The New York Times' "Modern Love" column is frequently irritating, silly, and asinine. But it's not often that one of these gut-spillers leaves one feeling actually disturbed, vaguely dirty, desperate to talk to a therapist and maybe call social services. Such was the reaction elicited by Sunday's "The Tiny Hand That Robs The Cradle," a mother's rant against the 8-year-old girl who scrawls that she "hearts" the author's son in the girl's bathroom. The incident prompts an intense, creepy oedipal outpouring against the anonymous little hussy. Oh, and did we mention the author is an elementary school teacher? And it only gets worse.So, some child in their small elementary school carves "I love Sarvis" on the bathroom stall. No one will admit to it. So the kid's mom, Kate Krautkramer, the elementary school writing teacher, takes matters into her own hands.
"So I tried my own approach: greeting the girls in Sarvis's class with different facial expressions, first accusing, then questioning, in the hope that someone would crack. Whoever Graffiti Girl was, she was impudent: a little child who obviously shouldn't be allowed to say anything about love. She didn't know Sarvis the way I knew Sarvis, no matter what the bathroom wall proclaimed. All of this I communicated
Then things get...weird. "I started using the vandalized stall exclusively. After a few weeks, I even started thinking of it as Sarvis's bathroom. I was haunted by the comment a friend made following the birth of her second son. 'He's very cute,' she said, 'but I'm worried. It seems like sons, no matter how much you love them, just grow up and leave you to marry someone you hate.'" Well, apparently she "hates" all the little girls in his class. She imagines one "turning her 18-inch hips just so for the very first time, or taking a try at batting her lashes." While initially the author expresses some semblance of concern over her son's embarrassment, or the destruction of school property, the essay quickly becomes nakedly Oedipal.
"Who among them could possibly fail to recognize that her third-grade infatuation was no match for my perfect, clear memory of Sarvis's 3-year-old voice singing 'Fuzzy and Blue' along with Grover? [People still like Grover? We thought Elmo had replaced him. - Ed.] Graffiti Girl didn't even know where I kept Sarvis's immunization record. She didn't have a clue about how much he liked lemon pepper on his spaghetti. She couldn't 'heart' Sarvis more than I 'heart' Sarvis. Every week when I got to school, I stepped into the 'I love Sarvis' stall as if it were a sacred chamber. Eventually, the bathroom wall became a metaphor for my own love for Sarvis: industrial, resistant, indestructible. One day I went in and traced the little girl's writing with my finger. I traced my son's name and the original heart, which was dented in places. As I traced her words, however, I started to identify with her. Putting my hand in the middle of her carved heart, I commiserated - 'I love him, too.'"
In the end, of course, the mom decides to be reasonable towards the anonymous little girl - 'no matter that she was using her fresh skills and knowledge to steal Sarvis away from me...And I knew that for now, anyway, and maybe for months or years, she wouldn't really be able to compete with someone like me who had the power to feed Sarvis, drive him places and rent from Netflix." Because, of course, that's what he'll want from a romantic relationship!
As for the bathroom wall, because it embarrassed my child, I wanted the satisfaction of tearing it down myself. But because it expressed so forcefully a plain, unequivocal truth, I also wished to hijack Graffiti Girl's intentions and keep the wall as a shrine. The thing would look great, I thought, hanging as an extra panel in our garage or barn where I could go to affirm my love every day.And where some child wrote, "I love Sarvis," I would like to use a knife, a screwdriver, or even the little piece of metal that holds an eraser to a yellow pencil to add to the graffiti. 'More than you ever will, little girl,' I'd carve into that metal wall. 'I love Sarvis more than you ever will.'"
Okay then! The author's mental state and the probable issues of the adult Sarvis aside, can we talk about a culture in which someone feels like this is an appropriate essay to share? We've discussed, before, the "I write therefore I am" ethos that's abroad nowadays - and we're certainly all in the gut-spilling game here, to varying degrees. There is a sense that if you say something it's valid - especially if you say it in pre-approved MFA terms that demonstrate a degree of narcissism masquerading as self-awareness. I don't even blame this woman for writing this; people are screwed up. But why does the Times run it? And in so doing, are they validating her sentiments, or simply giving them a platform - and in so doing leaving them open to well-earned censure? The better question is, is either of these rationales a valid one? I get it: "Modern Love" is a column which aims to explore "love" in all its many permutations and the modern world is a complex place, etc. etc. But the act of publishing is not an objective one and I think one could argue that whatever one;s interpretation of this article - and I'm seriously hoping most people's reaction is wtf? - running the piece is in some wise an act of irresponsibility. That said, the ultimate responsibility is of course the author's, who seems to be attempting to apply an implicit universality to emotions which, while perhaps they're somewhat common - motherhood is complex! - are obviously not healthy given her relationship to the little girls involved. It's perhaps naive to ascribe a saintly impartiality to teachers, but one does imagine that the person teaching one's children doesn't necessarily come equipped with a preemptive distrust of half her students. Kids have crushes. And from what I remember, there was nothing particularly sinister about it. It's true, kids today are living in a highly sexualized time. But the only overt sexualization in this piece is, ironically, projected onto these children by the author. I was talking recently with a friend who told me about the 'Robin Hood' party she'd thrown for her son's sixth birthday. There was a little girl he liked, and she was Maid Marian; he gave her a special flower crown to wear. My friend thought the story was adorable; it seems like the author of this piece would likely have ripped the crown off the child's head and paraded around triumphantly. Which is, of course, totally valid. The Tiny Hand That Robs The Cradle[New York Times]