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Mothers Day post: In praise of my mean mom.

post #1 of 6
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Many years ago, while I was in law school in New York City, I served as the scoutmaster for a new Boy Scout troop the South Bronx. There were 16 boys in my scout troop, ages 12 to 17. All of them were black, none of them had fathers, and they lived in public housing projects that were more than a little scary when I had to walk them home at night after our scout troop meetings were over. The boys in my troop were great kids, but for the most part, they had challenges that are common with kids from the projects. They tended not to do well in school, and had trouble reading, even the simple things contained in the Scout Handbook. Even though they were good kids, they ran with a rough crowd, and some of them were already getting in trouble at school and having brushes with the law. As I got to know them over the two years I spent as scoutmaster for that troop, I often despaired when I thought of what the likely outcomes were for many of them. They seemed to lack some of the most basic skills and traits that would allow them to make it in the world outside of the projects.

One of the boys was different. He had no problems reading the Scout Handbook. In fact, he usually had a book with him that he was reading just for fun, much to the amusement of the other kids. He was a bright, handsome boy, and he had a self-assured but quiet air about him that contrasted a bit with the loud, harsh swagger of some of the other boys. Once, when he missed a scout activity, I asked the other boys where he was. They told me, “He can’t come because he has a Mean Mom. She won’t let him come. She’s a really Mean Mom. She won’t let him do anything.” As it turned out, this boy’s Mean Mom had found out that he was getting behind in school, and had made him stay home from scouts to get caught up on his homework. The kids were sort of right about the Mean Mom not letting her son do “anything,” although it would be more accurate to say that she wouldn’t let her son do “nothing.” She made sure he was at church, and school, and he was active in sports, but she wouldn’t let him hang out doing “nothing” in the neighborhood with the other boys. She kept a pretty close eye on what he was doing, which made her a pretty Mean Mom.

During my time as a scoutmaster, I got to know more about this boy’s Mean Mom. She was an immigrant from the Caribbean, and her English was richly accented with a Caribbean flavor. Unlike the other boys’ mothers, she had a job, doing cleaning work in the city. When I saw her at church or at her home, she always looked a bit tired. She had a lot of energy when it came to looking out for her son, however. I first met her in person at a scout meeting before our first camping activity. She showed up with her son, and asked me a bunch of questions: Where were we going? How were we getting there? What were we planning to do when we got there? Who else was going? Who was driving? When would her son be coming back? The encounter had the intimidating feel of an FBI security clearance interrogation. I could kind of see why all the boys referred to her as “the Mean Mom.”

After a couple of years, I moved out of the city, my work as scoutmaster of that South Bronx troop ended, and I never did see any of the boys again. Sometimes I wonder what became of them. Although I hope that all of my scouts were able to avoid the bad influences that surrounded them and managed to make something good out of their lives, the only boy that I really would have bet on was the boy with the Mean Mom. That is because I was lucky enough to have a Mean Mom, and I know first-hand what a difference it can make.
When my father left, my Mom became a single parent with two children under the age of two. At the time, she didn’t have the skills to build a career for herself, so she was forced to go back to school. When I was growing up, my Mom was going to school and holding down at least one job (often several) as well. She took any job she could find, including jobs that the media these days says that Americans won’t do. My mom cleaned houses, worked as a janitor, and other menial jobs. She crossed union picket lines to work as a substitute teacher during a strike, delivered phone books, sold Avon, and whatever else she had to do to pay the bills and take care of the family.

We were poor, but I always had nice clothes to wear to school, and there were always presents under the tree at Christmas and some money to buy books from the Scholastic Book Club catalog. My mother didn’t have time for herself. She didn’t date. She didn’t go to parties. She didn’t take vacations from her kids. She worked. She went to school. She took me to church. She came to my baseball games, track meets, Cub Scouts, soccer, and piano recitals. Eventually, due to her work at getting an education, her thrift, and her willingness to do whatever was needed, she raised our family from being poor to middle class. We went from food stamps and free lunch to a nice home in a good neighborhood, and a family vacation to Europe.

Like other Mean Moms, my mother didn’t want me to do “nothing.” She thought I should always be doing something useful. My Mean Mom didn’t approve of Saturday morning cartoons on t.v. There were too many “important” things to do other than watching cartoons. I had homework. I had activities. I had chores. I had work.

Other kids got an allowance. My Mean Mom made me work for the money I needed. No work meant no spending money, so I worked. When I was in second grade, my Mean Mom got me my first real job, working at a local shoe store. I swept the floors, I emptied and cleaned the ash trays, I wiped the windows, I vacuumed the carpets. I got paid a dollar an hour for my work. I didn’t know it at the time, but (at first) my mom was giving the store manager the money to pay my salary. (Although after a while, he decided I was worth a dollar an hour and paid it himself.) The summer before 7th grade, my Mean Mom insisted that I get a paper route. This meant that I had to get up early every morning in every weather. With her encouragement, I kept expanding my paper route activities and by the time I was a Junior in high school, I had four paper routes and was getting up at 4:00 a.m. to deliver hundreds of papers every morning. With a Mean Mom, summers were not a time for relaxing either. Even though I would rather have spent my summers doing nothing, my Mean Mom insisted that I work. She got me summer jobs doing landscaping, laying asphalt, yardwork, working at the local ice cream store, and anything else I was good for.

The “worst” job my Mean Mom got me was one that took up several precious summer Saturdays. A friend of a friend needed people to disassemble an old steel girder building and stack the steel on trailers to be hauled away and recycled. I wasn’t interested in the job, but my Mean Mom committed me to it without asking me my opinion. When I asked how much I was getting paid, she said she didn’t know. The man who was hiring people for the job had been reluctant to take me because I was just a teenager and the other people he was hiring were adults. My Mean Mom had convinced him to take me by telling him he only had to pay me “what I was worth.” I was distressed by this, but she told me that I should never be afraid to be paid only what I was worth.

The job turned out to be worse than I had imagined. The building was in a swampy area ankle deep with stagnant water, horrid smelling mud and mosquitoes, and tearing the building down was hot, exhausting, and more than a little dangerous. I did everything I could to prove I was worth as much as any other person there because I was a teen age boy on a crew of men, getting paid only “what I was worth.” At the end of every day, I got paid in cash, and it was the same as the other men on the job. When I remember how mad I was at my Mean Mom for committing me to take this job, I have to smile. I’ve never had a paycheck since that time that I was more proud of, and since that job, I’ve never been afraid to be paid only what I’m worth.

My Mean Mom valued education maybe even more than she valued hard work. My very earliest memories are of my mother teaching me how to read. As I grew up, she spent hours making me do school work; drilling me with math flashcards, staying up late working with me on essays, and helping me memorize all the world leaders for a social studies test. There were always many other things I’d rather be doing, but my Mean Mom insisted that I not waste my time doing any of these other things. School always came first. She wouldn’t let me hang out at the mall, but there was always time to hang out at the library. We didn’t have an Atari game system in my house (my Mean Mom didn’t approve of them,) but we had tons of books.

When I was a teenager, it seemed like my mom and I had a harder and harder time getting along. I became convinced that my Mom was the world’s Meanest Mom. We fought constantly, and I ended up living with my grandparents for several years because of the friction between us. However, as I have grown older, I’ve come to love and appreciate my Mean Mom more and more with every passing year. It would have been a lot easier for her not to be a Mean Mom. She spent so much time being a Mean Mom that there was very little left over for herself. I’m sure that sometimes, given my rebellion and resistance, she despaired of raising a son who would ever amount to anything. It makes me happy to know that I haven’t been a disappointment to her and that since I’ve grown up, I’ve done some things that she can be proud of.

When I look at the lessons I learned, and the experiences that truly shaped my early life, most of them are the result of my Mean Mom. She taught me how to work. She gave me my love of reading and my appreciation for the importance of education. She taught me self-reliance. She taught me that loving your children doesn’t mean giving them everything that they want. Many of the best parts of me, the traits that have allowed me to make my way in the world, were the result of having a Mean Mom. As I look around at the seemingly insurmountable problems in our society, issues that governments, schools and other organizations have wrestled with unsuccessfully for decades, I believe in my heart that the only real solution is more Mean Moms. A mother is uniquely able to influence the lives of her children in a way that no one else can.

I was blessed with an exceptional mother. She put her children first, and loved me enough to be a Mean Mom, when it would have been so much easier to just let me do what I wanted to do. There’s never been a time that she was not willing to sacrifice her own needs for me. I’m grateful she was willing to do what was necessary to raise me the best way she knew how. We didn’t always get along, and we have had more than our share of disagreements as I was growing up, but I’ve always known that she loved me.
post #2 of 6
Reads like it should be in CE.
post #3 of 6
<3
post #4 of 6
Well said. Side note, I tutored science and math in East Harlem couple years back. The hardest working kids in that group are always the first generation immigrants.
post #5 of 6
kai, fantastic post. you were lucky to have such a wonderful mom. i love my mom dearly, and notes of recognition like this are sadly few and far between. i am glad i read it.
post #6 of 6
kai, great post. I really admire your being a scout master for urban kids, good for you
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