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« Gorillas in the Missed | Main | Revelations at a Convent »

Border Crossing

by Nancy King

Everything was working out well. I crossed the Canadian border and passed through customs with no problems, reunited with friends I hadn’t seen in seven years, and prepared to meet my students—teachers who wanted to learn creative ways to teach literature.

The seminar coordinator was smiling, assuring me that the paper, pens, pencils, fingerpaints, and clay were all set up. She led me to the room where fifteen eager participants sat around U-shaped tables, waiting, ready to begin the first of four seminars. 

Then I saw her.
A Middle Eastern woman, with two children, six and seven. She was sitting between two participants; her chair pulled back, her two daughters standing on either side of their mother. They were all hugging—three pairs of arms entwined around three necks. The other students were busy fingerpainting: I had told them a story and asked them to paint a moment in the tale that most affected them. The Middle Eastern student totally disregarded her classmates, and the assignment, as she fussed over her daughters, talking to them in a loud voice

I tried to hide my annoyance and gestured for the woman to begin painting.
She paid no attention to me.

I looked helplessly at the coordinator. She looked away. I tried ignoring the student. Impossible. She was taking up so much psychic and physical space I had to use all my years of teaching skills to keep the participants focused and involved.
I could feel anger rising inside me, growing stronger every time she disrupted the class. I had to control every word I said, every gesture I made so that I didn’t lash out. When I could no longer stand the situation I told the woman she needed to find something for her daughters to do. The students all stopped writing and stared at me.
She jumped up and spit her words out at me. “I’m a single mother. I have no money for babysitters. I’ll leave.”
I am not good with confrontations, especially when I’m so angry I’m afraid I will do or say something that will leave me feeling bad about myself. But, I was the teacher and the other students were watching me intently, waiting to see what I would do.

I sensed that the mother was trying to force me to ask her to leave, yet I knew that if I threw her out, she would be the victim and I would be the monster. It would be my fault. All my life my family has blamed me for anything and everything—I was not going to let this happen again.

I pushed down my anger and calmly suggested she give her daughters some of the paints and clay and asked the girls to go sit at a corner table. They did and eagerly began to paint. Their mother glared at me, then reluctantly joined her classmates, but kept interrupting the class by getting up and walking over to her daughters to see how they were doing, never fully participating, making uncalled-for judgments about other students’ images, completely disregarding my explanation that the images they were making in a minute or less were not art, but a way of knowing, a way of connecting with feelings.
In spite of her disruptions, the group was able to refocus and continue working. I did not allow my anger to show. At the end of the seminars, when we reflected on the sessions and I read the participants’ evaluations, I was gratified to realize that the group felt we had had four productive and interesting sessions.
Yet I was still angry. Intensely angry. My anger kept increasing until I was filled with so much rage I was afraid I would explode. I ran into the woods, needing to find a way to calm down. I looked at the sun-dappled trees and took a deep breath. The anger bubble unexpectedly burst and I realized I had been re-experiencing the dynamic of most of my life, living in a family that took no responsibility for their actions, always making me the scapegoat. I knew I was not to blame in this situation. The woman’s behavior was completely inappropriate. It had nothing to do with me. I looked up at the sky. I felt free, light, released from a heavy burden I’d been carrying all my life.
It was as if I had crossed a border—moving from a place where I automatically stuffed down my feelings—where I pretended I was fine no matter what happened—to a place of self-regard. Just as I refused to allow the woman to make me the problem, I suddenly found the wherewithal to refuse to let anyone else in my life make me the problem.
I have an added incentive. I’ve been dealing with leukemia for 28 years. It is more than time for me to take better care of myself. Fortunately, I have wonderful friends. They’ve been waiting at this border for many years, hoping I would learn how to cross from self-blame to the refusal to be a scapegoat ever again. Their hands reached out to me. They helped me jettison years of unnecessary and poisonous baggage. They knew this was one border crossing only I could cross and I have. I’m deeply grateful.
Nancy King s most recent books are three novels: A Woman Walking, Morning Light*, The Stones Speak*, and a nonfiction book, Dancing With Wonder: Self-Discovery Through Stories. You can read excerpts of her books, as well as order them, on her website  

[photo credit: by osiatynska via]

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Reader Comments (15)

A beautifully structured story, compelling, unexpected on "Life is a trip", but welcome. It urged me to wonder at my own borders and the energy used approaching them.

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Darling

Thank you for your comment. Sometimes I think it's harder to cross inner borders than those clearly marked.

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNancy King

There is so much between the lines of your story. It's satisfying to see someone learning from their experience and realizing we are free. Others may tell us we are not, try to erect borders in our minds, but we are free.

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhil Eagleton

Believe it or not I've had a similar teaching experience! I also found it unnerving and it also made me extremely angry. I did not react the way you did (more's the pity!) I went up to the woman and told her she had a choice-she could either participate the way the rest were doing, or leave.(She left!!) I am impressed that you found a way to deal with this situation without losing your cool. You didn't confront her or her intolerable behavior. You found a way to make it work (a bit). That you were able to relate this to your life and free yourself from years of pain is more than commendable. Good for you! Your stories (as always) ring with the bite of truth with lessons to be learned.

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDiana Wolff

Small moments in the pesent that hold the unresolved emotional fuel of the past. Big moments to be able to confront them and come to a better understanding.. Each time a similar feeling evolves it is time to refocus on the themes of our lves as we cross another border. thanks for sharing. Nancy,

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFRankie Klaff

Nancy, leads us across several borders without our seeing the guards. We seem to be getting set up to experience a test of our cultural sensitivity or political awareness, but we find that there are real obstacles to our own serenity and that an absence of peace of mind can be the result of us already being out of our minds. The buttons that get pushed by the inconsiderate people of the world are often buttons that we didn't even know were factory installed and detrimental to our health.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Pody

This piece is so tightly packed, each line delivers the next. The tension is palpable. Learning self-care is one of the hardest learnings in life. I wish you joy and knowledge that this border of blame keeps getting further and further off in the distance.

Thank you for this amazing piece.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterClaudia Reder

I've been working on issues of blame and being the problem for a long time, always dismissing the idea that perhaps I wasn't to blame, that I wasn't the problem. This time, I was able to see things differently,in part, because the situation was so clear and defined, but also, because I've done a lot of inner work. I was ready to question life long habits and automatic responses to react differently. I don't think one incident changes life long habits, but this incident was the "proverbial straw" that enabled me to look at the dynamic of the interaction between us and to make a nealthier choice. Inner travel is much like outer travel in that preparation is an important part of being able to cross borders and enjoy the new perspective.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNancy King

A beautiful description of a significant event that takes its place among the wonderful prose of Nancy King.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Adleman

I continue to admire people who are able to go beyond themselves and create a win-win situation. Had you sent the woman away you would not have crossed the border and freed yourself. How wise you were! Thank you for sharing and allowing readers to come to terms and possibly deal with their borders.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJune Parnes

Hands across the border--but we can only cross it by stepping over it, one foot at a time, one moment at a time. A truly inspirational and beautifully written story. Thank you for the images that I carry away with me--of the woman with her entwined children, of you un-entwining yourself from her entwining and the entwining of your family constellation. And the border. Always, the border, with friends waiting on the other side, if we can just bring ourselves to cross over.

February 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElyn Aviva

Although one experience isn't always powerful enough to change longstanding habits and automatic responses, this incident had far-reaching repercussions because I’ve been working hard to take a new look at events and issues I dismissed for much too long. While teaching, I could clearly see that I was not the problem and was therefore able to think through my response instead of just reacting habitually.

I greatly appreciate the variety and insightfulness of all the posted comments. Sharing experiences is a powerful inducement to personal growth.

February 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNancy King

"Crossing the Border" will be a phrase forever changed in my mind after reading your story, Nancy.
You are very brave to reveal so much of yourself and to share your vulnerabilities as you revisit and make sense of your past and as you move "across the border" to grow from the insights into the future "you." And so, I extend my hand. I am lucky to be at "the border" awaiting you.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Dickson

Having heard this story before in a different context, it was great to read it in a well-crafted and more specifically focused version. I agree with all the comments above and congratulate you on your successful border crossing. It is the unfortunate reality of borders, both internal and national, that crossing just once is seldom enough. But it hopefully gets easier.
A pair of thoughts about the story itself (and not so much your personal process):
1) without further description of how the problem woman was "middle eastern" and how that may have contributed to the narrator's emotional loading made that description seem extraneous to me.
2) I found myself wondering what evaluation the narrator got from the problem student (who was presumably a teacher or wannabe-teacher herself) and if that wasn't perhaps a contributing factor to the rage.

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterken

What a luscious and insightful invitation to look at our borders and boundaries, shame and blame as well as the power of 'holding it together' while realizing possibilities. Thanks for your stunning descriptions. As a teacher, parent and grandparent, I've often shared the dilemna of scrambling for a resolution to an uninvited, inappropriate challenge. Rising above the unfortunate irresponsibility of both the participant and the program's coordinator, you offer all of us the power of getting beyond the specifics and healing underlying issues that always complicate our ability to respond to conflict. Thank you. Onward and upward, in health and peace!!!

February 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Anne

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