We just celebrated Teacher Appreciation Week at our school. In a shower of hugs, flowers, coffee, chocolate, gift cards, and hand written notes, I couldn’t help but think of my own teachers whom I still appreciate today. The great ones stand out against a backdrop peopled with uninspired teachers who did what was expected. I shake my head when I hear school reformers say that they are trying to get our schools “From Good to Great,” because it looks more and more like it should be “From Wrong Answers to Correct Answers,” and we have been there before. The trickle down data craze keeps this thinking banging at the door. I am so lucky to teach in a school where we work hard to resist a culture of hyper-assessment that can reduce education to a trivial pursuit.
I am also lucky that I had a handful of great teachers who were in pursuit of the right answer over the correct answer. What is the difference? Often there is one correct answer, but many right answers. My great teachers guided and inspired me as experience, art, truth, history, and stories were woven into a an inspiring narrative. They knew facts had to be relevant to greater understanding. These great teachers didn’t show up until high school and college, but they made a huge difference my life. Their fingerprints are all over my teaching practice. Bill Blackwell, Jacki Vawter, and Sue Hanna (I know you can hear me), I am talking to you.
High school and college? That may seem like a long time to wait for great teachers, but wait. This is where I am really lucky. Today is Mothers Day. It should be called “First Teacher Appreciation Day,” because my mom was certainly my first teacher. The things I do well, I learned from her. I continue to learn joy and resilience from her. I continue to learn that happiness is choice every single day. My mother invented “growth mindset.” She continues to teach me to laugh at my mistakes because she laughs at her own. One day’s humiliation becomes the next day’s hilarious story. As children, when we made mistakes her response was always the same: “Well, you paid your tuition and you got an education.” She taught me how to cook by teaching me how a kitchen was supposed to smell and how food was supposed to taste. She taught me that joy was part of the alchemy in preparing a feast, and that a feast could be crackers and milk.
She gave me the most important teacher-ninja-superpower I have: Language. Our language lessons began before we were formally introduced; they began in the womb. Her heartbeat was a metronome set to the same meter as Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible, and Mother Goose. Our common language was a gift from her mother, my grandmother, and was transmitted in the same way. Gift. Grace. Miracle. I know that I heard my mother read aloud in the womb, because my mother always read aloud—to my father, my grandmother, her friends—and then to us. She carefully curated what she read and shared it appropriately. I was in my thirties when she called me on the phone to read me Laurie Colwin’s obituary by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post. Laurie Colwin had been one of our favorite columnists in Gourmet Magazine (from which she also often read aloud). It didn’t matter that I had the same column right in front of me, there was no stopping her. I loved the column and still reread it from time to time. And when I do I hear it in my mother’s voice:
Laurie knew that the line between joy and sorrow can be so fine as to be indistinguishable, but she set herself on the side of the angels. Her books had titles like “Family Happiness” and “Happy All the Time.” There wasn’t an ounce of manipulative or false sentiment in them, but they celebrated those things in life that lift and gladden the heart.
When describing her frustration at losing words with age, Mom said, “My thoughts walk a tight rope the breadth of a hair.” I thought to myself, it is a wonderful thing to have words to spare when you get to that point in life. Gather them while ye may.
When we go places she sits in the front seat and talks to Ben while he drives. I rest in the cadence of her voice. On one of these recent car rides she said, “I can’t see back very far or very well, but the fact that I had four such unique children is proof that I let them raise themselves.” There is some truth to this.
Recently, I asked if she remembered her own third grade teacher.
“Oh, yes! I loved my third grade teacher and my fifth grade teacher. I don’t remember any of the others.”
“Did they love you?” I asked.
“Of course! All of us! And we all loved them.”
Well, there’s some data: Love counts.
Happy Mothers Day, Mom! With love and a whole lot of gratitude for the miracle of getting to be your daughter. Thank you.