This Mother’s Day, I enjoyed various online recollections of what some friends and colleagues had learned from their mothers. I’ve known for a while that my mother taught me more by what she did than what she said. No quippy little dictums about doing unto others or wearing clean underwear. No wise experiential aphorisms intended to help me navigate around the landmines she herself had tripped. Not my mother.
My mother was no coach. When I was seven years old, I emerged from my room on “Free Dress Day”—the one day our school allowed us to shed our uniforms and wear what we wanted. I was sporting a rainbow-colored ensemble that mixed florals and plaids. My mother looked me over briefly and pronounced my sartorial decision “a misguided effort at bohemianism.” So much for coaching.
When I entered the fifth grade, my school scheduled a Girls Health Day. We all recognized this as a euphemistic announcement that we were going to learn about sex. My classmates and I whispered and rolled our eyes, mustering all the worldly cynicism we could as fifth graders. The truth was we’d all been to slumber parties and knew the rumor that the man pees inside the woman and that’s how you made a baby. The quiet individual traumas that resulted reverberated as a collective snarkiness directed at anything having to do with reproduction.
On Girls Health Day, we somberly filed into the school auditorium, where a nurse would soon be showing us drawings of body parts that somehow interlocked. Each of us harbored an unspoken fear that we’d be confronted with images of appendages emitting the requisite urine that could not only rid the male body of toxins but also make us pregnant. Over Christmas break, we’d all chosen baby names for our firstborns, but the euphoria had been fleeting. We were about to enter puberty and we wanted nothing to do with it. The nurse had better be serious and quick so we could get back to our math homework. That’s how bad it was.
When the nurse walked onto the stage, she was indeed serious. Moreover she was my mother.
Soon after getting her nursing degree, my mother had moved into management, so I’d never seen her in her nursing uniform. But there she was, dressed in a starched white dress, a cross between a milkmaid and a Sister of Charity. Several of my classmates recognized her and began variously patting me on the head and kicking my chair. I hid my face as my mother delivered an anatomical treatise, giving both sexes their due in what seemed to me unnecessary detail. Every time she said the word “genitalia,” my classmates squealed and I died a little inside.
That night after I’d finished my homework, I marched downstairs and stood before my mother, who was sitting at the kitchen table sipping a glass of rosé and reading Redbook.
“H-how c-c-could you,” I stammered before bursting into tears. “Why did you come to my school? Why did you DO that? WHY?”
My mother put down her wine glass and smiled sympathetically. “Because you needed to learn it,” she said.
Had my mother given me a pop-quiz about the cruel transformations of adolescence I would have failed, so muddled was my memory of the day’s lecture. But learning how to be an effective and memorable teacher? It was the lesson of a lifetime.