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Quiet Thoughts: The Lesson of Appomattox

4 years ago

1708 words

Photo: It has been a long time since I’ve been able to control Ursa Major’s dinner. Now it feels like a daily battle….

One of my favorite lessons of the school year came in the spring, just before the beginning of end-of-the-year activities. We would be getting to the end of The Civil War, which I spent a good chunk of my curriculum on (not the individual battles all other aspects of it). My students would come in silently, and I would give them a slip of paper with their “do now” activity on it, asking them a simple question:

“If you could have your greatest enemy at your feet in surrender right now, what would you do?”

               By this time of the school year, many of my students knew me well enough to give me the answer they thought I wanted to hear. Some of them had learned none of the true lessons of my history class, and so they gave great fantasies of merciless slaughter. Others found a mature and truthful middle ground: A quick strike but then lasting forgiveness. Some didn’t answer at all… those were the kids who never answered anyway.

That was the beginning of my lesson for the Battle of Appomattox Court House, marking the surrender of Robert E. Lee and his Confederate army, and the end of the American Civil War. I would lecture about the combat strategy for only a brief part of the lesson, and delve further into the surrender. And emphasize a major point: That the men of Lee’s army got to walk away with their horses, their side arms, and a little bit of food. That Grant told his men not to exalt in their victory over their neighbors. That at the end of a long, bitter and devastating war, two men shook hands and the victor showed great mercy. I made sure to belabor the point: A great and honorable show of mercy from one man to another marked the end of our darkest days. I always ended by bringing it back to them and their journey to high school and life beyond: What you do at the end of conflict  matters. The finish is often more important than the beginning or middle. Be cognizant of your legacy.

A lot of this went over my student’s heads, but for those who got it…who really got it… wow, it was just magic.

And so we would take the lesson to heart—I would cry at graduation for the kids that I loved just as much as the kids that I loathed. I’d take pictures with them and their parents with smiles just as big as I could make them. I’d write notes of praise and encouragement, recommendations when asked… Those children drove me bonkers, but how we finished will always stay with them.

Little did I know when I was giving those lessons that the lesson of Appomattox would come to me every single day in my own home with my toddler. As of late, Ursa Major and I have been the generals of a great war of the wills every single day. As Ursa Major stretches his boundaries and explores the powers of language, emotion, and expression, I have found myself in the greatest of power struggles that I have ever known (and remember, I taught freaking middle school). Especially over these last few days, when Ursa Major has been boycotting the nap, testing the pitch of a shrieked “no,” and refusing to eat his dinner…

But at the end of the day, after bathtime, just before his favorite person in the world (his father) is going to put him in his lap and read him 3 stories, Ursa Major steps out into the hallway and makes a proclamation from the top of the stairs:

“Mama! I am ready to give hugs and kisses for you! You coming?”

(Yes, I know this is grammatically incorrect. He’s two, ya’ll!)

               It doesn’t matter how many time-outs he received, or how many times I had to physically remove him from whatever bad thing he was doing. It doesn’t matter how many times he and I were opposite each other with the same hardened stare, unmoving and inflexible in our confrontation. It doesn’t matter how many times I yelled “you may have been named after an ancient emperor, sir, but you live under a contemporary queen!” or he countered with a “I’m just made, Mama! I’m just mad! Because I’m mad!” It doesn’t matter.

Ursa Major demands, nightly, a laying down of arms, 3 big squeezes, 3 returned hugs, about 10 kisses, and at least 5 “I love yous” and “good nights” and “sweet dreams.” Every. Single. Night.

Hell hath no fury like Ursa Major after 6pm. But then again, I can’t imagine that Heaven could be any more glorious than Ursa Major between bathtime and bedtime. As much as I dislike the Terrible Twos, what I see in my son in the daily (hourly? Minute-to-minute?) battles that we are waging is a strength, depth, and thought that I never could have known that a two year-old could possess. He is expanding his mind every day, and he is learning from my cues. And as his tongue gets every sharper, his attempts more devious, his emotional reading more acute… I can’t help but be proud of him. And maybe a little scared. But mostly awe-struck. Here is this child, who used to sleep on my chest, who I struggled to breast-feed, who used to sit under his play gym and bat at a seahorse for hours…. Here is this baby, teaching me a thing or two.

Love is unbreakable. It takes different forms, it holds different meanings, it comes with different definitions and sometimes it is an impossible thing. But when and where it exists, it is untouchable. When we choose to lay down our arms, to embrace our enemy or, at least, let our enemy walk away in defeat… we show love. There is love in mercy. For Ursa Major to demand of me, every night, a moment of surrender is the greatest form of love that I have ever seen. He knows that he can make me angry. He knows that there are moments in my day when he renders me powerless, even if I stubbornly refuse to give him the satisfaction of having whatever it is that he wants… But he also knows that I love him. He knows it. And he knows that I would move Heaven and Earth for him (I mean, haven’t I this year?). Every night, at around 8:00pm, I am General Lee walking into McLean House. (read some history, ya’ll)

I do not believe in surrendering the fullness of my identity for the purpose of motherhood. However, I do believe that it is ok to watch the changing tide and adapt accordingly. My sons need me to be a slightly different person than I was yesterday. They need me to retain my core values and passions, but they also need me to change my procedure and process.  Lord knows, that is something that I’m really bad at. Power and control are important to me, and when there is chaos afoot, my first priority is to make things look like they are under control. It is better to look good, sometimes, than to feel good. But with Ursa Major (and Ursa Minor, too), I am learning that the world isn’t so simple anymore. They are, by their very nature, chaos. They are both destroyers of worlds and more importantly, control and perfection don’t matter a thing to them. They want what they want. They need what they need. They are who they are. I must be the one to change. My job is to teach them when the window Is open, feed them when they are hungry, change their diapers when they stink, give them room and stuff to play with, give them kisses and comfort when they demand, but otherwise, stay the hell out of their way. They are growing, they are learning, they are destroying, they are being and there is nothing I can do about it!

And so my quiet thoughts this Friday morning go back to surrender. To lay down your arms for the sake of something or someone. My quiet thoughts wonder about what happens when we allow ourselves to let go, just a little bit. What do we gain when we loosen our grip? Even if we fall, do we land in a place better than we could have possibly thought? What happens when the little tiny things that make life worth living start growing and teaching us things? What happens when we choose to take those lessons to heart?

When did my toddler begin having more wisdom than I do?

When will warmth come back to Massachusetts?

(sorry… sorry… ok, ok… I’m getting over the weather… It’s cold, ya’ll!)

It is Friday. Over the course of this weekend, I hope that you will allow yourself the opportunity to show someone mercy through an act of kindness. In this season of giving, I hope that you’ll put a dollar in a Salvation Army bucket, or a can in a food bank box. I hope you’ll give money to a charitable organization giving much needed aid to those in dire need in the Philippines. I hope you’ll stop at a crosswalk when you see a person in the cold waiting to cross, or you’ll stop and say hello to an elderly person, calling them “sir” or “ma’am” and wishing them a good day. As you eat a plate of beautifully prepared food, I hope that you’ll give thanks and then commit to make sure that someone else eats just as well through an action, big or small. I hope that if you find yourself in battle, that you will choose to finish it with peace rather than violence. I hope that you will remain warm and safe, with the people who you love, giving kisses and squeezes and hugs. I hope that where you are, there is joy.

See you Monday.

5 Replies to “Quiet Thoughts: The Lesson of Appomattox”

  1. So many inspiring stories in history. Grant’s compassion and respect for Lee and his soldiers is one of my favorites. I wouldn’t be so sure that you are Lee every night at 8PM though. It sounds like your little emperor is “surrendering” in the only way he knows how: demanding. 🙂 He sounds like he’s going to be quite a man!

    1. Thanks you! He is certainly turning into quite the SOMETHING! Lordy!! I think you are right about his own demands, though. He expresses love the way he knows how. Thanks for the food for thought!

  2. BEAUTIFUL post!! Seriously. I loved it. I have the daily battle phase going on right now with pretty much all 3 kids, and it’s so true. But, I also have an adult battle that is over now, and I loved this thinking about THAT issue and how I will move forward. 🙂

    1. Thank you, as always, Meredith. You know that means a lot to me. I’m excited that my words resonated with you somewhere and somehow. I hope that you can find the type of resolution that you are looking for!

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