Last week, I was trying to pick up my older daughter from school a little bit early. She’s a freshman, so this is our first year as parents at the high school and I didn’t know the procedure for early dismissal. I approached the woman at the desk in the security office with my driver’s license and told her my daughter’s name.
“Did you call the attendance office?” she asked.
I hadn’t. Did I need to?
“Ma’am, you can’t just walk in here and take your kid home whenever you want! You have to call ahead so she can get a pass!”
I let that sink in for only a few seconds before I realized that, effectively, she was telling me that she would not release my daughter to me. I tried reasoning; I’m her mother, I’ll follow the procedure next time, she had a doctor’s appointment, I’ll call attendance right now. Nothing worked. After a series of more and more irritating exchanges — during which I got cranky and then apologetic and then cranky again — she told me I could wait outside for my daughter, who would be dismissed with the rest of the school in 16 minutes.
I stomped and huffed and paced outside in the snow, called and rescheduled the appointment, and composed an email to the school administration in my head. As I began to recognize the feeling underlying all of it as panic, I traced it back as far as I could. You can’t have your daughter, I heard in my head. You can’t have her. It reminded me of her early days in the hospital nursery under bilirubin lights for jaundice, me forbidden to take her out of her glowing bed for more than a few minutes at a time. It reminded me of being in the hospital after her little sister’s birth, still numb from my c-section, realizing that I could not move, not even to rescue my big girl from anything that might befall her before the anesthesia wore off. The feeling of helplessness even extended to generational memory from the holocaust, stories of family who had lost parents and siblings in the horrors of concentration camps or Einsatzgruppen killings in the forest. You can’t have your daughter was a triggering sentence for me.
Realizing that I was operating with the deeper, more primitive part of my mind helped a little — it gave me reason for my feelings of panic over a situation which seemed otherwise just annoying and inconvenient. I had only to wait 16 minutes, and my daughter would be there. Still, the story I carried with me — the story of you can’t have your daughter — was powerful. It informed all of my behavior that day.
Later, after I had calmed down, I wrote my letter to the administration thinking about the security guard. By then, I had read the early dismissal policy online and seen that she was following that policy to the letter. There was no flexibility or ambiguity in it, and this security guard had been doing her job exactly according to what she’d been told. That she’d found no space to make an exception, no room for compassion for me, was likely part of her story. What had happened to the last security guard to release a student to her parents without following the proper protocol? What had happened to this security guard in her life the last time she herself had bent the rules, in this job or some other? What story about rules, protocols, and flexibility lay in her history?
In the end, I wrote the letter about policy, not about personnel. I made sure to include — accurately — a note that the security guard had been calm and professional and polite, which was true. I asked that no disciplinary action take place, but that a review of the protocol be the focus of any follow-up. The response from the administration was that they did exactly that, quickly, and that the security staff were asked to send parents to the attendance office in this scenario in the future. The student would be released to the parent any time they asked, but calling ahead made the whole thing happen more smoothly.
This experience made me think about how profoundly our stories and the stories of everyone we meet affect our interactions.
There was a nurse in the hospital when my younger daughter had cardiac surgery three years ago. I cannot remember his name because he was her nurse on the hospital’s Superhero Day, when he wore a Batman t-shirt and asked us to call him Batman. He had developed an especially effective way to move children with chest tubes — which are painful when jostled — to the edge of their beds so that they can walk to the bathroom. His method involved an extra sheet used like a magic carpet to slide a child across the bed smoothly. Then he reached down and lifted the child in his arms until only air was beneath them, helping to unfold them in the air and put their feet on the ground, employing very few of the muscles that hurt when a chest tube is in. When he did this for my daughter, she was so grateful that she never forgot it. She’s forgotten almost every other nurse, but not Batman, who slid her out of bed and talked to her about the Animaniacs and made her smile. Her story of hospitals and hospital nurses is now the story of Batman.
What is Batman’s story? How did he learn that strategy for easing children out of bed? Before that, what brought him to the practice of cardiac ICU nursing? What kept him there and what did he remember of his charges, years later?
Every interaction — positive, negative, and neutral — is informed by the stories we each bring into it. We push buttons and soothe wounds we can’t even see, gather into the room scores of people we thought we’d forgotten and left behind. Under every word we speak are all the other times we spoke those words, our memories of how they were received, and the faces of the people who heard them. This is true for us and the people across the table from us. We speak and share and shout and complain to multitudes, no matter who else is really there.
Everyone is carrying stories. One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, said, “Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you than you would believe.” The more people I meet and know, the more I try to remind myself of the multitudes they bring to our conversations. Remembering that is the most productive, empathic, and important task I will ever have.
Also, I’m honored to be published at Mamalode this week as part of their “What Now?” series. Available now is my essay, “How Do We Respond to This Instability? We Become Ourselves, But More So.“