“…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.