but this father remained hostile. His daughter became ill and was homebound for several weeks. I made a point of stopping by their home after school, to visit with the child and leave activities from class. I felt virtuous. I was being like Jesus—turning the other cheek. But I soon realized that my visits annoyed these parents. I was making their hostility seem unwarranted. Just as I wanted to dislike Mrs. Swapp, they needed reasons to dislike me, and I wasn’t cooperating.
I thought about continuing the visits just to spite these unappreciative parents, but that wasn’t being like Jesus. Jesus had plenty of undeserved enemies, but he knew a lost cause when he saw it. While he didn’t deliberately antagonize church officials, neither did he court their favor. Their dislike for him and his teachings was rooted in their own life experiences and expectations. He ignored belligerents to concentrate on those whose experiences and expectations opened them to his love and message.
Of course, we should make amends to people whom we’ve wronged, but sometimes life juxtaposes us with people who see us as impediments to their well-being through no action of our own. Forgiving and forgetting seems easier when human beings can pinpoint an actual wrong rather than a scapegoat upon which their mind has fixated.