Mother, My First (And Often Unappreciated) Teacher

A lifetime ago, all the 5th-graders at my elementary school were asked to write an essay for a contest in honor of our nation’s 200th birthday, as part of the bicentennial celebration. I wrote that while it was okay to pat ourselves on the back, that the U.S. was a great country, we still had a long way to go.

I cited the treatment of Native Americans and the many treaties made with various tribes which were then broken by our government. I also pointed to the pollution that was destroying our environment. Mrs. Wink, my teacher, was beaming on the day all four 5th-grade classrooms were assembled to hear who had won. She proudly handed me a certificate, a blue ribbon and a check for five dollars.

I went home and told my parents that I wanted to go to the carnival and that I had earned the right, by my own hand as the essay contest winner, to spend the fiver however I saw fit. It turned out that five bucks were only good for about two of the better carnival rides and one snack. I had to choose between cotton candy or popcorn.

Seeing my disappointment at how little I could actually buy, my mother bought popcorn for herself and suggested we share the cotton candy and the popcorn. She also bravely agreed to take a spin on the Zipper with me since the carnival rules would not allow a child to ride alone. I was ecstatic, throwing all my 40-something pounds into each spin of the cage where my mom sat buckled in next to me, pleading for me to stop.

Laughing, I ignored her. I didn’t want the moment to end. I was a terrible son and a natural-born thrill-seeker swirling jubilantly together in one pint-sized bottle of repressed mischief, like an unopened container of carbonated soda that has been shaken hard. In my little over-achiever, middle-child mind, I felt that only by making myself (and my small-boned, 110-pound mother) as dizzy as possible, would I be getting my money’s worth.

When the ride was over, my mother’s face shown a bluish green, almost the color of the cotton candy we had consumed before boarding the Zipper. She made quickly for the edge of the fairground and doubled over, sick to her stomach. A few seconds later, she walked back toward me as if nothing had happened, dabbing the corners of her mouth with a handkerchief she’d dug from her purse.

Folding the hanky back into her handbag, she searched for something else and calmly said, “Well, mi’jo. There went your five dollars.”

An explosion of laughter and heartbroken tears suddenly knotted itself in my throat. I threw my arms around her waist, head hung low in shame, pressing my face into her tiny rib cage, holding on as if for dear life.

Taken aback, she pulled herself away from that awkward and rare PDA (Public Display of Affection), cupped my cheeks in her hands and asked, “Abel, what’s the matter?! Que te pasa?!”

“Nothing,” I said. “I guess I’m ready to go home now if you want.”

“But son, we just got here! Don’t you want to try at least one more ride? You have two tickets left,” she offered while searching through her bag. The still unopened, rectangular, red and white striped box was suddenly in my hands, the popcorn smell bringing me back to the carnival, rekindling my eager excitement.

Snapping shut the compact mirror she’d also extracted so she could reapply a little lipstick, she said, “You know you’re going to have to eat that popcorn all by yourself now, anyway, so we might as well stay. Come on, it’ll be fun.”

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Abel Salas

Abel Salas

Based in Los Angeles, journalist and poet Abel Salas has written for The Austin Chronicle, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, LA Weekly and the New York Times, among others. His poems have appeared in Zyzzyva, Beltway Quarterly, Cuthroat: A Journal of the Arts, Cipactli and Huizache as well as the anthologies Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Change (University of Arizona Press, 2016) and The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising From the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles (Tia Chucha Press, 2016). He is the editor and publisher of Brooklyn & Boyle, a community, arts and cultural monthly and was a co-founder of Corazón del Pueblo, a grass-roots arts, education and political action center in Boyle Heights.

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