RHONDA KEENUM: Find a mother’s ‘teachable’ moments in the bad times

By Rhonda Keenum

Every mother wants to protect her child from the harshest of our world’s realities. We would spare them even their smallest hurts, and we would willingly sacrifice ourselves to prevent their greatest dangers. We pray daily for their safety, and we try very hard to create homes in which our children are loved and nurtured.
But, as a mother I know that we can’t, and probably shouldn’t, spare our children the knowledge that the world is not one-dimensional. It is sometimes difficult, sometimes dangerous, and, yes, sometimes incomprehensibly evil.
The last two weeks have brought some wrenching realities directly into our living room, and I’ve found myself examining those events through the eyes of my four children. Together, we’ve tried to learn more about these world-changing events and, more importantly, to learn something from them. In these “teachable” moments, I hope to give my children perspective, compassion, and the seeds of self-awareness that help them grow.
Close to home, we have mourned for the wonderful folks in Smithville. How do you explain to a child the images of a town whose buildings look like a box of pick-up sticks thrown helter-skelter? Or make sense of entire families who are homeless or missing? Or find words to describe the pain of losing loved ones to a 200-mile-per-hour force of fury?
It’s hard to see those images and to imagine that somewhere in the destruction there’s a kernel of hope. But we’ve tried to find it, both through action and reflection together.
Our children’s school immediately began collecting supplies, and my four developed the sense of a personal connection to the tragedy. In doing “their part,” they experienced in a meaningful way that people care for other people. Seeing their pencils, paper products, water, and other supplies delivered earlier this week gave them pride that in some tangible way they are reaching out to help those suffering.
That, truly, was a teachable moment about a heartbreaking tragedy. As a mom, I hope the triplets – six-year-old Rett, Mary Phillips, and Katie, as well as four-year-old Torie – have learned that despite the horrible events in Smithville, good works and good people will prevail. I hope, in some small way, they are part of creating new possibilities for one of our small, devastated, hurting communities.
Dramatic world events also provided another sobering “teaching moment” in our household last week.
When the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were struck on Sept. 11, 2001, both Mark and I were part of a presidential administration that faced the most critical national security assault since the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. We witnessed flames pouring from the Pentagon, and we saw people fleeing our capital city, unsure of what had happened or might yet happen. In the uncertain days that followed, as the world discovered more about these unprecedented attacks, one name emerged as the mastermind: Osama bin Laden.
The president immediately launched an aggressive manhunt to track down those accountable, and we have followed its progress with intense personal interest for the past 10 years. My reaction on reading the news of bin Laden’s death this week was one of relief, as well as an elation that justice finally had been served.
But how do you explain these events and emotions to children as young as ours? Where do you find the words to describe the kind of evil that can spin a web of hatred so intense?
I want my children to remember that day for what it represents. They may not comprehend the concept of “terrorist,” but they do understand this: a very bad man has been stopped.
Whether we face the tragedy of Smithville or the nation’s tragedy of 9/11, my Mother’s Day wish for my children and all of our children is this: Believe that there is good in the world, act for good in the world, and believe that good, ultimately, will triumph.

Rhonda Keenum, a native of Booneville, is Mississippi State University’s First Lady. Email her at rhonda@keenum.ms.