“…what person out there don’t remember their first-grade teacher? Maybe they don’t remember what they learn, but I’m telling you, I done raised enough kids to know, they matter.” — Aibileen, The Help
Oh she knows what she’s talking about, that colored maid Aibileen. And not just about first grade teachers. That wizened old woman — well, she knows a lot about life. Aibileen’s raised seventeen white babies and done a whole lot of living before she ever steps foot on the first page of Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help.
I can’t imagine having someone like Aibileen in my young life, someone who listened and knew just what to say to set the world right. But one’s thing’s for sure — that young girl in the book — Mae Mobley — she’s one lucky little girl, even though Mae Mobley “ain’t gone be no beauty queen,” even though Mae Mobley’s parents are so broken they don’t know how to love her, even though Mae Mobley’s teacher damages Mae Mobley’s inner sense of right and wrong. Aibileen gone make it all better. Aibileen will put things right.
There is so much right about this book. I am thankful to Kathryn Stockett for telling this story, a story of how silence and pretense can kill a person’s inner truth while sharing it, with the right audience, can set people free to become their best and true selves. The story is not just about Aibileen. There are two other principal characters as well, plus three supporting characters. But in the way of all good stories, this story is everyone’s story. It is my story as it is your story, as it raises uncomfortable questions and stirs the silence of deep consciousness to reveal indivisible truth.
Too many childhood questions and stories are silenced, silenced with words like, “Not right now” or “Go peddle your papers.” Too many words are left unsaid, that if spoken, would build up a child’s self-esteem. But the words are not left unsaid by Aibileen. Throughout this book, Aibileen feeds little Mae Mobley with a steady diet of words to help Mae Mobley know just how good and just how right she really is… even when Mae Mobley’s world tells her otherwise — words like, “you is kind,” “you is smart” and “you is important.”
Reading this story made me wonder how life would be different if school curriculum taught these basic truths to young children. And while I know the school shouldn’t be responsible for teaching this sort of material, I wonder if the teaching job might be easier if teachers were teaching children who believed in themselves. Sad as it is, parents don’t always teach their children well. And what parents inadvertently teach may instead be the opposite lessons — “you is mean,” “you is dumb” and “you is worthless.”
If I’d spent more time in first grade learning Aibileen’s 3 U’s and less time trying to learn those 3 R’s, I may have passed first grade believing in myself. My teacher would have had no excuse to yell at me or grab me by the shoulders and shake me in frustration for failing to catch on to my lessons. I may not have bought into the lies I ended up believing about myself, lies like what a slow learner I was, that made me want to be anybody but myself.
Oh, Aibileen! How right you were when you said first grade teachers matter. Those early childhood teachers matter so much, and I am very thankful my daughter Kara is out there trying to make a difference in a lot of kindergartner’s lives.
Hopefully for some, the early grade school days were memorable in a good way. And though mine was memorable in a bad way, I did at least learn to check myself out in a daze — probably as a self-protective measure — rather than pay too close attention to what I was being taught.
But here’s an everydaze lesson worthy of your attention: You is kind. You is smart. You is important.
I’ve got to know – where is Kathryn Stockett’s home, and what year was the novel published? All I could think of while reading your review/essay was “Mary Ann Mobley”. I was thirteen the year she became Miss America, and as far as I was concerned she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
She was from Mississippi, of course. And that line – “ain’t gone be no beauty queen” – makes me think Stockett may have been thinking of Mary Ann Mobley while writing her book.
Now. Apart from all that – let’s not forget “You is ugly”. That’s a good one, too. I refused to have my photo taken from about 4th grade on. I was absolutely convinced I was the least-pretty girl who’d ever walked the face of the earth. I started getting over that when I was…. oh…. 50? 🙂
I’m so blessed that my early school years were filled with good teachers and great experiences. Life wasn’t perfect, but it provided a good foundation.
As for the importance of words that affirm and build up – that’s one of the reasons I take the time I do responding to comments, especially when someone “new” shows up. You never know how much courage it took someone to leave a comment, and they deserve to have someone hear their words. They may not have had an Aibileen in their life.
Jackson, Mississippi — and like you — I thought of Mary Ann Mobley as well — didn’t she win Miss America in the late 50’s — like 1959 maybe? As the novel begins its story in 1962 — with Mae Mobley two (making her born in 1960) — she was surely named for Mary Ann. A nice little irony that Ms. Stockett threw in since the entire book is about those outside differences that tend to separate us — like whose parents had old money and what color of skin you were born with. And the words “You is ugly” and “You is fat” are exactly the sorts of words the world would use to describe Miss Mae Mobley.
The book is still new – published just last year. And I’m not sure whether Ms. Stockett grew up in the sixties or not – the jacket photo and story imply she’s younger than that — but she grew up with her own black maid — so she tells “her’ story tenderly.
As for the lies we have, at one time or another, believed about ourselves, I read this interesting slice of thought yesterday, penned by Ray Bradbury. The quote comes from his book “Zen in the Art of Writing,” where he expounds on the importance of a daily writing practice…and what happens when we stop practicing…
“But what would happen is that the world would catch up with and try to sicken you. If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both. You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
Of course, I would amend Bradbury’s word “reality” to instead say “false reality” or “lies” — since the word Reality has become one of my Sacred words. But Bradbury’s quote did make me pause, because his thought was one I have also had. Writing does help us find truth and help us expel the lies.
Whether the writing comes by commenting on a post, a response to a comment made or the post itself, it’s all fertile ground for affirmation, for listening and sharing common and personal truth.
You know, it was you that taught me the importance of responding to all comments. I didn’t use to. But after seeing the care and time you invested in each one of your responses — I admired your practice so much I tried to make it my own.
I’m glad your early education was a positive experience. And I’m glad your blog is too.
I grew up with a belief that I was ugly. I still believe it at times. I’m not a beauty queen but to paraphrase Terry Pratchett’s description of Granny Weatherwax, in a good light and with a following wind, I might be considered if not handsome then interesting.
And yet, my mother persists in a belief that the bullying I experienced at school was down to jealousy of my looks….
Who is right?
Who is right? What is right? “What is truth?”
Especially when the questions apply to ourselves, the truth become really hard to mine, to bring up out of the deep and elusive recesses of the shadows to know for sure… what is true and what is not.
As for beauty, I’m reminded of Jean Auel’s novel, “Clan of the Cave Bear”, when the beautiful Cro-Magnon character Ayla was thought to be ugly by her adoptive Neanderthal tribe. So Ayla was ugly and Ayla was beautiful at the same time. Were the Greeks not right when they said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder?”
In the novel The Help, beauty and truth are two peas in a pod — but depending upon which side of the pod characters stood on, truth and beauty were seen in polar opposite fashions — so true to life.
Perhaps… and I’m only “talking” out loud here — perhaps we grow out own beauty and truth when we don’t allow our own worlds to define us. And I’m not sure what I mean by this, except to say, that originality and a comfortableness with self are two characteristics that really ‘shimmer’ for me, that is, they hold a lot of power for me. I am drawn to people and fictional characters that grow their own truth and beauty — rather than live by the world’s standards.
What a messy response this is. It’s just like me — not fully formed, with hints of beauty and truth. But as long as I keep company with those who possess the two shimmerings I am drawn to, I think eventually, I will become more whole. I count you as one of whom I keep company with in my becoming.