Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 2.4]

The first day of sixth grade started the way the last few had, with me barely sleeping a wink the night before and stressing insecurely over the outfit I would wear in the morning. I was excited about one thing—this year I was getting the better of our two homeroom teachers. Typically, I didn’t. Typically, I was assigned to the teacher Bridget McDunn’s parents didn’t prefer. See, as much as I was sure it would be, the “art-crayon incident” hadn’t been an isolated one. At the start of third grade, my little green monster and I had shamefully made another attempt to “right the universe.”

It all happened when the principal came to each classroom with sample jackets in our school colors, customized with our school logo and mascot. There were three options: (1) a light, unlined jacket; (2) a medium, lightly lined jacket; and (3) a heavy, wool-lined jacket. Upon finding out that Bridget was ordering option 3, I begged my parents to do the same. They said it was too expensive, but I wore them down, offering to earn money from doing extra chores around the house. Things felt fair and right with the world the day the principal came into our class to distribute our jackets.

But, they didn’t feel so fair and right when, a few days later, while jumping off the swing, my jacket got caught in the chains, which proceeded to rip a roughly four-inch frazzled gash up the right side. Since my mom made many of my clothes, I prayed she had the skills to fix it, and by fix it, I meant eradicate the rip as if it never happened. Mom did her best to sew up the tear, but even with meticulous handiwork, she couldn’t make it invisible; there still remained a dark gruesome scar where it had been.

It ate me up inside that Bridget’s jacket was perfect, pristine like everything else she owned, from shoes to book bags to erasers … to “art crayons.” For several days following, I stared at her jacket—specifically the right side—at recess and on walks to and from school. One morning, I watched her hang up her perfect coat in the coat room. When she was gone, I impulsively ripped the tags containing our names out of both our jackets and then I swapped jacket positions with Bridget on the wall rack. At the end of the day, I hurried to the coat room to grab “my” coat and skedaddled home.

“Ring, Ring” went the phone right before dinner. This time around, I didn’t have to go to the McDunns’ home to apologize. Her father had decided to report it to the school principal and let him handle it, which resulted in “a talking to” and afterschool detention for three days. My parents were called in to the principal’s office too, which my father said on the drive home was an “unnecessary display of social class and power on the part of Bridget’s dad.” Every subsequent year since the “jacket incident,” Bridget and I had been placed in separate classrooms, a strategy my dad called “response prevention.” Either way, since Bridget’s dad was now the principal of the high school, I tended to end up with the teachers who had the least favorable reputations.

But, NOT this year. Somehow, I ended up with Mr. Redden. Mr. Redden was one of those teachers kids never forget for three main reasons: (1) he was passionate about learning for the sake of learning, which meant he made learning FUN; (2) he was a real person, which meant he actually belly laughed, didn’t play favorites, passionately shared his thoughts, and challenged us to think critically about current events; and (3) he sincerely cared about and valued our internal lives and human experience, which meant he took the time to get to know us. He talked with us, not to us—about stuff WE cared about. And I was overjoyed to discover he really liked me. He recommended me to an enrichment program at the local community college; he thought I was smart. Yes, Mr. Redden “walked on water” as far as I was concerned. I was grateful to be in his class, and the fact that I was, healed a few wounds.

Near the end of one October day, the principal came to our classroom and motioned for Mr. Redden to join him in the hall. When Mr. Redden came back in, he told me my dad was waiting for me outside. The only other time my parents had ever picked me up from school early involved a dentist’s or doctor’s appointment, and to date it had always been my mother doing the picking. I hurried down the hall, out the doors, and down the steps toward my dad’s car. I looked at his face for signs of what this might be about.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Hi, Honey. How’d school go today?”

“Umm, fine,” I said, not entirely convinced this was a casual pick-up. “Is everything okay?”

“Well, actually, no. I mean, everyone’s okay now, but it’s about your mom. She was taken to a hospital about thirty minutes from here and we’re going to go see her now.”

“Dad, what happened to her?”

“This is difficult to explain, so I’ll just say it. Your mom has a boyfriend. She has for several months. I discovered this fact last night after you went to bed. I caught her talking on the phone with him. I think she thought I was asleep. We stayed up very late talking and then after you went to school this morning, your mom came into our bedroom crying and admitted taking the whole bottle of her asthma medication.”

I was almost keeping up until the last part. “Why would she take all her pills at once?”

“Well, Michelle, she says she was trying to kill herself. But I called an ambulance right away and they took her to the hospital and they pumped everything out of her stomach. She’s fine physically, but she’s experiencing a sort of breakdown mentally. And, when that happens, the doctors make you go into a mental hospital where you can be monitored so you can’t hurt yourself again. That’s where your mom is now.”

“At a mental hospital?”

“Yes.”

“Dad, was Mom close to dying?”

“No. She didn’t take enough pills to actually kill herself. I think she was in a lot of emotional pain and afraid of what was going to happen, so in a panic she did something dramatic that would get my attention and hopefully make me not be so mad at her.”

After driving in silence for several minutes I asked, “Does this mean you guys are going to get divorced?”

I’d played this scenario out after each of their ten or so extreme fights, but the past year or so, they hadn’t seemed to fight as much. In fact, they didn’t interact much at all anymore. When they did, it was rude and spiteful, but typically short-lived. At some point, Mom had simply stopped pursuing Dad when he walked away from her mid-sentence.

“I think so. I asked your mom last night if she wanted to stop her affair and try to work things out. She said that she is in love with this man and wants to be with him. And, honestly, I can’t blame her. We both haven’t been happy together for a very long time. Divorce is probably the best thing to do.”

“Are you sad?”

“I’m sad for your mom. But I’m not sad about a divorce really. How about you? Are you okay? What do you think about all this?”

Up to this point I wasn’t aware I was feeling anything. But then fear struck. “Dad, when you guys get divorced, who will I live with?”

“Who do you want to live with?”

The next word caught in my throat and burned. Guilt and sadness for my mom all of a sudden overwhelmed me. It was painful to say it too loud, so quietly I said, “You.”

“Well, we will certainly talk about it. Nothing like that has been decided yet.”

“Dad, would you want me?”

“Of course! Are you crazy?” His tone was deliberate and intended to lighten the mood.

I was breathing again, but still feeling guilt. “Can you please not tell Mom I said I want to live with you?”

“Okay. I won’t.”

The hospital, a huge rectangular building made of tall concrete blocks, sat on a hill off a country road in the middle of a nowhere meadow. The front half of the building consisted of clear glass window panes, which allowed the sun to burst through and fill the atrium from the floor to the ceiling four stories above. Dad led me to a small room where Mom sat on a bed wearing a pale blue hospital robe. “I’ll give you time to talk and be back in a few minutes,” he said. Mom wasn’t wearing any makeup, and her long hair was hanging down around her shoulders and pushed off her face with a headband. I walked over to the side of her bed.

“Hi Mom.”

“Hi Michelle,” she said, and tears filled her eyes.

“How are you?” I said awkwardly.

“I’m okay.”

“What happened?” I asked shyly.

“What has your father told you?” she asked.

“Well, he said that you have a boyfriend and that he found out about it and you two had a bad fight.” I hadn’t yet worked up the courage to mention the hurting-herself part, which was the most intriguing and disturbing element in all this for me.

“He’s right. I have met someone else and we are really in love.” As she said this, she looked behind where I was standing and to my right. I turned around and noticed a brown-haired man with a mustache and muscles in a tight red T-shirt and faded jeans looking at me with innocent, almost pleading, eyes. Apparently, he’d come in the room after my dad left. He managed a meek grin, which triggered a small smile in me.

“This is Dan,” Mom said. He stood up humbly and walked over to shake my hand. His hands were chubby and his skin felt thick and rough. A wave of uneasiness crested in my stomach as I took in this total stranger sitting so intimately at my mother’s bed. I suddenly felt on the outside of things.

“Hi,” I said, trying to sound polite and upbeat.

He went back over to his chair, and I turned back to Mom. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Mom, did you really want to kill yourself?”

At this she covered her face in her hands and sobbed for several seconds. I looked for her hand, which was wearing one of those plastic hospital bracelets, but to actually grab hold of it would have been too bold a move for me right then.

She wiped her eyes and looked up at me. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she said softly. “Michelle, I did it because I was afraid you would hate me when you found out what I did to your dad.”

I was not in the least expecting this answer. She was afraid I would hate her? Surely that means she must care what I think. As this sunk in, I felt something slowly shift deep within me.

“I don’t hate you at all, Mom. I love you.” This felt like the right answer for the moment, although I was on autopilot. My mind was still trying to make sense of her message and partly thought, She must really love me if she couldn’t stand the thought of living if I hated her.

Torn—and not yet jaded enough to believe that my mother may not have been completely honest (consciously or unconsciously) in her response—I chose to believe that my mother must love me very much—in her own way—and that I truly held some significance for her. I was suddenly overcome with feelings of compassion, guilt, pity, and an especially strong feeling of responsibility—to ensure my mother knew I not only forgave her, but loved her unconditionally. Her presence in my life had always felt a little neutral, more in the background than forefront, not particularly present or vivid; now, she became a more salient figure in my consciousness… as I accepted part ownership for her happiness.

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