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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12 thoughts on “All I Really Need to Know

  1. Oh, Marian. Doing what you know to be right, only to find yourself ostracized and criticized is an awful feeling. I think your response to the teacher saying “I was going to call” was exactly the right one. It’s so easy to say that AFTER the fact, but is really so important DURING -when speaking up can make you feel so terribly lonely.

    As for anger, sometimes it’s righteous, and in this case I believe it to be, and if it did add an extra spice to your bread, I hope it steels you for the next time you have to stand alone for something you value.

    And hugs to you.

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    1. Thank you, Kate. I think you hit the nail on the head with “It’s so easy to say that AFTER the fact, but is really so important DURING…” Yesterday I was listening to the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast. They always have a voice message at the end of the show, and yesterday’s caller talked about having gone through something horrible and that some people whom she *thought* were friends simply weren’t there for her; they didn’t support her in any way. She talked about how that shifted something inside her, and when the friends finally DID show up and said some words of support it felt even worse. (It’s spooky the way HPST nearly ALWAYS seems to be speaking directly to something I’m going through.) It makes me think of the phrase “too little, too late,” but with an edge. It’s funny you used the word steel, because that’s kind of how I feel inside: cold and hard, and as though something has been sealed up.

      Thank you for the hugs, Kate. I really needed them today.

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  2. Marian, I agree with Kate: Your response to that teacher was spot on. We’re so socialized to make others feel comfortable, we often give them a pass when they’ve hurt us. And failing to support us when we most need it is hurtful. I am glad you didn’t give her that pass.

    That other parent sounds like a real piece of work, and I’m so angry/sad for you that those events drove you from something you loved (the library). I want to tell you: Don’t let such a small, petty person take that from you! But I also believe that we all get to decide what’s winning/losing for ourselves. I spent a long time living in a situation that was bad for me and for my children, in part because I didn’t want to let the person hurting us win. Suffering is a really poor kind of “winning,” though. So, if it’s best for you to keep the boundaries you’ve drawn, then I support that. I am still going to be sad, though.

    As far as speaking up goes, well…I think that’s an act that’s rarely rewarded, especially when you’re speaking up to power (and it seems as if the woman who went after you has social power in your school community). The recent experience here of Kristine Blasey Ford is sad testament to that. I am glad that you spoke your truth. I know you didn’t get the result from it that you wanted, but there might be other impacts that you’ll never know. Perhaps that teacher will respond differently the next time someone needs her support, and it will be because of your example and words to her. I think it is more important now than ever that we all speak up. It’s something I keep forcing myself to do.

    Finally, I just want to say that I loved the way you worked Water for Chocolate into this piece of writing. And that I wish I could reach through the interwebs and give you a hug. It must have felt terrible to have only one person offer you any support. I used to live in a small community, and there was a time when I felt a fraction of something similar. It’s hard to be part of a small place and feel unsupported by it. I’m so sorry you’ve had this experience.

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    1. Thank you for all of this, Rita. Unfortunately, the loss of the library was unavoidable; the piece-of-work parent was the person I had worked with in the library for seven years 😦 . The loss of that was hard, but I could at least console myself with the fact that it was time to quit anyway. Really, the biggest loss for me has been the erasure of my (completely naive) belief that people will do the right thing once they know what the right thing is. I actually spent March Break under the illusion that the school principal would stand up for democracy — I had complete certainty that he would. And then, yet again, nearly complete certainty in May, with my final “here is how everything played out; how can you NOT take a stand when you KNOW what happened?!” email. (God, what an idiot I was!) You’re correct — this parent holds tremendous power in this small and entitled community. It’s funny (not haha): just after we moved here, I said to my husband (in horror) “We LEFT a small community where people “talked” and ostracized, and here we’ve gone and moved to a community JUST LIKE IT!” (Talk about prescience…)

      The world has gotten so unbelievably ugly. Those of us who see what’s going on with the earth are demeaned and called snowflakes, we’re mocked for “wringing our hands” and when we dare to show others the things we’re personally doing to stem the tide we’re told we’re “virtue signaling.” And Blasey Ford…oh my god, Rita…I watched Trump mocking her and felt utterly sick with disgust. We’ve embarked on an incredibly dangerous thing here, and quite honestly I am terrified that the haters — the people who want *everyone else* to sit down and shut up so they can continue their privileged lives unhindered — will elect him and his cronies again.

      /Deep breaths/
      I so appreciate your words of support, Rita, and the hug through the interwebs.

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  3. Just recently I said to a colleague/friend that I suspect I am rather naive about the world, and she kindly agreed. She said that I think that if I just explain things enough times, people will understand and then do the right thing–and this is what I am naive about. That people will do the right thing once they see what it is. I want to hang onto that belief. I want to believe that is how most people are. I know many are. But this time we are living in has made it clear to me in some way it never has been before that many people do not operate this way. What’s happening in my country is horrifying to me. I’m coming to understand that I’ve operated in ignorance for much of my life. A sign of the privileges I was born to. I’ve come to understand that, too. What I mean is, I’m seeing the ugliness that’s always been here. It is hard to lose one’s innocence, isn’t it?

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    1. It is. I’ve been thinking about this all day, and I appreciate knowing I’m not the only one who’s been naive. I think what’s even worse than the loss in faith that people will do the right thing is the loss in faith that institutions will do the right thing. I think this has been the biggest wake-up call for me. All my internal railing of “But, but, but this is a SCHOOL!” has been done with an air of incredulity, with me denying the obvious: institutions are only as good as the people who run them. My son’s school, this provincial government, the current POTUS. That’s the part that feels really dangerous to me — what do we descend into once we lose those necessary checks on abuses? But maybe this, too, is an extension of what you’re seeing; maybe those checks on abuses at the institutional level have never actually been there. Clearly it’s a sign of my privilege that I’m just understanding this now.

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  4. I feel the same way, Marian. I’m embarrassed at how much I’ve been blind to, and for how long it took me to see. But I try not to spend too much emotion or thought there. What matters now is what we all do going forward.

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    1. “I try not to spend too much emotion or thought there” — wise words. The last year has been a battle for me: so much time and energy and emotion given to things that are done that I can’t change. I need to get a reminder to keep looking forward tattooed on my hand…

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      1. Me too, but it’s entirely unfeasible because it would involve me making a decision. 😉
        (I can’t even choose art for the walls of my house, so deciding on a permanent mark I’d carry around on my skin for The Rest of my Life would just be WAY too much pressure!)

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      2. The pain factor…that’s another consideration. And the time spent getting it done. And the money. But I’ve got to say there’s a part of me that does feel a bit of admiration for, well, whatever it is that’s IN a person (that I clearly don’t have) to have that level of commitment and/or bravery and/or ability to just throw caution to the wind and go for things. And I say that even while knowing people IRL who DO — absolutely — regret their tattooing decisions. Hmm…it’s starting to feel like this conversation is becoming a metaphor for missed chances and the perils of over-cautiousness! 😉

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