I noticed that I had been rolling my eyes more than usual. Perhaps it’s just that growing up means forming more concrete opinions, more self-constructed definitions of right and wrong. I’ve discovered more about the world and how I feel about it, which are important lessons, but they were learned at the terrible price of habitually assuming that those who didn’t have that same knowledge were not as smart or as wise or as educated as I felt they should be. I am not proud of this, but I had been judging those who weren’t living up to my unreasonable expectations of intelligence. I had been rolling my eyes at them. I had been heavily sighing.
In high school, I was over at a friend’s house, celebrating the departure of a group who were leaving for Europe, and one of their mothers asked if they would be able to read the flight information at the airport there. I thought, although I’m ashamed to admit it, that it was one of the dumbest questions I’d ever heard asked, especially coming from an adult. Not only do Europeans have the same alphabet, and millions of American tourists, but every airport in the world accommodates the English language. It’s sad in a way, but it makes my travels easier, so I won’t complain too greatly.
The point is that it didn’t occur to me at the time that perhaps this woman had never set foot in a foreign airport. In my privileged and narrow-minded adolescence, I didn’t understand that she might not have had the same opportunities as I had been afforded. I didn’t realize that we only learn through experience. She just really didn’t know.
A few weeks later, I was sitting in the kitchen with my mother and little brother when YMCA came on the radio. My brother and I started dancing around in the kind of cheesy, carefree way that song inspires. And my mother, the most intelligent woman I have ever known, said “Oh, isn’t that clever! You’re spelling out the letters with your arms.”
There was a moment of dead silence before my brother and I burst out laughing with a slew of “are you kidding me?” remarks. The year was 2002.
The song was released in 1977, which means that for 25 years while all the other guests at parties and events and bars were lifting up their arms to perfectly form the shapes of each letter in unison, my mother was standing somewhere flailing her arms about as though she had no control over her body.
I like to think that she assumed people were staring because she looked like the life of the party. I like to think that in her own, unaware way, she kind of was. People must have been talking about her. “Did you see that woman who didn’t even know she was supposed to be spelling Y.M.C.A? How funny was that?”
It was funny, that moment in the kitchen when my poor, otherwise brilliant mother, was suddenly so humbled by her error that she could do nothing but laugh with us uncontrollably. It was funny the way her gap in knowledge brought this joyous moment for us to share. It remains one of my favorite family memories.
And it made me reconsider my friend’s mother and the question she had asked. It made me realize that really, I had been the fool. Because at any given moment, we can only know what we know. Out of all of the many insightful, important lessons my mother has taught me over the years, this continues to be one of the most valuable. We can’t know everything. We can only live our lives the way that we believe they should be lived. We can only reside in the reality that we’ve created for ourselves. We can only continue to ask questions and make mistakes in the pursuit of learning more. We can only hope that our foolishness produces wisdom.
And so lately, as I’ve been tempted to roll my eyes and sigh, I’ve stopped to think about the example my mother set for me, for all of us. I’ve realized the error of my judgment of others. I’ve tried to have the good sense to laugh at my own unintelligent mistake. I’ve hoped for the kind of profound wisdom that can turn such folly into genius. I’ve hummed the tune of YMCA.