Last week I went to a presentation at my son’s school. Every kid in his class dressed up as an historical figure and read a report about their character in the first person. My son was Steve Jobs.
”Why Steve Jobs?” I asked when he told me who he’d chosen.
”’Cause I can’t do someone that was already done before.”
This is my philosophy of life.
We worked together on his report, which meant I scribbled factoids from Wikipedia, then sat on my hands while my son typed them with slooooooow precision.
“Are you going to wear a turtleneck?” I asked.
”Nah,” he said.
I tried to explain that, in this life, any opportunity to wear a costume should be seized like a free sample at Trader Joe’s. But my kid was too cool for school – a sure sign that he was nervous about reading his report in front of a room full of parents. Then came the complaints of mystery illnesses, and vows that he was NOT going to school on presentation day.
”Sorry, dude,” I said. “I just spent three days helping you with this report. Now I get to watch you read it.”
In the end, with shaking arms, my son played Steve Jobs. “At 25, I was worth $100 million, but it didn’t matter. I never did it for the money.”
Turns out, my son was not the only one who was nervous. One kid came onstage, left, then came back – and read his entire report with his face hidden behind his arms. Another did it with tear-streaked cheeks, looking like he was reading his last confession. One more mumbled so softly and quickly, he sounded like bees. I imagined them all twenty years from now, describing this moment in perfect detail to their therapists.
The very last kid to go looked about ten or eleven. He was glasses-cute, with a mop of blonde hair so unruly that when he introduced himself as Albert Einstein, it wasn’t a stretch. He launched into his report, stumbling on some of the trickier words. “In 1894, I moved to…My-lin? My-lan? I don’t know what this word is…”
Watching him struggle made me squirm, and it sounded to me like he was asking for someone to throw him a bone. So I did.
“Milan,” I said from the audience. “It’s Milan.”
“Milan,” he repeated, and trudged onward.
At the end of the presentation, everyone took a bow, while we parents documented their adorableness for posterity on our phones. When the players dispersed, I grabbed my son for a hug – and within seconds, a stylish woman appeared at my side. She had thick baby-doll bangs and long hair that fell in mermaid waves down her arms. Her skin was slightly tanned and weathered in that cool, Northern California way. I knew instantly we should be friends.
“I’m so glad you know how to say, ‘Milan,’” she said.
So this was Einstein’s mother, expressing her gratitude to me for bailing out her son.
I laughed and said, “I know, right? I wouldn’t normally call out like that, but I saw him struggling and—”
“I’m so glad,” she repeated, “that you know how to say Milan.”
This woman wasn’t laughing. She wasn’t even smiling. In fact, she looked sort of hostile.
It suddenly occurred to me that some moms might not appreciate other moms correcting their sons in public. In fact, some moms might want to rip other moms’ eyes out.
Einstein’s mom and I would not be friends. Einstein’s mom hated me.
I was so stunned I couldn’t speak; I just opened and closed my mouth a couple of times like a goldfish. Her eyes narrowed in satisfaction – the message had gotten through – and then she was gone.
My codependency kicked in hard. I was suddenly frantic at the thought of having done something wrong, and as a result, not being liked. I do not like not being liked. It makes me feel like I’m trapped in a burning house.
I had to make things right with Einstein.
As we were pulling away from the school, I found him and his family walking outside. I lowered my window and called to him. “I’m sorry I yelled out during your presentation. I shouldn’t have done that.”
Einstein looked at me like I was a stranger offering him candy. “Okay…” he said.
“Okay,” I repeated, hoping one of the adults would say something. But all I got were a couple of half-smiles and a noncommittal wave. To fill the space, I said, “You’re welcome,” even though no one had thanked me.
*God puts thumb and pointer to the bridge of His nose and shakes His head in shame*
On the way home, I called my sponsor, hoping to shake the whole thing off. “You were only trying to help,” she said. “I guess, sometimes, we have to just let people struggle.”
Mini Steve Jobs and I stopped at Target to buy candy for the trick-or-treaters. As we walked the long, heaven-white aisle, I looked at my kid for the first time since the end of the presentation. He had on a face.
”What’s going on?” I said.
“Liar. You look like everyone forgot your birthday. Talk to me.”
“I don’t want to.”
”Okay, well, when you’re ready to talk, I’m ready to listen.”
I caved after thirty seconds.
“Dude, tell me what’s going on or I’m not buying you anything.”
A smile threatened to stretch his lips out of their pout. I had him.
”Okay,” he said. “It’s, like, I just did this big presentation and you barely said anything to me. You just made a phone call.”
It’s astounding that after years of attempted spiritual development, one hint of disapproval can still flip my mental telescope to hyperfocus on me and shrink everyone else to invisibility. It makes me want to divorce myself.
I stopped walking and crouched down to him. “You are so right. I didn’t give you the attention you deserve. Thank you for telling me how you feel. I made a mistake, and I will try to do better next time.” Then, in the middle of Target, I yelled at the top of my lungs, “MY SON IS A STAR!”
His eyes popped open, and he laughed despite himself. “You’re insane!”
We made our way onward, toward the candy aisle.
“Is that Mom still pissed at you?” asked Mini Steve Jobs.
“I don’t know. I apologized. What else can I do?”
“Looks like you made two mistakes today.”
“I usually make a lot more than that,” I said. “This is actually a pretty good day.”