Eleven years ago, I was sitting in a senior seminar class with a group of people I had come to know and love. The Southern Studies Department at Ole Miss is as small as one might imagine. And each individual class felt like its own group of buddies.

On this particular afternoon, class was set to start when we noticed that Catherine hadn’t shown up yet. Catherine was the kind of person everyone wanted to be friends with. She loved jazz. She lived in an actual house. And, perhaps most exotically, she was a mother.

I would see Catherine around town in Oxford with her 3-year-old little girl. To be honest, I just marveled at them. Once, when her daughter was whining in a coffee shop where I worked, Catherine looked at her and said firmly, “Big girl words.” And this little squeaky voice said to me, “I want a cookie, please!” She was a wonderful mother and an incredibly gifted student. She had the kind of commitment to her studies that one only gets from almost losing the chance to get an education at all.

mother and child

And so when Catherine was late for class, we were all worried. About ten minutes into the lecture, I heard two sets of feet headed towards a classroom. One of them sounded particularly small and loud. Suddenly Catherine appeared with the harried look of motherhood that I am so familiar with now. Her toddler daughter was at her side, looking totally bewildered at a table full of undergraduates. I am certain we looked even more surprised to see a small child in our midst.

“I’m so sorry I’m late. The sitter canceled. She’ll have to sit with us,” Catherine sheepishly announced.

We all looked to our professor, Dr. Ownby, and collectively took in an anxious breath. Too often in life we believe that people show their true colors in natural disasters or family crises. I think it is far less dramatic than that. I think unexpected toddlers show the character of a person much more efficiently than hurricanes.

I had many professors in my academic tour, but I never had someone I admired and respected as much as Ted Ownby. But he never had kids of his own. I remember thinking, this could all go poorly fast. What if he tells her that we have a policy about children? What if this affects her grade? Instead, Ted looked up at Catherine and her little girl and warmly said, “Of course. Please join us!” And they both sat down.

A half hour went by and Catherine’s daughter began to get restless. Which, of course, made everyone else worried. Especially since none of us appeared well equipped to help her. Then, out of nowhere, this beautiful archetype of an Ole Miss sorority girl held up a box and said, “I don’t know why I have this. But here’s some Honey Nut Cheerios.”

maternal kissTo this day, that is the closest thing to a miracle I have ever witnessed. Anyone who has had a fidgety toddler knows that a tiny, random box of Honey Nut Cheerios is not only food, but at least 20 minutes of entertainment. And so we all began to look in our book bags, and slowly but surely, a table full of undergraduate students helped to keep a toddler busy while still having class. We passed our car keys down to her. We folded up paper and handed her pens. But mostly, because our professor had welcomed a mother and child into our classroom, we were able to welcome her too.

People make great declarations around Mother’s Day. And they should. Mothers are amazing. They give birth, they feed babies, they love tirelessly. But we aren’t in some separate category of humanity. We are just mothers. Like the one you had. Like the one you married. Like the one you will become. We do not mother because we are courageous or patient. We mother because we are mothers. It is just that simple.

It is often preached that we should all “be Jesus” to the world. I find that charge overwhelming and impossible. Instead, I think we see glimpses of our precious Lord and we forget, for a moment, that we should worry or withhold. Christ, Gerard Manley Hopkins once said, plays in ten thousand places. And on that late afternoon, Jesus made himself known in a college classroom, with a box of cereal, and a sincere welcome to a young mother and her small child.