All I Really Need to Know

This morning, as I was angrily pummeling kneading this ball of dough, I thought of a book I read over a quarter of a century ago: Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel.

Like Water for Chocolate tells the tale of a young woman who, suffering the heartache of unrequited love, magically pours her emotions into the food she makes for her family. When she sheds tears into the feast that she’s preparing for the wedding that is shortly to take place between her beloved and her sister, the food takes on her sadness and all the wedding guests become ill.

Some of you may recall I had a spot of trouble with the PTO this spring. In a nutshell: one parent didn’t appreciate the fact that I was speaking up for the environment. She hid information in order to prevent my speaking up, and then when I did speak up all hell broke loose. She put me and my motives into her gossip machine, warning the community that they must take action against “environmentalists who are attempting to stop all the fun at the school.”

Going through all this was just about as much fun as it sounds. It was the final straw that sent me packing off to therapy. It’s the reason I quit the library. It’s the reason I couldn’t—for months—walk past the school without my chest tightening with anxiety. It’s the reason I still mostly keep my head down whenever I go to the grocery store. I am the parent who stopped the fun, after all. I am the parent whose complaining caused children to be disappointed, a fact that’s been drilled home on numerous occasions.

This Wednesday, I went to my 13-year-old son’s cross country meet. One of his coaches is a kindergarten teacher at the school. When we moved here, eight years ago, my son was placed in her class. She lives around the corner from us and is the mother of three grown children, one of whom is a good friend to my 20-year-old son.

“I nearly called you last spring,” she said. “After you got thrown under the bus by the PTO.”

— A heartbeat, in which I thought of the one parent who did call me last spring, the one person who stuck beside me throughout all this, the one person who recognized all this for what it was—bullying.

— Another heartbeat, in which I considered the silence last spring from everyone else: from a person I once imagined was an ally, from the principal who—even when all the events were laid out in front of him—failed to stand up for democracy in the school.

“I wish you had,” I finally said.

I left the cross country meet feeling vindicated. At least one other person at the school saw what happened. She saw that it was wrong. She felt for me. She nearly reached out to offer support.

But today, two days later, I no longer feel vindicated. I feel angry.

And after pounding my bread dough this morning, tears flowing, recalling the months of anxiety I endured, remembering Like Water for Chocolate, hoping the bread I’m making for tonight’s dinner won’t take on the flavour of my anger, I’m now suddenly reminded of another book: All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum.

Although stand up for others when you see something is wrong, speak up, and use your voice aren’t among the lessons in Fulghum’s book, those messages are surely somewhere to be found in the subtext of play fair, don’t hit people, and hold hands and stick together. So why is it, I wonder, that we teach our children these things, but we as adults so often fail to practise what we preach?

To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m posting this. Telling a tale of “this is the hell I was put through when I attempted to speak up” is hardly the way to encourage others to speak up. And yet, after listening to this speech by Elizabeth May, Canada’s Green Party leader—after hearing her ask, “Where is the bravery? Where is the courage?”—I suppose that IS the gist of what I’m trying to say here.

. . . remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned — the biggest word of all — LOOK.   (Robert Fulghum)

And then, once you’ve LOOKED, please—if you see something is wrong—please speak up.

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