“My Mom, the Spanker”: A Rogue Homily on Teaching and Why We Don’t Get to Decide What People Learn

Priceology, Theology / Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

I try to learn one new thing a day. That’s it. One thing. It’s easily done enough. I’m a professor who grades forty thousand papers a day, give or take, and I’m a reader, so knowledge finds me.

My work goal each day is to teach one person one thing. Once I’ve done that, it takes the pressure off. I usually check in with my students after a class ends. I’ll ask, “Did anyone learn anything?” If I get even one hand (I usually get most), I celebrate that. One person has learned something from me—that’s humbling and honoring all at once. It means they were listening, they were watching, they were waiting.

It’s nothing short of the stars aligning for learning to happen in a computer lab where click is king, so when my words get through, it’s a marvel to me. And they do most days.

I’m a good teacher even though I never set out to be. I tried to be a good writer and a good reader. I wanted to know how to love literature well through the study of it. I ended up in a classroom because that’s where people think you learn to be a good writer and a good reader—spoiler alert: It isn’t. Quite honestly, it isn’t how you learn to be a good anything, really. It’s analogous to an expo, really. You see a lot. You’ll use less than we show. Your job is to browse and to familiarize, to pick up information you can use later, when the real work starts.

The trouble with teaching is that you only get to decide what you’d like to teach, not what they actually learn.

Sometimes in class, I’ll follow up with my “Did anyone learn anything?” and what they say they learned is tangential to what I thought I was teaching. I might be talking about an essay mode and, in the process, end up talking about getting started and mention that one could start with the body paragraphs instead of the intro paragraph to avoid writer’s block, and that might be so liberating to them that it sticks, and they get all “Free, body and soul free” on me. I want to say, “Cool it, sister. Did you hear anything else I said? Did you hear anything else I needed you to hear?”

The answer? Nope. Nada. Zilch.

The same is true in parenthood. We decide what we teach but not what they learn.

I learned this myself when my son brought home this gem:


I swelled with pride over the pages upon pages of construction paper stapled together into a makeshift catalog of things that defined his very four-year-old being.

My mind raced from thing to thing he loved and how it would be represented on the pages before me. I thought, Surely he mentioned Legos or how we play Play-Doh together for hours on end. He had to mention woot beer fwoats or maybe soccer. I’m sure he mentioned his curls. Everyone loves his curls.  

Batshopping 4

And then I opened to this:


First of all, I’M A TIME OUT MOTHER! I can count on less than three fingers how many times I’ve ever spanked this kid, and I cannot remember the last time he was even spanked. Was it a year ago? Maybe two?

Despite my own spankalicious upbringing, my mother, Grandmother of Endless Grace and Peace and Mercy in all her glorious grandmotherliness takes issue with even the timeouts I dole out for his bad behavior because, well, Atticus is the perfect angel who never deserves anything but hugs and trucks full of ice cream.

I can hear her explaining away his vitriolic sass as I carry him off to his room for four measly minutes to allow him to get ahold of himself, an opportunity for resolution, a chance for peace.


I suppose I should be grateful. What kind of questions are these? Is it an abuse and neglect screening disguised as a quaint little arts and crafts project?

He could have said, “I get sad when Mommy leaves for work every day to leave me to the recreational torture of friends and playgrounds only to be picked up by Grammy who makes me enough eggs and grits to last for the ages. The nerve.”

Or, when they asked about anger, he could’ve said, “When I get angry I’m typically encouraged to exercise deep breathing and look into my mother’s cold, dead stare while she says yoga things to me. Namaste, nama-go.”

Instead, he dubs me Mommy, the Spanker, in the first month of preschool, and it’s sent home as what, I can only assume, is a warning shot before the anger intervention people come for me in their white coats. I know how this world works.

And so I say to my son…

Atticus, darling.


Let the good things stick and the bad things fall away.



Let the ick be like snow that melts into the ground.

You do not get that reference as you are a Floridian, but I assure you’ve seen snow on one of the iPads, iPhones, flatscreen TVs, laptops, or desktop computers you’ve been privileged to see in our sweet home in your sweet, short life so far, right?

Maybe you’ve seen snow in one of the thousand trips I’ve taken you to the library to pick out your own books? Maybe in one of the thousand books we’ve read in the aisles of Barnes and Noble while you tried to distract me with Thomas the Train cars?

Maybe you’ve heard about it in your favorite seasonal songs we’ve tolerated hearing on repeat during the Christmas season, like “Dominick the Donkey” in the month where I forfeited sanity for the sake of your sonic delight?

Maybe you’ve seen it in the seven dozen times we’ve circled Northgate Estates to look at their luminaries during Christmas while dining on sugar cookies and red velvet cupcakes and while sipping on Starbucks hot chocolate that I ordered special at “kid temp” because I care about something as silly as a burn on your tiny little unforgiving tongue?

To all this, I say, “Let it melt…

into the ground…

like so many other transgressions and missteps and slippery words…

Forget the spanks, the timeouts, the STOP, DON’T, WAIT, NO.”

I ask him, “Why did you tell them I spanked you?”

He replies, nonchalantly and matter-of-factly as though he hadn’t just wrecked my whole world because it depends solely on him and whether he thinks I’m a Glenda or a West witch, “Because you did.”

It’s true.

I did.

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