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Guilty! She felt so guilty! Her only son, her pride and joy, her little baby had left for school without saying goodbye, looking like - a vagabond. There, she’d said it! A vagabond! A homeless, motherless, ragamuffin. She sniffed as she stood at the window watching him from behind the curtain. This week was going to be brutal. Could she do it? She straightened her spine, pulled back her shoulders, “Yes I can”, she whispered resolutely to herself.
A week ago, Sarita had been summoned to the principal’s office at her son’s prestigious school. Her angel had been caught cheating. Her breath caught in her throat as she recalled that terrible moment. She had wanted to deny it. She had wanted to shout and scream there must have been a mistake. But, as the principal outlined the incident, she had had to acknowledge it. The warning signs had been there. How had she missed them? Why? When did it all start going downhill? The principal’s voice faded into the background, as Sarita descended into her own thoughts. Did she not love enough? Did she not discipline enough? Was there a watershed moment when her parenting had gone wrong? She was startled back to reality when she realised the lady had asked her a question and was expecting an answer. She shook her head dumbly. She hadn’t heard.
Akhila looked at the lady sitting across from her – her eyes glazed, brimming with unshed tears and her heart went out to her – as a mother, as an educator, as a human. She walked around her table and knelt in front of Sarita taking her cold hands, warming them in her own. “It isn’t the end of the world,” she told her soothingly, “We will work together and this will soon be just another, ‘remember when?’ moment. A memory.”
“I should have known,” Sarita whispered, so softly that Akhila had to lean forward to hear her. “I should have recognised the signs”. The words came faster now, “he was always so distant, so rude, so angry all the time.” “Sarita, those aren’t signs of anything in particular, you know,” Akhila interrupted the distraught mother, “those are signs of what we call teenage angst.” Sarita blinked, a single tear made itself slowly down her cheek, and splashed onto the back of her hand, resting on the chair handle. She distractedly wiped her hand on her sari, “teenage angst? What’s that?” Akhila sat beside Sarita never leaving her hands. “Different people call it by different names – but as educators we see it mostly in 8th and 9th graders – 13-15 year olds! Almost overnight, they turn into monsters!” She could see she had the young mother’s full attention now. “What should we do? What can we do?” she asked. “Well”, said Akhila, “having raised three teens of my own – and being around teens all my professional life, I do have a few strategies.” “Please”, Sarita whispered, “please, I’ll try anything. I just want my little boy back!” Akhila laughed, lightening the mood considerably. Sarita smiled too, “I can’t guarantee your little boy back, but we’ll knock some sense into that lad yet,” she said with a smile.
That afternoon, unbeknownst to “the lad”, they chalked out a strategy, and before the school buses left the parking lot, Sarita had a new ally and friend, and felt more confident than she had in months!
All weekend Sarita implemented Akhila’s suggestions. When Vikram was rude, she ignored the comment, and went about her chores. It was almost comical. He’d growled at her when she turned the TV off, and she smiled at him and walked away. He put the TV back on, and looked at her with a challenge in his eyes. She walked away. Unobtrusively, she picked up his laptop and locked it in her cupboard. Later, she heard him looking everywhere for it, asking everyone. She hid in the bathroom and came out 20 minutes later. When she came out, he bombarded her with questions – which she didn’t answer. She had decided she didn’t want to lie. Every muscle in her body was tense, and she controlled her emotions with a quiet desperation, as he tried to get under her skin and force her to respond. Finally, he gave up and walked away, slamming the door loudly. Sarita’s shoulders slumped. Her husband came up and patted her. She knew she had many more challenges to go.
Saturday and Sunday were terrible. But, this time, Sarita was in control. Poor Vikram didn’t know what had happened to his mother. Normally, a couple of rude comments would spark anger in her. Normally, she’d correct him softly, he’d answer back, she’d get agitated, he'd roll his eyes, walk away, she’d follow him, getting angrier and angrier. The fight would end with her walking away, or him slamming the door, or his dad getting involved with a lecture and/or threat. Normal was good! Normal was safe. Normal was predictable! Things weren’t normal – his mother was acting very, very weird! She had that patient smile. And, she continued talking with his dad and sister, even when he had the TV volume on really loud. She didn’t get involved when he said some pretty nasty things to his sister, not even when it degenerated into a loud, verbal altercation. Strange! He was rude to his grandparents – something that was almost sure to set her off – nope, nothing. She just walked away. And, then went into her room. His laptop was missing. So he went looking for his phone – he’d get onto Facebook during exams. That would provoke some reaction for sure! But, he couldn’t find his phone either. He didn’t want to give anyone the chance to tell him about putting his things away – so he didn’t ask anyone anything. He picked up a book he’d been reading and sat down. He sure as heck wasn’t going to pick up a study book. Someone would have to remind him it was exam season!
At 5:30p.m., Vikram suddenly remembered he had to go to a birthday party. He rushed to his room, changed into jeans and a fresh T-shirt. He went looking for his father, but was told his parents had gone out. That surprised him a bit. How come they’d gone out without telling him, without coming to his room and saying “bye?” He dismissed the thought. He’d have to call a taxi. His grandfather didn’t have money. Neither did his sister. Frustrated, angry, he thought he’d order an Uber. But, he couldn’t find his phone. His sister had locked her door. She wasn’t about to do him any favours after that crazy fight in the afternoon. Vikram felt a pang of regret. “Damn,” he muttered to himself. He tried calling a couple of friends whose numbers he remembered – but they’d already left for the party. He felt rage and the bitter sting of tears behind his eyelids, and blamed his parents and couldn’t wait for them to get back to give it to them! Really give it to them!!
He’d fallen asleep before his parents got home that night. The next morning, he just decided to give them the silent treatment. His mother, who was a stickler for manners, didn’t seem to mind at all when he didn’t wish anyone good morning. He banged himself on his breakfast chair, scraping it backwards, slopping a bit of his milk onto the table. Nothing. No reaction - probably because his sister was talking about some college admission or the other. HE wasn’t about to get involved in that conversation. He just didn’t care about anyone. Unfortunately, it didn’t look as if anyone was noticing anything either…
Sunday passed pretty uneventfully, with Vikram giving everyone the cold shoulder. And, with everyone treating him politely and respectfully. He said some pretty mean stuff to his mom – because by now he was sure she had hidden his phone! He looked for her cupboard keys in her purse, and when she saw him – she made it a point to reopen the purse and count the cash in it. What? Did she think he was now a thief? He had taken that Rs.20 that was lying on the dining table the other day and got a bag of chips. But, that wasn’t stealing! No one had even missed it! But, he felt a slight pang of guilt. Should he have asked? Should he have told someone he’d taken the money?
Monday morning when he wanted to do his timetable, he couldn’t find several of his textbooks and notebooks. What was going on? He was going to get into trouble for sure today. He walked out of the house, his mom didn’t come to the door, she didn’t remind him to drink his milk, when he was waiting for his bus he stole a look towards his apartment. He thought he saw a slight movement behind the curtain, but he’d probably imagined it. He shook his head, and got into the bus. By the time he got to school, he was so hungry! But, the bus was late – so no time for breakfast. He had to rush straight to his first class. The day was a blur. He was in trouble in almost every period - either for homework submission, or not having a textbook, something. “Manic Monday,” he thought dismissively. And, headed towards the school bus that would take him home.
The next few days were pretty much a repeat. Except for the fact that he just couldn’t get his mom to react. She just wasn’t there as much. It was almost as if her life didn’t revolve around him anymore. And, she also seemed obsessed with locking everything up. What was up with that?
Early Thursday morning, he decided he’d had enough. He went up to his mom and hugged her. “I miss you, mom, don’t you love me anymore?” She hugged him tight and smiled. And, asked what he wanted for dinner. That felt so good! “She does care,” he thought. In the bus, he fell asleep. While he was in the phase between asleep and awake, he had an epiphany! A Eureka moment, if you will! Mom had been acting strange to teach him a lesson! She was trying to get a message across to him. A part of him rebelled, now that he had figured it out. But, the other, slightly more reasonable part of him actually understood what she was trying to convey. Maybe he could take a step or two towards what she wanted - and maybe she’d meet him halfway. Knowing his emotional mother, she’d probably cross the divide all by herself. Well, maybe not this new mom. He felt a grudging respect for her. He knew how emotional she was. He knew how much the stuff he’d done this past week must have bothered her. He had wanted to tell her about that unfortunate incident at school. Where his teacher had caught him looking into his neighbour’s notebook during a test. He hadn’t meant to – it had just happened. He couldn’t remember the formula. If only he could get a glimpse of the formula – the problem was as good as solved! He wished he could have unburdened to her. All day in school, he kept thinking, vacillating between “mom’s right – I need to make some changes” to “who the heck does she think she is, blackmailing me to change.”
When Vikram got home that evening, he went in search of his mom. He was really tired of eating junk that didn’t fill his stomach. He wanted a filling dosa or a sandwich or something substantial. He wanted a mug of milk not a glass of coke. He wanted the reliability of the mundane. He wanted to be taken care of. He wanted his old mom back, and he knew if he wanted that badly enough, he’d have to make some changes. The selfishness would have to go - he recognised that now. The rude tone, he cringed as he thought back to how he talked back, the rough voice, the backtalk – as he rewound the arguments he had had, he acknowledged that most of the time, she was reacting while he was provoking. And, when she stopped reacting, is when it hurt – a lot! It was almost like she didn’t care anymore. Maybe he needed to stop provoking, and she’d start to care again? “Worth a shot,” he thought, “worth a shot. Can’t live like this anymore!”
I wish I could say Sarita and Vikram and the rest of their family rode off into the sunset, and lived happily every after. But then, this would be a fairy tale. It isn’t. They had many more moments of “teenage angst” – but they were fewer and further between. The relationship between mother and son did improve. Vikram was more polite. Sarita was more patient. Sure, they had tiffs. But, all in all – Akhila’s strategies had worked. Sarita got her “lovely lad” back and had also found a kind hearted, and generous friend in Akhila, in the process.
All’s well that ends well. Maybe this is a fairy tale. What do you think?