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Finley: Toya Graham for Mother of the Year

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

My aunt and I were sitting in her small, country church several years ago, becoming ever more annoyed at the carrying on of a young boy in the pew in front of us.

His mother kept trying to settle him, but eventually lost patience and rung his jaw with a sharp slap. I was stunned. But not my aunt. She whispered to me, "That makes me feel so good. It reminds me of mama."

I understood how she felt while watching the video of the Baltimore mother who marched into the middle of rioting teens, grabbed her son by his hoodie and pushed him home in front of her, smacking him in the head whenever he dallied.

It wasn't the heat of his mother's blows that set him to stepping; it was the humiliation of having them delivered in front of his friends.

Been there. Well past the age when I should have known how to behave in public, I had my own come-to-Jesus moment in church. My friend Victor and I found seats by ourselves near the front of the sanctuary, where we soon tired of the Sunday night sermon and started cutting up.

Trouble was, Victor's dad was doing the preaching. We failed to heed his many irritated glances in our direction. So finally he stepped down from the pulpit, moved along our pew, and without missing a beat of his sermon, jerked Victor up and gave him a couple of hard whacks.

I barely had time to smirk before I was hauled airborne by my shirt collar and dragged up the aisle and out the back door.

I don't remember the dusting my mother gave my britches, but I'll never forget the embarrassment of snuffling back into that church house and taking a seat beside her. My buddies nearly burst trying to contain their howls.

Toya Graham, the Baltimore mother, was initially hailed as the Mother of the Year for her courage, and for her commitment to saving her son by any means necessary.

Then the hand wringing began. Did the blows Graham delivered constitute child abuse? Should we really celebrate a woman who resorted to violence to discipline her child?

The judgment came from parents who never had to fight the streets for their children. And from those who have no clue what it's like to raise a teenage boy in an environment of urban poverty, to compete with drugs and gangs for his life and his future.

Hands-off parenting is easy in tony suburbs where the nighttime floor walking is all about whether Junior will score high enough on the SAT to get into his preferred college. Of course corporal punishment looks disgusting from that cushy vantage point.

But when your son is throwing rocks at armed police officers, a time-out seems like an insufficient response.

My bet — my hope, at least — is that Graham's son will eventually appreciate that he had a mother who cared enough to knock some sense into his head. I had a mother like that, and I'm eternally grateful.

His mom, standing in the midst of the mob, oblivious to everything but the well-being of her son, made me think fondly of my own mother.

So on this Mother's Day, I'm still going with Toya Graham as Mother of the Year.


Follow Nolan Finley at, on Twitter at @nolanfinleydn, and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Channel 56.