I recently read Thank You Ma’am,a short story by one of my favorite writers, Langston Hughes, with my students and saw it with fresh eyes. If you are unfamiliar with the story, I highly recommend it. It is a short read. Read it. Or listen to it.
For time’s sake, let me boil it down this way: Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones was walking on a dark street one night headed home. A young boy, Roger, attempts to rob her. However, the “large woman with a large purse” proved to be more of match for Roger than he expected. He falls trying to snatch the purse, and Mrs. Jones proceeds to put him in a half-nelson and drags him back to her house. She forces the boy to wash his dirty face and comb his hair. She does not turn him into the police.
Turns out that young Roger merely wanted $10 to buy himself a pair of blue suede shoes. Mrs. Jones shares that she was once in his figurative shoes and that she too has done things of which she is not proud. After sharing this sentimental life lesson with Roger, she gives him the money he tried to steal, warns him not to steal from her or anyone else, and sends him on his way.
As the door closes behind him, all Roger can muster is “Thank You, Ma’am.”
What we discussed in class was the idea of the deeper meanings and symbolism within the story. How Mrs. Jones’ large purse may have represented the baggage of her experience – which proved to be more than Roger could handle. How the washing of Roger’s face was an opportunity for the young man to have a clean start – to symbolically erase the sins of his past before they became ingrained in his character. How the large woman was being the “bigger” character by thinking of Roger’s needs instead of simply getting revenge.
It made me think about our roles as parents. I believe that there is a distinction between punishment and discipline. Kids need discipline but not necessarily punishment. It teaches them right from wrong. It allows them to grow from their mistakes. It fosters the development of their character.
Mrs. Jones could have very easily given Roger a punishment. Instead, she saw a bit of herself in his actions. And while she could not go back and redirect her past actions, she could serve as a sign, a warning, if he continued down the path he was on – a proverbial shortcut to instant gratification in the form of a pair of shoes.
Sometimes, I read too much into things (occupational hazard of teaching English), but I like to think that Hughes intentionally gave Mrs. Jones a bag that was too heavy for Roger to carry. We can’t expect our kids to grow up too soon – to shoulder burdens they aren’t meant to experience yet. It’s a delicate balance at times.
I also like to believe that while Roger learned from Mrs. Jones, she also learned from her experience with Roger. As a parent, I find my kids teach me a lot about myself – good and bad. And the funny thing is that if we, as parents, preach to our kids that they have the opportunity to grow, mature, change, and adapt then we need to recognize that ability within ourselves as well.
I’ve probably read this story over 100 times over the course of my career. Each reading offers a different insight. Though I probably should have, I’ve never looked at it with the lens of a parent. I guess what I would like to say is “Thanks, Langston, for the lesson.”
A version of this first appeared on My Captain’s Log. Punishment or justice photo: Edward Lich from Pixabay