A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son grief to his mother.
On the other, I knew that having a champion like her would exacerbate some problems, either with the bullies or even the teachers; and in high school in particular it was important to look as self-reliant as possible despite the evidence to the contrary.
I can remember, for example, one particular teacher, whom I will name, simply, Mrs. Genghis Khan. (As you can see, I’m no longer bitter.) Mrs. Khan, my history teacher in high school, took a severe dislike to me in the very first class of the year, when I enthusiastically answered her question — “What’s a Monarch?” — with an extraordinarily piercing, “It’s a butterfly!”
Now correct me if I’m wrong, but in my dictionary that is a perfectly acceptable answer. Forget that we were studying the British class system and the Kings of old. Mrs. Khan, thinking that I was being impertinent, promptly dispatched me to the corner of the room, and so began my inglorious high school career, and my equally uninspired performance in History 101. Class after class the teacher used me as a pincushion, similarly returning every assignment I handed in covered in so much red that it looked like the floor of a medieval surgery. My efforts to impress fell exponentially with her growing condemnation until I felt sure that I would be thrown out of school and sent back to the coalmines. (Needless to say the fact that I’d never been in the coalmines was a dramatic inconvenience.)
As with all self-sufficient, reasonably inarticulate high school males in what was a reasonably rough school, I said nothing about this and persevered with the excruciating weekly torture, until one day, in a way that only mothers can intuit, my Mum unearthed my workbook and surgically extracted (with no anesthetic I might add) the full story of my misery. When I finished the explanation I let out one exasperated sob that chemically activated the killer ninja gene that is embedded in every mother’s DNA. The very next morning I followed, mortified, as my mother burst through a phalanx of snow banks to the school, tracked down the teacher despite my valiant effort to lead her astray in the many corridors of the enormous building, and within an hour of her arrival had dressed down the most formidable teacher in the institution’s history.
To say that this sent ripples through the establishment would be to argue that a typhoon is merely a summer shower. I won’t bedevil you with the details but suffice to say that, from then on Mrs. Khan managed to mark my assignments in pencil, to not seat me in the corner at the start of every class before I’d even spoken a word, and remained savagely civil despite making her boundless hatred of me evident.
At the level of the school the impact was confused. Such had been my mother’s fiery handling of the matter that no one was quite game to say too much lest it deliver another visitation from the family Avenger. A few chanced their tongue with a whispered word or two, but all in all it was much more bearable than I’d anticipated.
Nowadays we would probably call this helicopter parenting. And all educators have a story to tell about an overly earnest parent, too keen to intervene on their child’s behalf, or displacing a child entirely over one matter or another. But I refuse to interpret this ‘phenomenon’ as a pernicious change in our culture. There is something in me that always secretly delights to see that ferocious caring, which should always be there and probably never disappears, irrespective of how old you get. I know that when my mother passed away I ached for her presence, and I miss it still, almost twenty years later. There are still times when something goes wrong when I wish I could pick up the phone and hear her say, ‘It’ll all work out,’ even before she knows the details. What I would give to hear her utter what were the five most frightening words she ever said to me: ‘I’ll take care of it.’
To me this is a mother’s love. Something so concrete and formidable that there are few people who will take it on. As a dad I know my love for my children is unshakable and uncompromising. But I know that there is something special about a mother’s connection to the child that only God can truly comprehend. And it is something that we can all learn from. Even today, whether in my role as President of St. Mary’s University College, or at home when a pipe breaks, my first instinct is: ‘I’ll take care of it.’ Somehow that doesn’t seem a bad life lesson after all.
This article originally appeared in The Carillon, a publication of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary.