The other side of the room

March 04,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Dear mom in the waiting room, I have to admit, when I first saw you, I passed some judgments. You wore a dirty sweatshirt, and had too much black make-up under your eyes. Your teeth, when you smiled, were crooked and discolored. You carried your baby in a hand-me-down infant seat, certainly not a Britax, or even a Graco. It was outdated, but clean. A single pink bunny dangled from the handle, and when you leaned down to pick up your baby, you brought forth a round, and happy little six-month old girl, all bright shining eyes and an easy, trusting smile. Your mom was with you. She's the one who usually comes to these appointments. I've seen her before, with your oldest child. She was quick last time to speak harshly to him, to cut him off when he tried to explain a mistake he made at school. She told him she was "tired of hearing his voice" and I winced inside, feeling wounded right along with your son, and wondered why she would speak to him so abruptly. Yesterday, you and your mom scolded the older boy for his dirty hands, telling him girls don't like dirty boys, and I winced again. You wanted to talk about about mom stuff: the spacing between my two kids, and the spacing between your three: the taller boy with the dirty hands who talks to much, your four-year old, the boy with the blond hair and clear blue eyes, and your pink baby girl. But I was feeling harried. Our appointment was 40 minutes overdue, and my own son was restless and upset; if there is one thing he can't stand it's people being late for their appointments--this is why, if you were wondering--he came into the waiting room at 5 minute intervals to tell me just how late the doctor was. I didn't want to chit-chat. I was worried about the 40 minute drive home in the pouring rain. Even after ten months, I'm still not wholly comfortable with being there in the first place; maybe I never will be. But, also, I thought to myself: what could I have in common with you? We sat across from each other, on opposite sides of the room, me with my pile of grading open on my knees, you with your pink baby, and the faint smell of cigarette smoke coming from your clothes. But I watched you teach, patiently and kindly, your four-year old how to blow raspberries at his sister. When you saw me smile at him you used this as an opening. You told me you lived way out in the country, and that you couldn't wait for spring. You told me how excited you were that you were going to your four-year old's preschool the very next day to read Green Eggs and Ham to the kids. I could see your eyes shine when you told me this. You rubbed your baby's bald head over and over again with your hands--the ones with the chipped green polish. "I want her hair to grow in," you told me. "I read that rubbing her head will help." Your hands were gentle and soft over your baby's soft spots. You leaned down and planted a kiss on the peach fuzz. "I can't wait for her hair to grow," you said, in the same voice you used to talk about spring, and Green Eggs and Ham. Just then the doctor came to get us, and I know I rushed too quickly out of the waiting room. I was a little relieved, to be honest, to get out of there. I don't know why. Or, maybe I do. I'm sorry I wasn't more friendly. And, I can't wait for spring, too.