I sat in the office in silence. I was parked on a student chair, one of the kind that are too small for kids no less an adult. But it accommodated my 11 year old frame well enough. The Assistant Principal, Mr. Knowles, was sitting next to me at his desk, an army surplus all steel unit that showed every one of its 30 years of existence. Knowles was studiously ignoring me, doing that faculty versus student dance that wordlessly spoke “You’re in trouble now, boy.” Mr. Knowles was like Ichabod Crane. He was six-three and weighed in at a Kleenex fluttering 110 pounds. He was balding, but still had enough hair that he tried to fake it with a combover. His hair was salt and peppery, and way too long in order to be used as camouflage topiary. It had a lusterless gleam to it that shouted Wash Me louder than anything scrawled on the back of a dusty truck. I sat with my hands jammed into my pockets and started at the wall. There was a knock at the door.
Mrs. Hardesty, the battleaxe of the school office ducked her ancient and wrinkled face in and announced “Mrs. Kirkpatrick is here,” and pressed the door wide open as she withdrew. My mom appeared in the doorway and she didn’t look very happy. Mom had been pulled from her S&B party. On Tuesdays and Fridays, she and her gang of friends would join one another for lunch at one of the homes and eat finger sandwiches while they sampled different wines and talked about acquaintances behind their backs in unkind ways. This was Tuesday and the school had called my mother to come in for an immediate conference regarding young Master Robert. Actually, no one called me Robert except the school, a tradition that follows me today, except you say ‘government’ instead of ‘school.’
“Why am I here, Bob?” she asked. “You know today is S&B day for me.”
“Sorry nothing! Mary Ellen was telling a delightful story when the phone rang. I missed the whole delicious tale!”
Mr. Knowles spoke up. “I’m sorry to have had to disturb you Mrs. Kirkpatrick, but the circumstances warranted it as I’m sure you’ll agree.” My mom looked at Knowles and her mouth twisted in that funny way she had when she was curious. “I wasn’t aware that you were involved in a meeting.” he said.
“It’s alright.” said mom with a look of longsuffering. “It was just my S&B day.”
“S&B?” asked Knowles.
“Stitchin’ and Bitchin’ …it’s a get together with the girls.”
Knowles looked surprised. “Stitchin?”
“Well, we used to call it the sewing circle, but we stopped sewing ages ago. Now we just bitch.” Knowles looked more shocked.
“It might be wise,” he said icily, “to use a bit more restraint with terminology around the tyke.”
My mom used her foot to kick the door closed and pointed a well manicured index finger at the Vice Principal. “Don’t you ever take a tone with me again, you officious pipsqueek. You do not tell me what to do. Is that quite understood?”
Knowles’ eyes opened wide. He wasn’t used to being dressed down, he was the one who did that sort of thing. Yet here was a parent berating him, and in front of a student. “Forgive me, I was just thinking…”
“Thinking my foot. Why am I here?”
“Your son had an altercation in the lunch line.” said Knowles. He was regaining a bit of the regal stature he normally wore. “In violation of school rules, he engaged in fisticuffs with another student.”
Mom looked at me. “Is that true?”
“Well, yeah. But he grabbed my milk money and wouldn’t give it back.”
“That’s no excuse…” Knowles started to say, but my mom quieted him with a stony glare.
“Did you ask him to give back the money?” my mom asked me.
“Three times.” I replied.
“Well, there you have it.” she said. I did my best to look angelic. “My son was accosted by one of the riff raff and defended himself. I fail to see a problem.”
“Mrs. Kirkpatrick, fighting is strictly forbidden at school.”
“Are you nuts?” My mom and dad were rich and well placed in town, but my parents were real people. My dad said she married my mother because she was the only sailor in the bar who could out drink him and she wasn’t even a sailor. “Bob’s father and I have taught our son to defend himself when faced with an adversarial situation. We do not find it cause for concern that he has done exactly that. Certainly not enough to take me away from some wonderful conversation over a nice little Bordeaux.”
“I, uh, I’m sorry Mrs. Kirkpatrick, but the rules are very precise on this matter. Fighting is grounds for suspension –at least for the rest of the day. We need to keep the combatants apart for a while to allow the bad blood to settle.” My mom was only half listening.
“Was the other boy suspended?” asked my mom.
“Why yes,” said Knowles. “He took his bike home about twenty minutes ago. We would have had his parent come for him but they both work.”
She looked at me. “Did you get your money back?” she asked.
“No, they split us up before I could get it.”
“Well, he has a twenty minute start on you. I suggest you get moving.” she looked a bit stern.
“Now, see here…” Knowles was saying. But I didn’t hear anymore. My mom told me to go, so I went. I felt a little sorry for Knowles, left with my mom, but I would feel a lot sorrier if I didn’t produce my milk money when I got home.
I was thinking about my mom today. She passed away in the late 70′s and her death left a hole in me that will never be filled. I have story on story about my mom, and the wholly real way she always approached anything that dealt with me. There was never a time that she had no time for me, and when I would come to her with my child’s laments, she always listened so hard her lips would move along with my words as she made it a point to hear every syllable and nuance. She never spoiled me; I had to toe the line like every other kid I knew, and perhaps more so. It was my father who insisted on my being a man, but it was mom who showed me how to do it.
Though she’s gone, it is, I think, her strength that gives me the ability to face these days. The doctors tell me I’ve had it. Cancer is taking me and so more than ever it’s time for me to be a man. To “man up” as they say these days. It’s a good strength to have and it supports me, along with the memories I have of the woman who loved me more than any ever would.