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January 8, 2010

After Lorrie Moore’s How to Become a Writer

Instructions: Parent Teacher Conference for a Retarded Child

Find a tight spot to parallel park your car in front of the school. Remember you lived in Manhattan and this will give you confidence. Try not to cry when you get inside. You’ll be overcome with the perfect innocence of the small school. It will remind you of things. Walk down the long hallway, past the other moms and dads sitting on benches, waiting their turns. Don’t mind the loneliness. When you get to the last classroom at the end of the hall, you’ll see the little black chair outside the door where you are to sit and wait. Sit down on the little chair and take out the book you brought with you. Think to yourself that someday you should get into books that have pretty pictures of handsome people on the cover. Look up and notice each time the other parents walk by. You will know they are thinking about how sad it is that people have retarded kids, about how lucky they are, and some will even feel slightly emboldened, superior.

Read another page of feminist theory, think about Darwin. Close your book. Look at the other parents again. Notice how they seem so content as they talk about their kids and their kid’s lives. Note the irony of having one of the fastest brains in the house, a brain that is always looking, always curious, always asking, as you wait to talk about your child who only asks for his dinner, his cartoons, and as many hugs as he can get on any given day. Your child who can’t walk up the stairs without touching the wall and who is still in diapers at twelve. Now smile for the things he shows you. Think about how when he runs he isn’t running to or from anything, he’s just running for the pleasure it gives him. Think about his smile. Try not to cry.

Wait for another half an hour past the time of your appointment. Breathe in deep, they are the smells of childhood. Look down the long hall, shiny floors, and beige walls. Notice how it is empty now. Listen to the sound of doors shutting. Get up from the little black chair and pace. Although it is manipulative, walk by the classroom door so the other parents and the teacher remember you’re there. When they all come out a few minutes later, smile to let them know you didn’t mind waiting. (Forget that you fell down on that just a little bit.) The teacher will smile back at you. This will re-organize your entire nervous system. You will feel like all of your limbs have been reattached. You will remember, and like, the power she has over you.

When you go into the classroom, try not to cry. Sit down at the low amoeba shaped table, on a tiny plastic chair painted with a primary color. Look around, let the feeling of being a bull in a China shop pass. Look at the teacher and then you’ll feel small again. Let her guide you. She knows what she is doing. She’ll tell you about the child, and how well the child is doing. She’ll tell you about the problems, too, but it will feel like she’s holding your hand the whole time. Before long you’ll be sharing cute stories about all the funny things he does. At some point, you’ll even feel hopeful in a way that you had not expected.

After an hour or so, it will be time to realize you can’t keep the teacher there all night. She will tell you that it is okay, and then she’ll give you a present from him. It will be the turkey he made out of brown and orange construction paper. You’ll love it, even though you know he had a lot of help making it. Say goodnight to the teacher. Remind yourself that hugging would not be appropriate. When you leave and walk down the long hallway toward the door, it will seem as though even your breath is causing an echo. Pull your coat tight, it will be cold outside. Walk to your car, the only one left, and let yourself cry.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2010 12:48 pm

    oh boy! that’s a heavy piece of writing. That last line… sigh…

  2. January 9, 2010 4:46 pm

    I suppose it is heavy, but it is honest and I appreciate you taking the time to read. I promise next week to post something a little lighter. 😉

  3. January 9, 2010 5:40 pm

    Heavy indeed, but drew me in like anything. “but it is honest” you say in the comment above – I have no doubt!

  4. January 9, 2010 5:57 pm

    Thanks, Mazzz. There are of course many rewards and endless joys when you have a child with special needs, but I fear people are afraid to talk about these other times. I think it is a good thing to acknowledge the difficult moments, as sometimes it is only the parent who actually has the expectation they must be heroic all the time.

  5. January 9, 2010 8:24 pm

    This is a classic bit of “style fits the piece” or “piece fits the style”. Less is taken for granted after reading something like this. Thanks.

  6. @ric03 permalink
    January 9, 2010 8:47 pm

    Hi Freshwater. I found the narrative style a little tricky initially, but it was worth persevering with it for I thought that it worked really well in this piece. Your voice is modern (“It will be the turkey he made out of brown and orange construction paper.” great gritty realism), and you have an evocative turn of phrase (“Breathe in deep, they are the smells of childhood. “)

    So, despite my initial trouble with the style I enjoyed it very much. Look forward to reading more of your writing.


  7. Tracy Sykes permalink
    January 10, 2010 5:29 am

    bowing, waving, clapping madly as I wipe away the tears…thank you.

  8. January 11, 2010 3:57 pm

    From the start, this piece pulled me in and held me all the way through. The use of the instructions style is appropriate, and I think the use of the second person imperative is what makes this piece powerful. It’s quite a coup to make a set of instructions into something that has emotional power. The last paragraph is heartbreaking. Great stuff.

  9. soesposito permalink
    January 11, 2010 5:09 pm

    The loneliness of this parent was palpable. I just wanted to befriend her, to tell her she’s a great mom. Those things she notices about her child, his smile, his joy at just running, these are things we all should be noticing about our children but are sometimes too wrapped up in pushing them to learn, fit in, grow up…we don’t notice. Wonderful piece!

  10. January 11, 2010 7:16 pm

    Really liked the style of this – at a distance, allowing us to feel the narrator’s constant pushing away of the difficulties of her/his life & the importance of professional kindness.

    Having worked with people with learning disabilities all my life I know how hard it is for families and this gets right to the truth of the matter.

    Great stuff.

  11. January 11, 2010 8:31 pm

    The last sentence was just right after the other references to crying, which otherwise would have been a little too much.

    I work with a mother of a special needs child. She sometimes mentions her difficulties in passing (which I imagine to be extraordinary), but almost always when she talks about him, which is almost always, she talks about the joy he brings her.

  12. January 12, 2010 1:20 pm

    Tracy, No, thank *you*.

    Donald, No matter our situation, it is always good to remember what we take for granted. Thank you for reading.

    Rich, Much gratitude for sticking with it. I agree it is not an easy one, but I really appreciate you letting me know you made it through. Looking forward to more of your work as well.

    Christian, Thank you for the generous comments. I’m glad you were able to connect with it. Happy to find your blog, too.

    soesposito, Thank you, it means more than you know. And yes, you’re right. 😉

    Virginia, Anytime someone feels truth in my writing, I feel very grateful. Thank you for reading and commenting, and for the work you’ve done with people with learning disabilities. There is celebrity, and then there is true heroism, and people who work with children with disabilities are my heroes.

    Mark, You are exactly right about it being on the verge of too much, and thank you for letting me know you felt it didn’t cross over due to the last line. It was something I considered. Give your friend at work a pat on the back for me. 😉

  13. January 13, 2010 1:25 pm

    I thought you did a fabulous job with this. The style and pacing kept it from becoming maudlin, and the simple honesty of the language was touching. I had a lump in my throat for the whole reading.

  14. January 22, 2010 3:45 pm

    Thank you, Laurita. Your words mean more than you know.

  15. January 22, 2010 6:00 pm

    This is writing. Every now and then you will happen upon a piece that, in its simplicity, says so much. This is one of those. Profound and honest.

  16. January 22, 2010 6:03 pm

    Sorry, I hit submit before finishing my last comment. My point was to ask if I could link to this on my blog.

  17. June 16, 2015 3:39 pm

    Spot on with this write-up, I truly believe that this amazing site needs a great
    deal more attention. I’ll probably be returning to read through more, thanks for the advice!

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