But my smile fades as part of my past cracks open and an old ghost slips out. I worry that my boys will crush the heart of some sweet girl. I wonder if they will be the reason a 39-year-old woman still carries a small stone of humiliation in her baggage. As their whispers become white noise, my mind returns to that painful day in the cafeteria.
There is no warning for when these moments will arrive in our life. They burst in on a random Tuesday. They are the moments that alter our self-worth, the experiences that become our subconscious chatter.
In hindsight, the school cafeteria is a very exposed venue for expressing love. This scene of my life will always be framed with the clatter of plastic trays, the murmur of 100 voices talking at once, the smell of burnt ground beef and the echo of shoes on a tile floor. I had sent a friend to do the dirty work: relay the longings of my 13-year-old heart to the boy I thought was the cutest in the school. I watched as my friend crossed the cafeteria to where the skater boy sat, then leaned down and whispered in his ear. They both looked up as my friend pointed to me across a sea of lunching students. My crush motioned me over. I quickly stood and walked toward them with a grin that was meant to conceal my fear more than express happiness. “He is so cute,” I thought as the sound of my heart thumped loudly in my ears. I gazed through the part in his long skater bangs and stared into his blue eyes. That is how I know I did not mishear what he said. I was looking directly at him when he told me, “Eat shit and die.”
I was captive in a lunchroom full of my peers. The words hung in the air over a table occupied by seven other boys, all laughing under their beef enchilada breath, yet too ashamed to make eye contact. Somewhere in their adolescent hearts they knew that was a cruel thing to say. The stink of that moment has never fully washed off.
I am waiting for the right moment to share this story with my two boys. To let them know that 25 years later I still feel a slight sting from a 30-second interaction. They need to have the image of their mother burned into their minds: bangs teased high, gold charm necklace placed perfectly against her Coca Cola rugby shirt, and tears brimming in her eyes, struggling to recover from the humiliation. My sons need to catalogue this image in their hearts and reference it when others share a piece of themselves. Knowing that the best thing they can do is be gentle with people’s hearts.
I worry about what type of young men my boys will become. Nights when my brain can’t rest, questions ring in my ears. What will happen when the messages that pulse through teen culture start to resonate with my boys? After hearing what “being a man” means, will they start to believe there is only one way? Start trying to live within archaic parameters? Define themselves by being macho? What will happen when they find themselves traversing the same minefields I stumbled through all those years ago?
What I hope will happen is … they will think of me. They will remember the story of the day a boy chose to be thoughtless with their mother’s feelings. My sons will remember that those words, eat shit and die, did not fall off into an abyss of forgotten comments but are still very visceral to me decades later.
I want this image to be conjured by my boys not so they feel pity for me, but to create empathy. This is my intention in sharing my story with them—to create a sense of connection and emotional understanding within them. Sometimes we have to feel something before we can believe it is real. Empathy is the only way to make my boys understand that their actions can ripple out farther than they imagine. Empathy can serve as my boys’ guidepost when the ragged currents of adolescence toss them in confusing directions.