You can smell Jakari from eight feet away. The combination of unwashed clothes and hair, shoes that have seen an extra winter of wet and dry feet. As if that didn’t already put her in the shallow end of the popularity pool, she weighs in at least forty pounds above the average fifth grader.
There is something so incredibly unsexy about any profession that gets an appreciation week. Teacher appreciation week shows up at the same time each year as nurses week, and quite honestly, both professions boil down to dealing with other people’s feces, literally and physically. Is it any wonder that Mother’s Day is only five days away? The role of mother falls solidly in the “dealing with feces” category.
This week is full of small gestures of thanks. Cups filled with chocolate, vases filled with flowers, boxes filled with jewelry. My cynical self can start to wonder if these appreciation weeks and days are lip service, a compulsory nod, the thank you we throw over our shoulder at the cashier as we take our receipt. As if that could possibly match the contributions our mothers and teachers have made to our lives.
This past two weeks my sweet little toddler has learned that he can have an opinion, and that it is most exciting when that opinion goes in direct opposition to mine. I can’t blame him. That’s his job, to figure out the boundary lines of mommy and baby, to test the limits of my patience, to experiment with the rules until he learns them all, and then to experiment some more to make sure I wasn’t kidding.
But last Sunday morning was tough. It started with screaming and didn’t stop for almost three hours until he collapsed asleep in a pile, just in time for us to pack him in a car to head to church. He woke up, of course, right when we walked into church fifteen minutes late (also of course). The sermon had started and I knew his dazed cuddling was a ticking clock, no way it would last. Sure enough, the angry fish flopping started as soon as I told him he couldn’t run around in the pew.
I took the elevator up to our church’s nursery, my son upset, again, because he didn’t get to push the “up” button. I pushed into that deep inner resolve, the one I channel when I need to stay calm in trying situations. And maybe there was a little bit of self-pity. You know, the “I deserve a break” or the “somebody should be helping me right now” feelings. The “I deserve a holiday to celebrate my massive contributions to my son and society” feelings.
And at that moment, right as the elevator doors chimed and opened, my son turned to me, put his tiny, perfect, chubby hands on my cheeks, grinned with his lovely twelve teeth and his tiny dimple, and said, “Mama.”
He spoke the words with the awe and wonder that I so often feel for him. This incredible realization that we are part of one another, that our lives are forever entwined with cords stronger than DNA; that we are sewn together with love.
I had surgery recently, and I was desperate for help during the recovery that the doctor had misled me to believe would only last a few days and has instead continued for six weeks. Within a few days of the surgery my mom caught wind that I was struggling, rearranged her schedule and drove down to spend a week caring for me, cleaning my house, cooking my meals, and most notably: waking up with my son to spend the mornings with him. (Is there any greater gift than this?)
I often turn to my husband, when my mom is at our house and caring for our every need, or when his parents have extended some truly incredible gift of generosity, and ask how we could ever repay our parents for all they have done for us. We are disgustingly fortunate to have such loving and supportive parents. And he often will say, “We can never repay them. We can only pay it forward.”
And that’s what I keep thinking as I watch Jakari’s teacher sit down next to her and teach her to read, inviting her after school, allowing her to keep her siblings in the room during homework help, since Jakari is their primary caretaker. Jakari is still so often ornery in class, still bullies other students, still talks back. And yet her teacher comes back each day with a deeper resolve to help Jakari learn to read and write. Could Jakari ever pay her back for this?
That’s what I think when my mom works tirelessly to make sure that I am healthy, being willing to exhaust herself so that I can rest. That’s what I think when she insists I go to bed instead of helping her do the dishes or wash stains from our clothing. Is the card we send her, with someone else’s words printed inside a joke?
Maybe Teacher Appreciation Week and Mother’s Day (and Nurse’s Week) help us to remember that there is no way that we can ever repay the people who have loved us, who have parented us, who have shown grace to us. No chocolates or flowers, stuffed animals or crayon-scribbled cards could ever repay the mothers, biological or otherwise, who have nurtured us.
But maybe those sentiments are a statement, a reminder that there is enough grace to go around, that we are all better when someone loves us more than we deserve, more than we could ever repay.
And maybe these appreciation weeks and days are a chance for us to turn around with awe in our eyes and acknowledge those people who have loved us well. Not because we can pay them back, but because their love has allowed us to pay it forward.