I was thirty years old the first time my heart was blessed.
The blesser was about sixty. Female. Sweet old teacher showing me the way. Scared to death to leave her students in my incapable hands.
She blessed my heart. Or so I thought.
I’d been a resident of the South for less than six months, and hadn’t yet adjusted to the southern mask. I still wore my northern mask like armor, lips in thin line, face looking Botoxed to numbness, eyes down, inviting contact from no others. I was safe under my shell of a mask that said, “I’m busy. I’m grumpy. I’m a little dangerous. I might be armed.”
The southern mask said the opposite to me: “There’s nothing I’d rather do than stop what I’m doing and chat with you about any old thing your heart desires. I’m thrilled to see you. I’m friendly. There’s cheese in my pocket.”
While I was adjusting, and peeking behind the masks, my daughters were in public schools, in the care of what we all thought were the sweetest, honey-dipped, mascaraed creatures on the planet. What did we know?
The day my six-year-old daughter leaped off the bus and into my arms, sobbing, it took a while to dig through the emotion and fear to understand what happened at school. And when it came out, in a gush of snot and tears, muffled into my shoulder, I realized I was to blame when my baby accused me with, “You didn’t teach me,” pause, big shuddering intake of oxygen, “ma’am!”
Seriously? All of this about one little word?
After piecing it together, it seems the conversation went something like this.
Sweet smiling teacher: “Katherine, how do you spell cat?”
Katherine: “C A T.”
SST: “Very good. Darlin’, where did ya’ll learn to spell so good?”
SST: “Would you like me to place a big red sticker beside your name on our class Spelling Board?”
SST: “Yes, what?”
K: “Yes, please!”
SST: “Yes, what??”
K: “Yes, thank you?”
SST: “What did you say?”
K: “Yes, I’d like a big red sticker, please and thank you?”
SST: “Are you being smart with me, young lady?”
K (crying now): “No.”
SST (not smiling at all now): “No, what?”
K: silent. too smart to move. cornered and petrified.
SST: “Didn’t your mama teach you ma’am?”
Holy crappola. When the story unfolded, I held her in my arms and looked into her glistening eyes, and said, “Kate. I don’t want you to say ma’am.”
But my daughter had looked through the mask and into the soul of the SST, and knew she couldn’t trust anyone– not her SST, not even her own mother. She took her survival into her own hands. My six year old told me, “I have to say ma’am.”
Weeks later, I found myself in a classroom full of sweet kids, depending on me to teach them. And they all called me ma’am. Not because they respected me. But because their mothers made them, since they were two. And if they didn’t say ma’am, their mothers would know, somehow, and they would get whomped. All for one little word. Bless their hearts.
Back when my heart was first blessed, not long after my daughter taught me ma’am, I heard what that sweet, smiling lady really meant. “You are a damn Yankee moron.” And I changed my northern mask to a southern smile, so she wouldn’t know that I’d heard her so clearly. Keep the smiling wolves where you can see them, where you can bless their little hearts.