“When people show you who they are, believe them – the first time, not the 29th time,” Oprah Winfrey, 1997 Wellesley Commencement address (21.30).
Respecting my family means accepting who they showed up as, “warts & all” as Mom said in her much later life.
THE key difference between myself & Mom was her pathological inability to see, let alone acknowledge & deal with, negative behaviors.
In 4th grade, I played hookey for almost an entire week in 4th grade & was finally discovered after a search that involved the police & my older, massively embarrassed siblings.
When I was returned home, Mom pulled me onto her lap. I waited for the sky to fall. She put her arms around me & said, “What you went through over the past days must have been so traumatic, I consider that was punishment enough.”
I was not happy. Even in 4th grade, whatever that age is, the thought that went through my mind was, “Mistake. Big mistake.”
Let that sink in – I hid out in a small woods near my house for multiple days instead of going to school, my siblings were yanked out of their high school classes to join the POLICE in the search.
And I was given no punishment.
Because Mom could not bring herself to LOOK at what had happened, to SEE an erring child. And while she was right that I was in pain & traumatized, it had nothing to do with playing hookey. It had everything to do with not being seen.
After days of being baaaaaad, nothing changed.
The reason I am so grateful to Cindy Hyatt Walker is because, as my 7th grade teacher, she SAW me. She wasn’t happy with what she saw, but she did see, did share – with me – what she’d viewed.
Even the principal, with whom Miss Cindy had me check in every Friday, didn’t see ME – he wondered if my parents fought, if there were problems at home, never thinking the problem was IN me. And he knew my brother was killed when Ian was 11 & I was 7, that B Boy was the closest to me in age, that his death made my next-up sibling eight years older – but those well-known facts about ME didn’t register.
While Miss Cindy saw the messed-up me, I was as invisible to Mr. Simons as I was to my mother. They did not see my hurting self, not then, not on the 29th time I acted up, not ever.
Thanks to Miss Cindy, I pulled out of my downward spiral. I remember the wash of relief that swept over me as she said, “Although I might not catch you cheating 90% of the time, I know that you’ll be trying 100% of the time.”
It sounds like an awful thing to hear, but ahhhh – what sweet music to my ears; she SAW who I was, accepted what I was doing & – in seeing – opened the door for me to change.
When we refuse to see people who act out in wretched ways, we give them no reason to change. The #1 reason a child acts up is to be seen. That’s just Psych 101.
What happens when the person who needs to be seen – whatever his or her age – tries to get that attention from others even more invested in denying what’s right in front of their eyes?
How does a 4th grader cope with a sinking heart that recognizes a parent CAN’T see the disagreeable, the discomforting?
When NO ONE seems okay seeing another’s pain, maybe because it might connect them to theirs?
It took me WAY more than 29 times of behaving badly before I finally got to someone who only needed one to say, “I see YOU.” I did with Cindy Hyatt Walker; 25 years later, I did with John. I was blessed.
Others were not so lucky.