There are two more people I remember from my days as a “disturbed” child, both women.
The first woman is Mrs. Srpage (one of the very few names I remember). She was the morning staff person responsible for getting the boys in my wing of the dorm up and dressed and out to breakfast most mornings. She was also responsible for washing our clothes. Washing and cleaning was a gift of love I never understood or appreciated until my late teens. Really, I thought some people cleaned and washed just because they liked to do it. It seemed crazy to me. Why would anyone wash clothes just because they got dirty? I was shocked when several years later a foster mother said to me, “Do you think I clean up after you because I enjoy cleaning?” I gave the wrong answer.
I just didn’t get the concept: clean is good. Eventually marriage helped, not because my wife nagged (she did nag a little at first, but nagging has never worked very well on me). In marriage, I began to see cleaning up as a necessary act of love. Keeping things relatively clean was a blessing to my wife. It really wasn’t until the kids came along that clean for me became a good in itself (not squeaky clean, but just relatively clean). But even today, I just don’t see things that need to be picked up or cleaned. It’s not an excuse, it’s just my experience. When Bonnie is gone, I wait until the day before she returns and spend the day washing the dishes and clothes, mopping the floor, cleaning the bathroom and changing the bedding. I never plan to do this. I don’t say to myself, “Now that Bonnie’s gone, I don’t have to clean for two weeks.” The thought doesn’t occur to me to clean until just before Bonnie comes home because I think, “Bonnie won’t be able to relax if she finds the house in this condition when she gets home.” Some people tell me that they can’t stand to see a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. I take their word for it. For me the thought of washing dishes doesn’t occur until there are no clean dishes left in the cupboard. Again, I’m not saying this is a good thing, I’m just describing my experience.
I want to be careful not to blame my bad habits on others. I may just be wired as a slob, a genetic human weakness that I need to struggle to overcome for Christ’s sake–like one genetically predisposed to alcoholism must work harder than most people not to abuse alcohol. However, I have noticed at several points in my life when I have been living or staying with men, that a certain formula occasionally comes up: “Didn’t your mother ever teach you to [fill in the blank].” For example, didn’t your mother ever teach you how to hang up your clothes, to comb your hair, to flush the toilet (and put the toilet seat down), to put away your things, not to X, Y, or Z in public, etc. I usually do not respond to didn’t-your-mother-ever-teach-you comments, but I do make a mental note; and I think, “No, my mother didn’t teach me.”
I am telling you this not so that you can better understand the sloppiness of my life, but so that you can better appreciate motherhood. Mothers (or aunts, older sisters, and perhaps others–maybe even fathers) are acting as saints when they lovingly and patiently teach their little children (boys particularly) to put down the toilet seat, to see what they don’t see (i.e. what needs to be picked up), not to belch in public, and a hundred other little matters of public manners and personal hygiene. They are saints particularly because little boys–well at least little boys like I was–just do not see these things. They are irrelevant matters that can become significant and remembered because they are connected to a mother’s love. They can also be learned through painful life experience and/or harsh discipline; but love is a better way.
The other woman who made a long-lasting impression on me during those years was a school teacher. In our Monday through Friday routine, we used to eat breakfast and head off to another part of the campus for school. Since it was all special ed, a boy who was bright enough to work the system could easily get out of learning or studying anything–except studying the people and the system and learning to manipulate both: not a honorable pastime I admit, but neither was it without its life applications. I do not remember any of the teachers except one young woman with a British accent whom I was in love with–I often had crushes on younger women teachers (It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in psychology to figure out why that might be). Toward the end of my time in this institution, she was one of my teachers and her gift to me has never been lost.
She read out loud to me and a few other boys The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Her soft British accent and gentle tones stayed in my head long into adulthood. I eventually read the whole series myself as a college student and her voice was the voice I heard in my head as I was reading. I was surprised when a few years later I read the books out loud to my own children and my voice was not like hers, the voice in my head. I had just assumed that Lewis’ words could sound no other way: a gentle woman’s voice with a soft British accent.
I have often wondered if this woman was a Christian and if she had intentionally chosen that book in the hope of opening up our minds to Christian ideas about virtue, faith and sacrifice. Maybe she just liked the story. Maybe it was assigned and she had no choice. There is one thing I am convinced of. She cared about the story, and she cared about her students. I know this is true because she entered my heart and brought something good, something that bore fruit many years later in a desire to know God, a willingness to believe what others saw even if I didn’t, in a love of reading, and in an ability to find meaning in a story, to see my story in the Story, the Bible.
I have only recorded in these pages my memories of people who had a positive impact on my life. There were others, but it does not seem edifying to relate those stories. Just about everyone I’ve known has been abused, tormented or corrupted by people who should have loved and protected them. My experiences of abuse and corruption are just the same as everyone else’s–only the details are different.