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 www.nancykingstories.com.
[photo credit: by osiatynska via flickr.com]