We Get What We Get...
Reflections on the lessons I learned as a child
Miss Teacher told us one morning, while we sat on the floor in front of her kneading Play-Doh in our hands, “G-d made man from mud!”
Some kids amongst us giggled. Others shrieked. Some furrowed their brows. One girl in a purple dress raised her hand, distressed, and cried out, “But Miss Teacher, I don’t like mud! There are WORMS in mud!”
I suppose I must have laughed, a little, but my mind was elsewhere as I kneaded the colored clay in my hands. Just prior to this grimy news at the start of Sunday School, Miss Teacher had given each of us Play-Doh, "To keep!"
We had patiently waited as she doled out one small container of name-brand modeling clay to each of us. I should have been happy about the treat and either disgusted or tickled by the muddy news. Instead, I sat there largely uimpressed. How could I focus or be excited or intrigued when Miss Teacher had given me orange Play-Doh? I had really wanted blue or green! A sudden thought appeared in my mind.
Maybe I can trade?
I was nudging the Navajo boy to my left, silently pointing back and forth between his blue container and my orange one, when three claps rang out! Three more claps echoed back from ten or twelve sets of tiny hands. Miss Teacher cleared her throat and sang more than said, “We get what we get....” She trailed off.
“....and we don’t throw a fit,” we chimed back. I blushed, unsure whether she had seen me, or whether this nameless admonition was meant for one of the other ornery boys in the class. I decided to keep my hands to myself, just in case.
Back to the lesson. Miss Teacher let each of us have our reaction to mankind's grimy genealogy, and then said it again. “God made man from mud! Formed him from the ground with His own hands, just like you’re doing with your Play-Doh! Except...”
“Wait, Miss Teacher!” The Navajo boy next to me raised his hand excitedly, interrupting our instructor mid-sentence! “Miss Teacher, I have a question!”
“Okay! What is it?” She put her chin on her hands, her elbows on her knees, leaned forward just slightly, and looked at the boy with anticipation. She was listening.
“My grandma is a potter! She makes all sorts of really pretty pots! She’s really good! Her hands get dirty because she uses clay and sometimes I help her and my hands get dirty too! Did G-d’s hands get dirty?”
Miss Teacher smiled. She pondered for a moment. “Hmmmm.... Well I’m not sure about that. I think G-d’s hands may have gotten a little dirty!”
She started to speak, but then paused. An idea took root in Miss Teacher's eyes and then her smile. She looked as if she had just been told something very pleasant.
“You know what? I want to ask you about your grandma. She sounds like a great potter! When she’s making a pot, does she go really really fast or does she take her time?” Miss Teacher’s movements and words were exaggerated, engaging.
The boy stuck out his tongue to the left side of his mouth as he thought about this. “Hmmmm...well, she takes her time, but she’s faster than my aunts and Mom! She sings while she does it, too!”
Miss Teacher’s smile grew. “That’s lovely! Is there anything else your grandma does when she’s making pottery?”
The boy’s tongue moved to the other side of his mouth now, and he squinted. Slowly, he started. “Well, she molds it...
...and after she does that, she let’s it dry...
oh! and then Grandpa and my cousins and I help make a BIG fire and then,” his words began to pick up speed.
“Then Grandma puts the pots in the fire one at a time! And she says she just knows when each one is ready! But I saw her break one once and...!”
Miss Teacher leaned back in her chair, winded by the boy’s enthusiasm. “Phew! That sounds like a lot of work! Thank you for telling us about your grandma!”
The Navajo boy nodded his acknowledgement, and a toothy grin spread wide across his face.
She looked at all of us now. “So G-d made man from mud. Potters make things from clay. What do you think G-d might be, then?”
The Navajo boy next to me sat up a little bit straighter and shouted out, “He’s a potter!”
“A very good connection, sweetie. Great job!” Miss Teacher air high-fived him. He reciprocated the air-five and held his chin up proudly.
“So... G-d formed us from the Earth. He was careful and made sure we were just right and then....” She inhaled deeply and held her breath for a few seconds, just long enough to cause each of us to lean forward slightly with anticipation. Slowly, she began to let the air flow out of her lungs.
“G-d put His breath in us.”
“And the good news is that none of you are made of mud!” The girl in the purple dress sighed, relieved. “ But God is still pressing and molding each of you carefully into something special!”
Special. I spun the word around in my head. Suddenly the color of my Play-Doh was not so important. My hand shot up.
“Yes, Chance,” Miss Teacher’s eyes met mine.
“How long?” I asked her.
“Well we’re almost ready for our snack and after that your parents....”
“No, how long until we’re special?”
Miss Teacher sat up, surprised by the question. Then she chuckled. “Chance, you are already special. G-d makes us special in new ways, every day. Like a good potter, G-d takes His time.”
A kitchen timer went off, and that was the end of the lesson. Miss Teacher told us to put our Play-Doh in our cubbies, and then wash our hands. Collective moaning went up, but we obeyed.
We sat down at a long table for our snack: chocolate pudding, complete with gummy worms and crushed Oreos on top, and a carton of apple juice. The other kids giggled as they shoveled ‘Miss Teacher’s Mud’ into their mouths and onto their clothes. I poked at the red and green gummy worm protruding from my cup with my fingers.
When will I be special? How do I do it?
Soon, Miss Teacher let us know it was time to clean up. We each picked up our trash, deposited it into the bin, and went to our cubbies to grab our tiny backpacks. I was about to drop my orange Play-Doh into my backpack when a thought hit me.
Cradling the Play-Doh in my hands, I meekly approached Miss Teacher, who was putting unused juice boxes into the snack cupboard.
“Ummm, m-ma’am?” I stuttered.
Miss Teacher, turned and looked at me with kind eyes. “Yes, Chance?”
I held out the orange Play-Doh to her. “I really like this color,” I lied. “Thank you for giving it to me and for letting me keep it!”
Miss Teacher got down to my level and tilted her head to the side quizzically. She never stopped smiling at me, but the smile now carried with it a sense of knowing. “Well that’s very nice of you to say. I thought, maybe, you had wanted a different one for some reason.” I blushed, realizing she had seen me attempting to trade.
We get what we get, and we don’t throw a fit, rang out in my head. “No ma’am!” I shook my head adamantly in protest at her notion. “I like this color, really!” Another lie.
She held that knowing smile and put a hand on my shoulder. “I appreciate those kind things you said. It was pretty special for you to come and tell me, ‘Thank you.’ So thank you, Chance.”
I beamed. Special.
She gave me a quick hug. I went back to my cubby to get ready to go home.
I was the last one to be picked up that day, my parents and older sister collected me well after the other children been taken home. As we left, I placed one hand in my sister’s. While still clutching the Play-Doh in the other, I turned and waved bye to Miss Teacher. I looked again at the orange Play-Doh in my hand. I guess it’s not so bad....
We all got into Dad’s pickup. Sister and I got in the bed of the truck, Mom and Dad got in the cab. There were two removable “seats” up towards the cab for my sister and I to ride “safely” in. They were thin and gray and had seatbelts that held our bodies to the seat, but there was nothing else to anchor them down to the truck, save for our own body weight.
My sixteen year old sister, who was twelve years my senior, ensured I was buckled into my seat before buckling herself. As she began to ask me about Sunday School, her words were met with yelling from inside the cab. I turned to look inside. Mom was banging her left hand on the vacant seat next to her. The other hand was balled into a fist, and was being held at bay by Dad, who had a firm grip on her wrist. I grimaced.
My sister turned my shoulders away from the window and made a silly face. I giggled. She poked my stomach and started again. “So Baby Brother, what did you learn today?”
I began to tell her about the mud and the Navajo boy’s grandma and how G-d was a potter and was making us special. We were still sitting in the church parking lot when I finished recounting Sunday School.
“Special, huh?” My sister glanced inside the cab at our irate parents before looking off towards someplace I could not see. Her gaze stayed there. She sighed.
I sat watching her, wondering what she was looking at. A hand struck the rear window from inside the cab. I jumped. Sister did not. The yelling from inside the cab was louder now.
I put my hands up to my ears. As I did, I realized I was still clutching that little container of Play-Doh. I dropped the container and went to put my hands back in place over my ears. But then I looked over at Sister. I could sense her drifting away into the far off place I could not see.
I wanted the yelling to stop, but more than that, I wanted Sister to come back. I did not like seeing her in this state. Without much thought, I popped the lid off the Play-Doh container and pulled out the lump of modeling clay. My little fingers pressed and pulled the shapeless blob into a lopsided heart.
I tapped on Sister’s hand. She sniffed a little. She turned to me. Smiled. Why are her eyes red?
I held out my hand. She held out hers. Wordlessly, I pressed the orange heart into her palm. She looked at my bumpy clay creation intently. Chuckled.
Unbuckling herself, she leaned over and hugged me. It was one of those long hugs where you squeeze each other just a little bit harder, a little bit longer. I felt safe when she hugged me like that. Like she and I were untouchable.
“Thank you Baby Brother! I love it. You are my special little guy, you know that?”
I beamed. Special.
The engine started. Sister rebuckled herself. She reached out for my hand, which I readily grabbed. The orange heart was in-between our palms. We smiled as we watched the church parking lot morph into Main Street, which morphed into County Road 3050, which finally morphed into our gravel driveway at home.
Unbuckling myself, I speedily hopped over the tailgate and jumped down from the bed of the pickup. The orange heart was back in my hands as I ran inside to change out of my church clothes. I stripped as I went. Article after article of clothing landed behind me, until I was down to my underwear.
Once I had changed into a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, I went back to collect my garments. I had just stepped out of my room, when I heard Mom screaming from down the hall.
“Uh oh,” I whispered. Cautiously, I tiptoed towards the commotion.
“What the hell is this shit? Nicole, is this one of your art projects I just smeared into the carpet! Dammit, Nicole!” Mom had Sister cornered as she berated her.
Dad proceeded past them silently. He tousled my hair and walked into the living room. I looked after him, and waited for him to interject. The TV clicked on just as his recliner squeaked into position.
I looked back at my Mom. She was spouting off swear words now. In both English and Spanish, she masterfully and breathlessly linked the curses together into one endless expletive. I hated when she cussed.
I still had not yet gathered why Mom was so mad, when I saw it. The heart.
It was not really a heart now, so much as a large, orange smear. I covered my mouth in horror. Unwittingly, I had tossed the Play-Doh heart out and away from the trail of clothes I had left as I tore through the house. It had landed directly in the walkway. Sister must have squashed it on her way in, and then Mom’s foot finished the job.
I looked at Sister, feeling guilty. Then I looked at Mom, and fear welled up inside of me. I felt myself shrinking, when my eyes caught Sister’s. She grinned sheepishly and gave me a quick wink. Mom was too busy yelling about the ruined carpet to notice. I let out a little bit of the breath I had started to hold.
Sister will take care of me.
“Irresponsible! Lazy! Dumb!” I watched as Sister shouldered insult after insult from Mom. The words landed on me in giant heaves, but Sister seemed to barely notice. She winked at me again.
Finally, Sister shrugged. I imagine she did this to unburden herself from the weight of Mom’s words. Without looking up she said, “Yup, Mom. It was me. I’ll clean it up.”
Mom was not satisfied by this. Her hand was in Sister’s face now, the pointer finger aimed directly in front of her nose. Mom’s words were more curt and cutting now, and her hand mimicked their heated staccato. She took a step closer towards Sister.
I approached Mom and tugged on her Sunday dress. She turned and looked down. Instantly, her demeanor changed. She spoke warmly and gently. The harshness in her eyes softened. I was still uneasy. I wanted to hide behind Sister. But I had to protect her, too.
“Yes, Chance? Did you finish picking up your clothes, sweetheart?” The socks, jeans, undershirt, button-up-shirt, leather belt, and Cowboy boots were just out of Mom’s sight.
“Almost!” I lied. “Did you know G-d is a potter, Mommy?”
I began to explain what we had learned in Sunday School, waving my arms in big, exaggerated movements like Miss Teacher. “And God’s making all of us special!” I was careful to leave out that Miss Teacher had given us Play-Doh.
“G-d’s not a potter, Chance. Jesus was a carpenter,” she said flatly. She was not as receptive to my lesson as Sister had been.
“But...Miss Teacher...and...the clay.... and...she said....”
“Honey, it doesn’t matter what they say. The Bible says He’s a carpenter. Don’t question God. He damns people who ask questions.” Though these words were harsh, she said them lovingly. I blinked in confusion.
She got down to my level and took my hands in hers. I wanted to withdraw from them but knew I should not pull away. “Now what do you want for lunch today? We could go into town for a Sonic burger? Just you and me, my special little guy!”
I winced. Special?
Mom stood up and turned back towards Sister. Her gaze dropped to find that my sister was on her hands and knees on the floor. While I had stolen Mom’s attention, Sister had slipped away to the kitchen, grabbed some paper towels and a bowl of warm water, and was already blotting and wiping at the Play-Doh.
Mom looked down at her, annoyed. “That better not stain,” Mom growled from behind gritted teeth. She stormed away and slammed her bedroom door as her Final Act. The theme song to M.A.S.H. played from the living room. Sister continued to scrub and blot. I looked down at my feet, suddenly feeling shy, like I wanted to hide.
Sister looked up at me as she scrubbed at the orange mess I had made. “Thanks, kiddo. That was something special. You and me, we’ll take care of each other, okay? Don’t forget that.”
I ran to her, put both arms around her shoulders and neck, and gave her a squeeze. Still on her hands and knees, she reached up awkwardly with one arm and pulled me in closer. We stayed like that just a little bit longer than usual.
She patted my back and resumed cleaning. I sat down and watched Mom’s bedroom door, imagining what I should say in case she were to come back for more. I tapped my fingers anxiously as I waited for the door to rip from its hinges and for Mom to come stomping out again.
Just be special. Whatever it takes.
Sister tapped my shoulder and whispered, “Voila!” The Play-Doh had cleaned up pretty easily. There was no hint of a stain on the carpet. As Sister tossed the last tiny bits into the garbage, she said, “I’m sorry about our heart.”
I shrugged. “I didn’t want orange anyway.” I looked down at the floor again.
She lifted my chin and looked me in the eyes. She was serious now. Placing both hands on my shoulders, she uttered the most profound words that a child could impart to a child.
“Chance, you have to remember that normal families aren’t like this. This is not normal. It doesn’t have to be this way. Remember that.”
She hugged me again. Something about her words comforted me more than the hug. I wanted to hold onto them and not have them disappear into the warmth and safety of her embrace.
I pulled away abruptly. “I’ll remember.”
“That’s my special Baby Brother.” She kissed my cheek. I wiped it away in false disgust.
Special. I shrugged.
I was already tired of that word and everything that came with it. It had felt nice to be called special. But being special? I was learning that to be special meant I had to follow certain rules. Say nice things. Be extra good. And think about others. Lie if you are upset. Lie if you are unhappy. Lie if you are scared.
I turned towards my room to begin collecting my clothes. As I walked away, a phrase rang through my head.
“We get what we get, and we don’t throw a fit." And tears flowed quietly down my face.