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Education Beat: The power of a mother’s hug

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When you were small, you suffered great cruelty and injustice.

You loved your doll so much.

But your mean drunk uncle took it from you. He said you were hugging it too much, spending too much time with it. He threw it away. “It’s gone forever,” he said.

I suppose others simply thought you’d misplaced your doll, or perhaps had grown tired of it. You suffered on in silence for years, never telling on your uncle, and never asking for another doll.

No wonder you cherished and hugged and spent time with your children so much once you had them.

My sisters and I became that doll, constantly loved and cherished and hugged by you.

“Love lasts forever,” you said. And you were right. You loved us so much (and you were an especially big hugger, a fact that I later understand why).

Not every little girl is able to overcome early childhood trauma to become a good mother. Though my mother grew up very poor, she had a wonderful emotional support system; two loving parents and two equally loving sisters. So many who suffer childhood trauma do not have that. Therefore, as adults, they tend to continue the cycle of abuse and/or neglect that they experienced as a child.

I taught nearly 2,000 men over a 24-year period at the Bristol Jail. Many of them had poor or nonexistent relationships with their parents, which I came to view as one of the primary “predictors” for becoming incarcerated later on in life. It became apparent to me how amazingly blessed we are when we have good parents (no, there are no “perfect” ones).

I was sadly astounded by how many men I taught at the jail who had never even known one or more of their biological parents.

One man told me it was his lifelong longing, “to feel a hug from my mother.” (His mother had died of a drug overdose when he was 2.) This man was later found frozen to death one bitterly cold winter’s morn over behind the old Bristol Steel building along the railroad tracks. I was told that he was found dead on his back with his arms locked, stretching upward toward the sky. I have no doubt in my mind that, at his last breath in this world, he was reaching upward for a hug from his mother.

Perhaps the greatest Mother’s Day tribute I have ever witnessed came to me while I was teaching at the Bristol Jail. The tribute came from a man whose mother had given him away at birth. He didn’t remember her at all.

My students and I were all gathered in the tiny jail library. We crowded together around an even tinier table. It was Mother’s Day, about seven in the evening. Before we began class we were sharing stories about our mothers.

One of my inmate/students began fussing about his mom, saying how she’d been a druggie and had 50 different men, so he never knew who his dad was. “She was not a good mom,” he said.

The toughest, baddest guy there stood up and said, “Mr. Talley, is it OK if I say a word or two?” I nodded.

So this man, with knife scars and gunshot wounds adorning his body like tattoos, spoke to us all.

As he began I noticed tears welling up in his eyes. I had never seen that before.

“About all us dudes in here had a bad childhood. A lot of us had 50 daddies. But we all only had one mom who brought us into this world. No matter what our moms may have done, or not done, we owe them our lives ... and our respect. Let’s all bow our heads and silently thank God for them right now.”

None of us had dry eyes after that.

And for some reason, we all spontaneously began to hug each other. For an instant, at least, it was if each of our mothers became alive and well within us all.

Ben Talley is an inductee into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, a former Virginia Teacher of the Year, and a McGlothlin Award Winner for Teaching Excellence.

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