A Writer’s Notebook: an essay about Mom

My mother is retiring from 36 years of teaching, and to honor her, my sister, my brother, and I threw her a surprise party while I was down visiting during my PCA/ACA conference. My sister and my mom’s good friend Debbie, also a teacher, also organized a scrapbook for people to leave memories of my mom as a teacher. This was my entry. Happy Mother’s Day and happy retirement, Mom!

I have thousands of brothers and sisters. Many of them were older than me, but there have been hundreds and hundreds that are younger. Right now, all my siblings are younger. Most of these kids I’ve never met; all of them have been a part of our family only temporarily. None of them, that I know of, have ever slept under my parents’ roof. Yet we are bound by a common experience, a single woman: my mother, their teacher.

I call my mother’s students, past and present, my “siblings” because that’s how she referred to them. When she came home from a long day of teaching (and don’t let the naysayers fool you – the days were always long!), whether she was elated or exhausted or exasperated, she would always talk about “my kids.” For a long time this confused me. My mother would lean forward on the couch and exclaim “my kids were so good today!” and I’d look at my actual brother and sister and wonder what we’d done to so excite our mother. Or she’d slump at the kitchen table, her eyes puffy and her head in her hands, and she’d sigh, “My kids were just so awful today,” and while I was sure I actually had done something wrong, because I often was up to no good, I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d so deflated my mom when she’d only just arrived home from work.

But eventually I realized she referred to all her students as “my kids,” and when she said it, the words carried the same tones, the same inflections – the same meaning, really – as her references to us, her actual children. And so I came to think of these “kids” as my siblings. When I got older and began visiting my mother’s classes, I would embrace these kids – mostly 2nd and 3rd graders by that time – as my youngest siblings, a whole gang of brothers and sisters for whom I should act as some kind of brotherly role model.

I confess, sometimes I felt jealous of all these kids. For much of my life, I felt as though my mother spent more time with them than with me, that she gave them more attention than she did me, and in the sense that they were (usually) a greater drain on her energy than I was, this was probably true. But I also felt rather proud: my mother had fortitude, intellect, and compassion enough for dozens and dozens of kids at any one time! It was like I was living inside the Land of Oz: my mother was all three of Dorothy’s companions rolled into one, the courage, the brain and the heart; like the Wizard, she could create vivid and, when necessary, intimidating displays but also would draw back the curtain and relate to her students on a human level; and, like Dorothy herself, my mother always came home, where she was as much our teacher as our mother.

In fact, my mother was my first teacher of teaching, my first example of educational practice. And when I developed an interest in teaching – at a very young age – she encouraged my interest and facilitated my early experiments in teaching by buying me a large chalkboard, handing down spare grade books, and giving me access to primers and encyclopedias that I used like textbooks for my stuffed animals and, when they would tolerate it, my younger sister and brother.

She also let me join her in the classroom, at first before and after school and during weekends and summers (yes, like my mother and many other teachers, I spent parts of my summers in school!), but later also during class time, when I would visit her classes to do my first teaching: a lesson on medieval Japan, a day discussing Native Americans, a workshop in writing blues poems.

Now, my mother is retiring. My vast, extended educational family soon will be depleted. My mother’s other “kids” will always be a part of her life of teaching, but now that she is all grown up, those kids are sending her out of the nest and off to enjoy the fullness of her own life. After 36 years of devoting herself to thousands of children in three different states, she is finally taking some time for herself, rich in what she’s given to her students and in what she’s learned from them as well.

And her tradition carries on. While it’s hard for me to call my adult college students “my kids,” I have learned from my mother that the best kind of teaching is that in which we feel an almost familial compassion for our students. In my own Buddhist tradition, in fact, the concept of compassion is often explained as the art of treating everyone as your own mother. In her approach to education, my mother reversed the compassionate model and considered herself the mother of countless children.

And we all are grateful for her.

No exercise, really. Just a prompt: what does teaching mean to you? Or what have your teachers meant to you? Or what has your mother meant to you? In my case, I wrote about all three. 🙂

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