"F" was written in predictable red ink at the top of my paper. Underneath it was the neatest, most condescending practiced script, "I don't give grades to parents."
It was an insult lying on top of my introductory paragraph about Nathaniel Greene.
It was the first time I can remember my mother become visibly shaken. She is the rock in our family. An operating room nurse for over 25 years, a mother of three girls and a founding member of our church; she's as steady and reliable as heat storms in the summer. So on that terrible day, I sat at the kitchen table, moving my mouth around my after school snack, but it filled with saliva and salt and ruined the taste. As I chewed, that one bite felt like it was multiplying. I watched her put another load of laundry in the washer, I blurted, "I'm so sorry" and I began to cry. Pieces of cookie flew out onto the plate, some stuck to my mouth and cheeks and turned into a sticky sweet and salty mess. I reached for a napkin off the center dish on the table and ended up grabbing three. My mom set down the pants she was about to throw in the washer, and yelled a little louder than I expected, "WHAT IS WRONG???"
I wiped my face and reached down into my school bag. I pulled the paper out and I could feel the hot tears beginning again. I was so ashamed. I had never brought home an "F" before this one. F now represented my entire fourth grade experience. It's what I consider my academic scarlet letter.
My mom took the paper from my hand, pulled out the kitchen chair and sat down in one fluid motion. I watched as her eyes saw the F and the mean lines above her nose furrowed deep. When she tilted her head to the side to read the fancy, handwritten sentence the frown turned into shock and her eyebrows jumped to the top of her forehead. They were so high it looked like they were painted like a clown's. She turned the pages of my report looking for errors and red lines, punctuation corrections or large question marks, but there was nothing.
Just the "F" and the "I don't give grades to parents."
My mom let the paper fall from her hand and lay on the formica kitchen table. We both stared at it for a minute and I whispered, "I'm so sorry, Mama."
Her head slowly turned to me, almost like her neck was mechanical and she said - "You have no reason to be sorry and you have done nothing wrong." She blinked several times as if a strong breeze had just blown through the kitchen, then she dropped her shoulders and exhaled her frustration with one quick burst of air.
She pushed back from the table and opened the drawer to the hutch where she kept the phone book, her address book and random slips of paper with reminders. She seemed to forget about the laundry and me sitting there because she whispered bits of angry, unintelligible words as she moved around papers, grabbed the phone book and started flipping pages. Her index finger slowed to a number and she held it's place while she picked up the phone with the other hand. The receiver hung from her thumb as she pushed the buttons with such force that it wobbled the wall phone. While she waited for the other end to answer, she crossed her arms and held the phone with her shoulder and chin. A voice came on the line and my mother said, "I need to speak to Ms. F please." My eyes tried to make contact with my mother's but she was squinting at some irregularity in the wallpaper. I knew she was calling the school office.
My mother gave her name when asked and was placed on hold.
I wasn't sure how Ms. F (begins with F ends with an L and has four letters in between) was going to react to my mom calling her but even in the 4th grade, I recognized that she was probably expecting it. My mom straightened and grabbed the receiver like a vice.
"Yes. Ms. F. I am calling about...yes....her paper." My mom listened for a moment and when Ms. F paused, my mother was a thoroughbred out of the gate in the Kentucky Derby. She was highly favored to win.
"Let me tell you something. I have raised three daughters and she is my youngest. One in high school and the other in college with double major. In all my years of sending these girls to school, having different teachers, challenging lessons, piles of homework, class projects and book fairs I have never once been accused of doing any of their work. Never. And I'm not about to have you punish her for something you are obviously overlooking. Let me tell you what I did for her and this research project. I drove her to the library and waited while she selected her book. On a separate day, I drove her to the Battleground, where she could look at the monuments and do some additional research. You know what I did when she was doing that? I sat in the car and read a book. She worked extremely hard on this paper and quite frankly, she enjoyed the process until now when you have completely underestimated her work and overestimated my contribution to it. If I were you, I'd be ashamed to have written that at the top of a child's page - even if you THOUGHT it. What kind of teacher are you? If you had questions about whether or not I assisted my child with a historical report, you should have called me or sent note home, but to write that at the top of an impressionable child's paper is inexcusable. Are you sure YOU are in the right profession?"
Now, I'm not completely sure how Ms. F (begins with F ends with an L and has four letters in between) reacted to my mother's words but I do know that there was a Parent-Teacher meeting which included the principal, my grade on the Nathaniel Green paper changed to an "A" and my mother was asked to give a presentation on the early forms of medicine to our history class. This grossed me out and I fainted in the hall on the way to get some water from the fountain. Fainting embarrasses my mother by the way.
What I learned from this experience is that not all "bad" teachers are bad. Not all moms are helicopter parents but they can turn into fighter pilots should you need them. And you might have that one teacher who inspires you to do something amazing in spite of them.
Seeds to Share:
Romans 8:28 - We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.