Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Number One Worst Mother in Literature

I've been on Spring Break.

Not my own; my children's. It was confusing and fun and involved trips to Santa Barbara, California, and Lynchburg, Tennessee. Lynchburg is home to Liberty University, the evangelical school at which Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for President yesterday, but I meant what I said about giving up snark for Lent (it's been harder than you'd think) so that's all I can say about that, except that I was actually in Lynchburg for the Quiz Rally of the Old Dominion Region pony clubs.

Later this week I hope to tell you a really nice story about this year's quiz. Today I've got a different story to tell.

A lot of people--a LOT--have commented with surprise at how wholly horrible they find the character of Mam from my new book The War That Saved My Life. Some people feel she verges into caricature; others feel like very few people as evil as she is exists. (Betsy Bird from School Library Journal has named her the #1 villainous parent in children's literature, 2015; that, I might believe.) But as for the rest of it, no. Now I will repeat that my own mother is a gentle, loving person. She's not Mam. But Mams exist--there are far more of them than people apparently think. Maybe it's my work in social justice, or maybe it's the time I've spent reading about abuse, or the afternoons at Janie Hammitt home--I just know, and wish I didn't, that Mam's behavior is as appalling common as is the poverty of London's pre-WWII East End. Kids who'd never seen grass? There were loads of them.

Kids whose mothers hate them? Yep.

Here's my story.

This is a quiz rally from a long, long time ago. My children were both competing on the same Rising Star team, along with a boy and a girl they'd never met before from another club. I was their team chaperone, and since they were Rising Stars, the very youngest competitors, I stayed with them the entire day, sitting outside the classrooms they competed in (we were in a borrowed elementary school) but walking them from room to room.

At the beginning of the morning, my children and I went to find their teammates at their club's table. I don't remember their names and wouldn't use them if I did, but I asked for them, and at the girl's name all the older kids rolled their eyes and groaned, and said rude things about her. I'm the leader of our local club now, and I'll tell you, none of my big kids would ever be so nasty toward a teammate, not ever, not if they wanted to keep my respect, which they do. The big girls pointed to this small, scruffy, dark-haired girl, and she hunched her shoulders and came along with us.

She was a mess. A great big annoying mess. She kept picking up things in the classrooms--pretty soon I was going into each classroom just to keep an eye on her, because we were not allowed to touch the school's things, and here she was rootling through the classroom desks. She wanted Skittles, and she told me her mom had her Skittles, and she needed Skittles, needed needed needed them. I told her not until lunchtime (the last thing she needed was Skittles) so she started asking every other adult she encountered, in a plaintive voice, if they please knew where she could find her mom, it was really important, and I'd cut in that it was not important and it could wait, and the other adult would look at me like I was a monster.

She aggravated the hell out of the rest of her team. Pretty soon my son and the other boy were refusing to listen to a word she said, and that was too bad, because she really knew her stuff. Kid was as smart as they come. My son was plenty smart, too, though, and he was ticked. When the girl insisted that she was going to protest one phase, which was her right, my son leaned over and signed the score sheet to cut off the protest, even though since he wasn't captain he didn't have the power to do so. I made them all sit and wait out her protest, under extreme duress, and we were late to lunch.

Now picture four disgruntled children, ages 5 to 8. My daughter, the youngest, was resolutely plowing through her food. The other three were disassembling their sandwiches to remove the offending bits. Suddenly a large dark-hair woman sat down beside us. "I see you're stuck with my daughter," she said, loudly. "I bet she's been a BRAT."

The girl flinched, as though she'd been struck. The other kids looked up, horrified.

I said, "She knows an awful lot."

The woman snorted. "Maybe, but she sure is a BRAT. Nobody wants to be on her team."

My daughter's eyes widened over the top of her sandwich. My son caught his breath. I said, slowly and deliberately, looking straight at the scruffy girl, "We've enjoyed having her on the team. We'd be glad to have her on our team any time."

The woman said, "I wouldn't know why."

I'm not making any of this up. A privileged kid by the world's standards, well-fed and educated and riding ponies, and her mother said awful things about her, in front of her, to strangers. Who knows what she said when they were alone?

I wanted to sweep that kid up and take her home. I wanted to tell her that if she belonged to my club no one would ever laugh at her, or roll her eyes, and she could calm down and breathe and she would be okay. I couldn't of course, and I never saw her again.

But I put her mother into print, the evil witch. Mam is real.