Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cleaning Woman

Last week I made a big mess. A big scene. In public.

My son's school has a safety policy that requires parents to prove their identity before their children can be released to them. Good policy. Don't want any kidnappers napping my kid. Or is it nabbing my kid?

Anyway, usually, proof of identity is in the form of a school-issued identifying number card that the school gives you at the beginning of the year, which you stick in your windshield every day when you come to pick up your kid. The dismissal teacher sees your number and calls it out to the assembled student body, and your child comes through the school doors and gets in your car. You're not even allowed to exit your vehicle while in the carpool lane.

If you don't have your number card in the car, you have to park and go to the office, where you're supposed to show them your photo ID. Then they write you a dismissal slip, which you give to the dismissal teacher, and she gives you your kid.

Well, last Thursday, I didn't have my number.

So I was told to park and go to the office to get my dismissal slip.

I had no bra, I had not shaved my face since the previous morning (so there was a nice, hefty black shadow all over my chin), and my four-year-old in the car with me was barefooted.

I just wanted to get in and get out of the school as quickly as possible to avoid the embarrassing stares my beard would surely bring.

Also, I had PMS and had not taken my special mood-stabilizing drugs.


The previous week, when I didn't have my number, all I had to do was roll down my passenger side window and tell the dismissal teacher what it was. No big deal. She called my number without seeing any card, and my son came out to the car, just like normal.

Also, my son is in morning kindergarten and is usually dismissed by his kindergarten teacher, and she has not required me to show my number in the car windshield for months.

So it's actually been a really long time since I've had my number in the car with me.

This past Thursday, my son spent all day at school for the big year-end field day, so he dismissed with the rest of the student body. The dismissal teacher didn't know me from Adam, so as mentioned, I had to park and come inside the school. I left my barefooted four-year-old in the car to 'watch the new puppy' and headed inside with mounting irritation.

Since I'd been taking my son without my number for months, I thought I could get away with my face being proof enough that I was his mommy.

So I walked right up to his kindergarten teacher, who knows me well and knows I'm his mom, and said, "Hey, can I take my son?"

She said no, I had to go to the office.

Now, I have no idea what snapped in my brain, but for whatever reason, I was not okay with having to go to the office. I thought, he's my son, I'm his mom, you can't keep me from him.

A mom being told she has to jump through hoops in order to have access to her child is not a happy mom.

Besides that, they didn't care yesterday, they didn't care last week, they hadn't cared for the past several months, why should they care that time? I really thought they'd just let me leave, and then they'd roll their eyes at my retreating back.

I set my jaw, closed my mouth into a thin line, took my son by the hand, and proceeded to lead him to the school door.

I was truly surprised to see three determined elementary school teachers block my path. I picked my son up and tried to push through. They wouldn't budge.

I said, "This is MY son."

The dismissal teacher said, "I know he's your son, but my job is on the line if I let you go through that door."

I reminded them they had let me take him every day for months without a number. They denied it. But I don't think they meant to be actually lying or denying anything. I think they misunderstood me, or didn't know what I was referring to. Because they're not liars. They're really great people.

My son's teacher said softly to me with sad eyes, "You have to obey the rules."

Another teacher murmured gently, "And people are watching..."

Shoot! There went my goal of avoiding an embarrassing situation.

I set my son down and stomped off to the office, in a very grandiose PMS huff. The principal, having been summoned, met me halfway down the hall and said, "Is everything alright?"

I shot back testily over my shoulder, "It's fine. I just have PMS."

The school secretary knew I was coming and had already begun to write the note in question when I marched up to her desk. I never saw a secretary write so fast.

Snatching the note rudely out of her hand with not a kind word nor a backward glance, I thundered back down the hall to the dismissal area, once more passing the very kind, very gentle principal, who simply said again, "Are you sure everything's alright?"

"It's fine!" I snapped.

With my son's fingers in one hand and my dismissal slip in the other, I again approached the door, dropping the all-important note at the dismissal teacher's feet. She didn't see it, so she tried to block my way again. She grabbed onto my arm, which now sports a very colorful bruise the size of two fingers down to their second knuckles.

I flung her arm out of my way as hard as I could and charged through the door with my son. The dismissal teacher asked, perplexed, "Where's the note?"


Frustrated, she shot back, "Why didn't you HAND it to us?!"

Without answering, I got in my car and drove away, trembling with rage and shock.

Driving straight over to where my husband was working, I told him the whole story, sobbing uncontrollably the entire time. He listened, he held my hand, he said he was on my team, and he prayed with me. Finally, he had to get back to work, so I headed home, alligator tears streaming down my cheeks as I drove.

I spent the next couple of hours all wrapped up in the spiritual ramifications of my big, fat failure, but when my husband got home from work, he reminded me as well of possible legal ramifications. He thought the school could probably charge me with assault, and we both became concerned that they'd call Child Services and, at best, question my son, and at worst, take him into 'protective' custody.

We were sure our son would have to miss his last day of school, miss saying goodbye to his favorite teacher and all his little kindergarten friends, miss the kind of closure he'd need from the way he was forced to exit the school the previous day. I didn't want him to have to miss all that, but I knew the possible alternative was worse - losing my child.

I asked just a handful of very close friends to pray, pray, pray, which they did, did, did.

While we waited to hear from the school about their procedure in dealing with irate parents, I spoke with a friend who teaches at a similar school in a different state. She said calling the authorities would really be a stretch, and the school was much more likely to deal with the situation internally.

That calmed me down quite a bit.

The next morning, hoping my son wouldn't have to face such a deplorable end to his school year, I called the school first thing and asked what their procedure was for situations like this - were they going to bring in Child Services? Were they going to charge me with anything? If we sent our son to school, would we get him back at the end of the day? The principal said no one had been called and my son was welcome back to his classroom. So we sent him to school.

The principal also said she had informed her supervisor of what had happened, and he said since other students had witnessed my outburst, he'd write a letter to all the elementary parents (without mentioning names) and let them know their kids were still safe and the school had the situation well in hand. My husband and I will also meet with him later on this month just to make sure we're all on the same page for next year (in other words, "If you do this again your kid can't come to our school anymore").

Many people have many views on this. Some think the school was right and I was wrong. Others think I was right and the school was wrong. Everyone agrees that everyone involved could have handled the situation better. Is the policy a little strict? Maybe. Maybe not. But at the beginning of the school year, my husband and I signed a contract saying we would abide by that policy. So I was out of line.

The principal said she thought all of the teachers who had been there needed to hear from me. She suggested I call or try to visit with each of them and then send a follow-up apology letter.

I asked the principal if I could meet with those teachers right after school that day to apologize to them en masse. She said she thought that would be a great idea. So my husband took his lunch break from his construction job and came with me.

When we got to the school, the teachers were gathered and waiting for us. My husband and I sat down, and I immediately began to cry (actually, I'd been crying pretty much nonstop since the incident). Every single teacher teared up immediately. The principal opened in prayer, and then I told everyone I agreed with their policy, and they relaxed, and I said I was sorry, and they cried, and I said now I knew for sure my son would always be safe :), and they laughed. We sure tested THAT boundary, didn't we? And the principal led the pack in saying she forgave me, and the rest of them all said they forgave me too, and there were hugs all around, and everything was resolved.

And then the funniest thing happened. In genuine, gushy, unrehearsed, emotional girlishness, the teachers began one by one to say to me, "Wow. You're amazing. You have so much character. You're courageous. You are a picture of Christ. You're a very Godly woman. You impress me. You're a good mom. You're such an incredible example of Christlike behavior."

I just wanted to laugh and laugh. And laugh. Christlike behavior?! Were they blind?!

But what a picture of grace. When I deserved condemnation, I was lavished with love. It was like they completely forgot my mess because of the way God cleaned it up.

I told you all of that to tell you this.

God used this incident to teach me a very important, life-changing lesson. I hope my sharing it will impact some of you too.

Remember how I talked to my teacher friend on the phone the evening of the incident? She said something I'll never forget. She said, "Well, so, you made a big mess. Now you clean it up, and then you move on. Life's not about never making messes. Life's about cleaning up after ourselves."

Her statement hit me like a ton of bricks. I'd been crying for several hours because I'd made a mess. A BIG mess. And I suddenly realized something.

I'd spent my entire life striving as hard as I possibly could to never make any messes. If I made any kind of viewable mistake, big or small, I wallowed in the shame of it and wore it around my neck like a noose for days, weeks, months, sometimes years. It was never okay with me for me to make a mess. And because I was so devastated and ashamed that I'd made a mess in the first place, the last thing I wanted to do was face it, because that would just make me feel worse about myself. So what did I do? I simply ignored my messes. I never cleaned them up.

But life is messy! Messes happen all the time. Life is not about never making messes. It's about cleaning up our messes, and moving on.

I can't describe the hope I found in the knowledge that after my mess at the school was cleaned up, I could MOVE ON. It was almost too good to believe.

But God immediately gave me several practical illustrations of His promise of grace.

After our talk with the teachers, I dropped my husband at the store and ran through the McDonald's drive-thru with the boys. I got three lunches, forgetting my husband's lunch entirely. So I went back through the drive-thru and got his. And I realized - WOW! I made a mess (forgetting my husband's lunch) and cleaned it up! Moving on. Did I need to wallow in my mistake of forgetting the fourth lunch? Of course not! That's grace.

Then when we got home, my son spilled his yogurt. He made a mess, we cleaned it up! Did I hold his spilled yogurt over his head in condemnation? Absolutely not! I gave him grace because what? Say it with me: EVERYBODY MAKES MISTAKES.

Five minutes later, our darling new puppy wet on the kitchen floor AGAIN, and I cleaned it up! Did I rub my little puppy's nose in her mess and banish her out of doors? No way! And not just because it's ineffective puppy training. Because of grace.

It sort of feels like now life makes sense in a way it never did before. We make messes, we clean them up, we move on! I can't explain how freeing it is, but it's quite tremendous. Even really big messes seem okay now. Not that they aren't horrific and painful. But we clean them up. Life goes on.

I will no longer hold onto my messes and avoid cleaning them up. If they're not cleaned up, I can't move on. And this applies both figuratively and literally. I am letting go of emotional messes that have remained open wounds, and I'm giving them a chance to heal and scar over. But I'm also cleaning up physical messes. My house. My dishes. My laundry. My beard.

Life is messy! That's just the way it is. I can't avoid making messes. But from now on, I will clean them up. And move on. I am a Cleaner of Messes. That's what I do.

My teacher friend sent me an email of sweet balm to my soul that brought this concept into perfect focus. I'd like to share her words of grace with you.

remember that Jesus loves you. he loves you the same whether you are at your best or at your worst. he looks at you and says "that's MY girl" even when you're throwing tantrums.

and he's not MORE impressed with you when you are mom of the year. he says "she's like that because of ME"

the truth is: when we are at our shining best he still can see our darkest potential lurking below the surface... and when we are at our shameful lowest, he still sees his image in us, his blood covering us, and his love flowing through us.

i am SO proud of you, warrior princess and now cleaning woman.

Cleaning Woman. I like it. Wanna join me?