This afternoon, I walked away from the lunch table at my son’s school and a woman’s voice followed me. “Is that your son?” I held the back of my hand up. Was it rude of me? I didn’t care. Not one more word. I had heard enough. She had already tried to talk to me and I had ignored her, this Spanish “lunch lady” with the wide cheekbones and the light in her brown eyes. I had already heard about it. Ben, 5, had crawled under the table and kissed a girl in his class and yet another freaking note had come home from school that day. But when I asked my child why he kissed this girl, he asked me a question. “Mom, why did you give me a pink thermos? All the kids made fun of me.” I had stared at him, astonished, and felt relieved as he added, “And Rachel defended me. She told them to stop making fun of me.” After I took it all in, I smiled. “So you kissed her?”
The notes and phone calls keep coming like junk mail or telemarketers who call at dinnertime. Yesterday he got sent to the Vice Principal’s Office after he used his finger to shoot another kid. The school has a no-tolerance policy for fake-finger guns. And my son distracted all his classmates. His table tattled on him because if he got them in trouble, they wouldn’t earn enough points to receive lollipops. And he called a boy on his bus a “diaper head” on the way home from school. He had a very, very bad day. So my husband made him spread mulch as punishment, and I insisted that my dimpled mess of a son apologize to each and every soul he hurt first thing in the morning. And I planned to show up unannounced for lunch.
And I did. I entered the school and immediately I spotted a little guy with baggy jean shorts, skinny legs, massive calves and a rust-colored long-sleeved t-shirt. He wore a vacant, frightened stare on his face. I tried to breathe but his fear and pain were palpable and it hurt me to see this little boy because he is mine.
Then he saw me. And hope entered his eyes. He tried to smile and then looked behind him for his teacher. He took his odd little hop, skip and dance-step and followed me with his eyes as I circled behind him to check into the office. He did not scream “Mama” out loud but his entire body leaned toward me, into me, as if we were the opposing poles of a magnet. I winked at my man-child and barked at his teacher, “Where will you be next?” She told me that they had lunch in fourteen minutes.
A minute later, I caught up to Ben. Standing in the elementary school hallway by the bathrooms, he appeared lost and so little, and so did his tiny classmates. I felt their confusion and uncertainty and fear and I wanted to put their inchoate voices out of my mind. A little boy spoke. “Ben’s Mom?”
I nodded genially. “Yes.”
“Ben is bad.” Then another little boy exclaimed, “Ben is bad!”
A female creature heard that I was Ben’s mom and she said, “You’re Ben’s Mom?” I tried to say I was and she cried, “Ben is bad!”
A darkness descended and my vision blurred. I imagined my hand slamming through the glass window and blood dripped. I closed my eyes and I counted to ten and I tried to think but I spoke without thinking. I was running on reflex and running from anger and deep-seated rage at what happened to Little El. She was “bad.” She was very very bad. Not my son. “No, Ben is not bad.”
The glass is shattering and Little El screams. Shhh. It is okay sweetie. I am holding you. “Perhaps he does bad things sometimes, but he is punished, was—“
Another boy chimed in before I could finish explaining that actions have consequences in our home. “Ben is always bad. Are you Ben’s Mom?” I shake my head in frustration and try to answer but shards of glass are stabbing me.
His teacher walks toward me and starts to correct one of the boys. Before she can start in on me, I mumble, “Did he do anything wrong today?”
“No, not at all. In fact, he apologized to the entire class this morning, first thing.” His teacher is a veteran, and she does not put up with much, so when another kid interrupts and starts to tell Ben’s Mom that Ben is bad, she shakes her head at him, but my voice carries. “Right, so at least 5 kids have already told me that Ben is bad.” The teacher shakes her head and scoffs. “We don’t use that word. We say he is weak.”
“My SON IS NOT WEAK.” I am not yelling but my body is torn. It’s like my heart is bursting out of my chest. Ben often tells me that he loves me so much his heart is bursting with love. I feel that now for him. My son raises his hand, and speaks with outrage, “Jason says my Mom is mean.” I glare at Jason and then I recall that he is 5 and I try, very hard, to smile and I do, sort of smile. It’s funny. I smile so often, so easily, most days but now my heart hurts too much. But I smile anyway.
His teacher finds me in the lunchroom and she grabs my hands and she promises me that she didn’t mean he was weak and I believe her, I think. I tell her how hard we are trying, but all I want to do is buy Ben his pretzel. And I want the glass to stop breaking. And I buy our pretzels and we eat and I hug my man-child and he sits on my lap and the time passes.
That’s when it happens. She asks me if Ben is my son, and I can’t take anymore, but one thing I am not is rude. I stop. I turn. And I look her in the eyes and I respond, proud but grim, “Yes, yes he is my son.”
She smiles. Her eyes are full of light. “I love your son. He is a lovely boy.” My chest stops aching. The glass stops breaking. And she keeps talking to me, “He has such a sweet soul and the girls will love him. A sweet boy—your boy.” I hold his lunch box and for the first time in an hour, I feel warm. “Thank you. That means so much to me. Thank you. Thank you. Yes, he is my son.” I leave the lunchroom and I tell my son again how much I love him and I go home and wait for him to return to me.
© March 23, 2012 E. L. Phoenix