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That Time My Kid Told His Classmates I Smoked

Photograph by Twenty20

I snuck in a few minutes late to my son's school music performance. From across the room, one of his teachers waved at me and winked. That's new, I thought. She'd never winked at me before. After the performance, she bee-lined across the auditorium for me.

"I have to tell you the hilarious thing your son said today!"

I braced myself to be bowled over by a charming story about my 5-year old'a witty repartee. Ready to blush with humble motherly pride, I flashed her a lay-it-on-me smile.

"We talking about healthy choices," the teacher explained. "Several of the kids talked about how they don't eat sugar and one little boy talked about being vegetarian." Apparently, before the class conversation veered back to Star Wars or Paw Patrol, my son offered his contribution..

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"My mommy used to smoke!" he announced. The teacher said that the other children were rapt. One little girl said she'd never met anyone who smoked. Another little girl reminded everyone that smoking kills people.

I was definitely blushing, but not from pride. I was mortified that 24 little kids and three teachers knew that I'd once been a smoker. In my defense, I hadn't smoked in over 20 years, and even then, it was only when I was drunk, though that wasn't a detail I'd shared with my kids. Or the teacher.

I tell (my kids) the truth because they deserve it.

I was at a loss for words. Our school is a small, progressive place where people grow their own vegetables and care about carbon footprints. I'd bet there's not a single cigarette butt within 10 blocks of the school.

"Your honesty is so refreshing … and brave," the teacher said. "I mean, who tells their kids the truth about that stuff? Especially at this age." I faked a smile and mumbled a thank you, though I wasn't sure she was complimenting me.

I'd been honest with my kids about smoking because they'd asked me a sincere question: What's the worst decision you ever made, Mama? At the time, several bad calls had popped into my mind. There was the time I drove to a Jimmy Buffett concert after a few too many drinks in the early 1990s. I couldn't tell them that. What if they told people I liked Jimmy Buffett's music? And of course, drinking and driving is criminal. There was also that time I continued to date a guy after he cheated on me, and a handful of other incidents that were even less kid-friendly. I wasn't going there.

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I'd settled on smoking. After all, it screamed Teachable Moment. And I milked smoking for all it was worth: It was bad for my health, it made my clothes stink, it cost a lot of money and it upset my parents. I laid it on thick.

I'm not sorry I told them. I don't need them to think I'm a saint. When they ask me a sincere question about my past mistakes, they are looking for my humanity, my frailty, my weakness. What's the point in giving a watered-down answer? I tell them the truth because they deserve it.

And I'm pretty sure I can live with the consequences. So long as no one mistakes me for someone who likes the song "Margaritaville," I'll be just fine.

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