learned behavior


My principal was gushing about his two year old yesterday, sharing all the bizarre & hilarious behavior that awaited him at home.
“We buy those all natural, safe wipes & she just loves to eat them. If she gets to the package first, she’s got one in her mouth & she’s running away because she doesn’t want me to take it from her.”
“Does she pout?” my coworker asked, both of us giggling at the mental image of a toddler making off with a wet wipe hanging from her mouth.
“Pout? She throws an all-out fit,” he assured us. “Throws herself on the ground & screams. Naturally! It was like as soon as she realized that she could stand up, she realized she could make herself fall down.”
He went on to tell us how she had learned to use this new talent for attention. When she was first walking, her fathers would always pick her up & kiss her when she fell. Now, he explained, smiling, if she comes over to them & they don’t give her attention, she pretends to walk away & stages a dramatic pratfall.
With everyone else gone for the night, our laughter bounced through the empty hallways, calling the custodian to the door of a far off classroom. We waved, said ‘good night’, moseyed.

On the way home, I thought about what I learned from my father about getting hurt. In a word: don’t. Any mishap – a fall, a bumped elbow, a dropped glass & the ensuing game of freeze & try to levitate – promised a scolding, & often the follow-up injury of a pinched ear or my upper arm squeezed in the vice of his hand. My mother tried to explain that he was only worried about me, that was why he yelled when I was hurt. He wanted me to be careful because he cared about me. I have my own opinions on this.

Once, when I was 3 or 4, I was walking around the backyard, singing to myself in a lovely, lonely moment. We were going to a party & I’d been wrangled into something ruffly: white tights, black Mary Janes, looking fly. I should have been in the backseat of the car with my coat, ready to go, hoping my presence would somehow spare me from being yelled at alongside my brothers for making us late (it wouldn’t have). It was cold, but I liked the feeling of the air on my arms. My father had left a razor blade on our picnic table, from a project he’d been working on. I picked it up, absently, singing long strings of mundane narration, probably singing about the blade, too. I didn’t realize I’d closed my hand around the blade until I saw the blood near my foot. I’d narrowly missed my shoes, & I remember being relieved I hadn’t messed up my stockings because my mother would be so mad. Carefully, holding my arms straight out in front of me like an Olympic diver on TV, I opened my hand over the grass, removed the blade with two fingertips. I looked into my cupped palm, watching the pool forming there. The cold licked at the cut, making me shiver. Then I squeezed my hand closed & ran gingerly to the garbage cans behind the house, dropping the blade into the empty one. That done, I stared at my hand & tried to figure out what to do. I would have to tell, I knew. I watched blood seeping between the seams of my fingers, & squeezed harder, trying to stop the bleeding like my mother, a nurse, had taught me. My palm pushed back with a surge of pain. I would have to tell, but I stayed for just another moment, a fistful of fire, a fistful of blood.


13 thoughts on “learned behavior

  1. I didn’t expect this piece to go where it went either, Priscilla. I felt myself growing tense as you talked about the pinched ear and the yelling. And then the story you told about the razor blade was recounted with such precision. The ending, so very powerful.

    How would you feel about me featuring this slice of life story in my daily “be inspired” section on TWT? Please email me if that’d be okay with you. My email address is stacey{at}staceyshubitz{dot}com. Thanks.

  2. Priscilla,
    I felt the pain in your description and your worry over how you were going to explain. Like the other readers, I didn’t expect your piece to flow where it did…what happened in the end?

    • Thanks for reading & commenting, Amy. Weirdly, I don’t really remember the rest of this incident. I can assume how it ended because it never really ended – my father was always angry that I’d gotten hurt, my mother, stressed by his yelling or scolding or punishing, gave me her quieter disappointment & anger. So I imagine I cane around the side of the house & tried not to cry when I opened my hand, & my dad hit the steering wheel with both hands & started shouting about being late, & my mother took me inside to bandage my hand. She probably scolded me in hushed tones & was rough with the dressing. & I’m sure no one talked to me on the drive, except maybe to tell me to stop crying. I don’t know exactly how that day went but there were so many of them.

  3. Because of the link today, I came to read. You wrote this so beautifully, something to remember about our modeling (per your title). The details of your example made me shrink with anxiety, wondering why parents don’t understand what a young child feels. I hope others read, & learn from you. Thanks for sharing!

  4. You brought me back to my own memories of tiptoeing around angry parents- for me it was my mother. Your juxtaposition in the story of how a parent now (your principal) cherish and celebrate their children is something I wonder about often. Thanks for sharing and thanks to Stacey for alerting us to your powerful piece.

  5. I, like LInda, came because of the link. Oooh, such a powerful post. It makes me feel sad and wistful for a child who was afraid to get hurt but sort of relished the moment when she did. That ending was poignant. I feel like that moment could be a scene in a book – maybe a young adult thinking about the childhood incident and feeling compelled to do something that is risky even though she’s been taught not to do anything that might cause pain – a relationship, a dream job, an adventure. I don’t know, but this left me wanting more!!

    • Holly, thank you so much. I’m blown away by the responses to this post. I’m so glad I was able to share this moment in a way that connected with readers. I’m definitely filing this one away for future YA novel pursuits.

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