Sunday, October 25, 2009

Mama's Birthday, Part II

This is my mother on the day of her bridal shower in 1956.

My Mama was my first teacher, as most mothers are. But mothers in the fifties were stay-at-home, hands-on, just-wait-til-your-Daddy-gets-home kind of mothers. It was great. My Mama taught me how to tie my shoes and how to shop for bargains, how to bake a cake and how to steam cabbage, how to soothe a screaming newborn and how to get that newborn into a great university. My Mama - my first teacher.

Today is Mama's birthday. She's 82 years young. It's a wonderful day, but there have been times in the past four months when I thought this day may not come. My mother has had a rough go of it for awhile - she's fallen about fifteen times, broken her hip, elbow, and back, had one hospital stay and two trips to the rest home.

But today, her birthday, she's doing better. She's strong, her head is clear, and she's walking better than I can remember in awhile. So in honor of my mother, Clara Agnes Moore Cole, I'm digging up an old post entitled Mama's Birthday. This little piece got me a fourth runner up prize in the Carolina Women's Writing Contest - a gift certificate to an organic market. (My Mama grew organic food on her childhood farm before she knew it was cool.)

Read on, those of you who love your mothers. They continue to teach us every day.

Mama enjoys her birthday cake and coffee.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Teaching Joy

I've been spending much of my time lately in a skilled nursing center - a nice euphemism for "rest home" or "old folks home" - what they were called when I was a child, where my mother would take me while selling AVON. Now my mother is a resident. Up until recently I haven't focused much of my attention on the elderly of our community. That's because I've been busy with the other end of the spectrum - prepubescent cherubs - those middle school students I teach.

But since I've spent numerous hours with octogenarians (and older) in the past few months, I've become aware of their importance in our culture, of their stories and experience. I've been particularly drawn to the line of wheelchairs that greet me just as I punch in the security code and enter the facility every day. My mother is never in that line; instead she keeps to herself in her room, except for meals, because she finally, here at the end of her life, has time to read novel after novel uninterrupted. (Well, she is my mother.)

And one glance at the wheelchairs lined up by the door can give me valuable information as I enter: I can tell time by whether or not the inhabitants are sleeping, for example. Each resident requires a mid-morning and mid-afternoon nap. If the wheelchair line is missing altogether, I've arrived at mealtime and know to head to the dining hall.

The lady who sits on the end of the line, Mrs. Bryant, has always caught my eye. She is the most impeccably dressed - always sporting a beautiful scarf or pin to accent her sweater. Mrs. Bryant has thick glasses - I've often wondered if she even sees me as I walk by - but regardless, I always say hello.

Yesterday I finally had an opportunity to talk to her for awhile. My mother was asleep, novel still in her hand, when I arrived. Not wanting to wake her, I sauntered out into the hallway and headed to the "line." Mrs. Bryant was the only resident awake. After I said hello, the nurse called to me from her desk: "Aren't you a teacher? Mrs. Bryant was a teacher, too!"

Mrs. Bryant lit up like the first day of school and started telling me about her early career in 1927! Now, I know I'm not good at math. But I do know this: my mother was born in 1927, and she's 82 years old! So my next question couldn't wait..."how old are you?"

She laughed quietly, and I wondered if my question were inappropriate. But she was proud to answer. "102," she said.

"102 years old?!" I know I seemed shocked, but Mrs. Bryant must be accustomed to that reaction because she continued on..."There are people who can't believe that I loved it so much," she said. "But it was a joy in my life. I had no children of my own. My students were my children."

I asked her what she taught. "Everything," she said. And she continued, "I taught..." She paused. I waited, but she stared ahead for many painful seconds.

"My mind," she said finally. "Sometimes it just goes away." I laughed and told her that mine does that, too. At that point it was apparent that she was tired and was unable to retrieve the words she needed for the conversation. So I told her we'd talk again soon and left for my visit with my mother.

Later that week, there were days in my school when I was weary. But I would think of Mrs. Bryant and push on.

This job, you see...this opportunity to make a difference in the lives of is the joy of my life, too. Thank you, Mrs. Bryant, for paving the way for those of us who are following in your footsteps. It is an honor to know you.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Teacher Bashing and An Overheard Goat

It’s happening again. There’s another Teacher Basher in the crowd. In an airport this time…probably not the best place to confront a total stranger and begin an argument. I mean, they won’t even let me take my Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion through security; do you think they’ll let me stand up at the gate to a plane and yell my position?

I first picked up on his (exceedingly loud) telephone conversation when he said that “history is nothing but memorizing.” I was ready then to present my counterpoint, that in schools today we don’t teach memorization. We teach thinking. I’m not even a history teacher, but I can just hear my colleagues across the country asking their students, “What if we had lost the Revolutionary War? How would we be different?” And then I hear my students answering, “We would all talk like Harry Potter and drink tea in the afternoons. Cool!”

But just as I was forming my remarks in my mind, the overly loud phone conversationalist said this: “It’s just because the teacher is bad. Face it. It’s a public school. Teachers are bad in public schools. If you’re lucky you’ll come across a couple of good ones. I had a few good ones in school. But most are bad.”

I choked on my airport “you have to check in way too early” breakfast muffin and listened. He continued so long that I considered handing him a thesaurus so that he could look up some alternatives for the word “bad.” Michael Jackson fan, I guess. Or a goat (baaa…aaa…ddd…)

Not a teacher fan.

Interestingly, I’m in this airport because I’m returning home from a teacher conference, a State Teacher of the Year conference, in fact, where I have spent the week exchanging ideas, laughter, and tears with the best and brightest, as well as some of the most inspiring and motivated, teachers across the country.

So here I sit faced with a dilemma. I have things to say about teachers. I have strong opinions about the phrase “bad teachers.” But to stand up and attempt a conversation with this man, this total stranger, when I am alone in this airport, would most likely be futile and would give him more fuel to add to his fire, to add to his negative opinion of teachers.

So I make a vow to myself to work harder at changing the public’s perception of teachers. And although I can make presentations to educator groups, stand in front of thousands, shout from the mountaintops (or at least across the blog-o-sphere), I think the place I can make the most difference is in my very own classroom. I need to make sure that none of my students’ parents ever refer to me in a conversation that echoes across an airport.

That would be…ddd.