And Know They Love You

9 May

Im starting to get to that age where phone calls from family members at early hours of the morning give me a gut response of worry. It’s 645 am and my mom is calling. This can’t be good. I imagine this is the way parents feel about early morning phone calls for about 15 years of the children’s teen/college/post-collegiate years. At least I imagine this was the case for my parents. I put them through a lot more grief in my time than they ever gave me and for that I can be forever thankful. As a teacher you get reminded time and time again that not every kid can say that.

I had a miserable nightmare again early this morning, only this one didn’t have the tragic-humor element of cloned puppies. It was more personal, more foreboding, and literally shook me out of my sleep at 5 am. I wandered out to my couch where my dog came and attended to me with a head on my lap and “Dude lets go for a walk” look in his eye. So we went for a walk. But I couldn’t get back to sleep so I worked on some lesson plans and watched Matt Lauer talk about whatever Matt Lauer was talking about today. A little after 630 my phone rang and it was my parents number. In the headspace I was in I didn’t like this. But I picked up my phone and it was my mother on the other end. She sounded happy. I exhaled.

My mother is a brilliant “Information Scientist” or Librarians as we once called them. Her work in inquiry research in HS curriculum is impressive. This isn’t just a proud son stoking his mothers ego before mothers day. In a couple weeks she will be meeting in California with the fifteen most noted researchers, who research how kids research. She’s kind of a big deal, especially in Sweden. She is working on her second book detailing the work her library does with inquiry research at the HS level (One in conjunction with the English Department, one collaboration with the Science department at her school.) Recently she has helped my students with their own inquiry research projects and the progress she was able to make with them in two days made weeks of lessons I have taught seem utterly useless in comparison. Their writing since she started working with them has gone from average to impressive in a period of a couple weeks. They actually know how to evaluate and find good sources, cite properly, and incorporate great research into their own style of writing. It has been fun to watch. These are the things that excite teachers. Nerdy of course. But if you think I am being geeky about this you should see how excited she gets. One student still mentions how “hardcore my mom was when she barked on her, ‘I don’t know why you are staring up at the ceiling. I’m over here.'” Yeah my moms a gangster, too.

This morning my mom was calling to ask for a favor. Well not really a favor, payback. I owe her–among a million other things in my life, including my very life itself–a few bucks. She wants me to earn it by helping her out with her current book, by helping her shape the lesson plans with the Common Core Standards included. What a sucker, I would have done that for free! Its funny, how sometimes we give gifts by taking them. An opportunity to work professionally with someone I love and respect so much is a gift for me. But on the flip side I am sure when I said absolutely to her request, my mom mistakenly thought I was being selfless, doing something for her. Good moms are silly that way.

I have been reminded this week–I am reminded, as I said, too often–that even more so than teachers, parents leave a legacy on their kids. This sounds dumb, and obvious of course. But I am also reminded that a lot of people need to be reminded of this as well. Kids, parents, teachers, everyone. And I am certainly in no position to tell anyone how to parent (it would be, more or less the equivalent of a lifelong politician who has never taught a day in his life presuming he could evaluate teachers….
/scrubs Internet history
//looks over shoulders for any cameras.) That is not what I mean to say here. What I mean to say is it’s too damn easy to forget, as adults who have no choice but to have an impact on kids that the reward of doing our job isn’t ours to enjoy. It’s theirs. I think good teachers get this. I think good parents get it. I know in their capacity as both, my parents sure have. That’s an incredible gift to give if you think about it. There’s nothing more selfless than saying, the reward for all of my toils and troubles is YOURS to enjoy, not mine. I’m pretty sure there was a long haired, bearded Jewish guy who lived a couple thousand years ago and got a whole book written about that kind of gift. Good teachers do the same, but they get paid, and get to spend their summers rolling around in their rooms filled with jewelry and coins of gold. Good parents do this and don’t get paid shit for it, in fact they pay A LOT to do it. And they pay a lot more than just money. I know it’s a cliche but in terms of jobs that are hard to do very well, there can’t be any harder than being a parent. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so hard.

In the week that builds up to mothers day, the only thing that will be more persistent than bad commercials and ugly flowers will be my own thoughts of the many different mothers I have known in my life. In 30 years I have been blessed to know: a wonderful mother who worked hard her whole life on top of that unbelievably tough job of being a mother; two dedicated grandmothers who raised large families despite coming from next to nothing; aunts, who like my mother and grandmothers toiled endlessly to raise wonderful families with the tradition of their heritage and the hope of their time; mothers of friends who have taken me in as their own; co-workers who are tremendous mothers; student-mothers who sacrifice the traditional selfishness of teenage years to provide their own kids a life as good or better than theirs; teacher-mothers; and friends who are now becoming mothers. And it has been my gift to know them, and their children’s (even greater) gift to just have such wonderful parents. Maybe a better book contribution would be if I collected all their mothering “lesson plans” and shared them with the world. (Sorry Ma, but it might be a bigger seller than our current project!)

Eight years ago this month I graduated college (Wow that’s nuts.) On a five bajillion degree day in late may, I sat on the university football field, and listened to Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors, tell 100 yards worth of tired, hot, clueless young men and women the few tips he had for them as they prepared for the big bad world. I only remember one: sometimes it is too damn easy to forget, in the midst of a wonderful moment with family (or friends) to take a step back and just say, “This is nice. Isn’t this nice?!” Whether it is at a holiday dinner, walking along in the park, driving in a cramped car to my grandmothers, or listening to my father and I curse voraciously at another Jets blunder, I have been blessed to have a mother who has been saying this since long before Kurt Vonnegut recommended it to her son. Another gift she gave me.

There’s something else Vonnegut once said–er, wrote. He never mentioned it at the graduation, but he did write, many years before a wonderful baptismal for newborn humans: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” I wonder if this would have been equally sound advice for young Americans headed out into the world to begin their own lives, careers and families. That is a legacy worth passing on.

My mother was born with blue baby syndrome, an infant heart disease I don’t pretend to know anything about, but I do know this: if she was born 10 years earlier, before some major advances in medical research, she wouldn’t have lived to be a year, let alone 30 (I think she’s like 31 now.) However many years later, she has become an expert in research herself, both the traditional and the metaphysical. Being a mom is the hardest type of research in the world, after all.

The one thing I have learned about research, through teaching research, and through learning how to teach research better is this: everything we say, no matter how ingenious or innovative, is built on something we already know. I imagine parenting, like everything else is the same: we take prior knowledge, we question, we build something new. We would be fools to do something else. But with parenting, as with all other inquiry, and research, if we are working with shit information it’s going to be hard to produce something new and great. If our life texts don’t provide information to us babies on how to be kind, it’s asking a whole lot of us to figure it out ourselves.

My school’s CBO hosted a wonderful event today. They had a nice quiet lunch after school for the young mothers at our school (one reason many young women attend my school is the access to day care and a social work program to support teen mothers.) For once, I was hard pressed to be cynical, sarcastic, or otherwise flippant as I enjoyed my lukewarm pasta with some of my students and their adorably cute kids. In this room I was (for once) not the person with the most knowledge.

The same way my mother (and all the other mom-figures in my life) have given me the most selfless gift of motherhood, I wish I could give my own students (and future children something similar.) Which is why even though she hasn’t written it yet (and doesn’t even know she has been optioned to write it) I am giving all my past present and future students my mothers third and greatest book: Inquiring Moms Need To Know all about how to survive even the most crazy son.

And then I am going to give a gift of my own, because as much as I love her my mom is still crazy as hell. There will be a follow-up, Inquiring Sons Need to Know, all about how to survive even the craziest mom. All I ask in return is that every student receiving a gratuity copy listen to my parents’ wedding song, “Teach the Children,” and abide by the lyrics.

“And you, of tender years can’t know the fears that your elders grew by. And so please help them with your youth they seek the truth before they can die. Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you they would cry. So just look at them and sigh. And know they love you.”

I love you ma. Sorry for all the crap I gave you when I was young angry and confused. Words or a dumb blog entry will never be thanks enough. Hopefully the best thanks I can give is to do what you and Pete promised to do almost 40 years ago, and have done ever since: Teach the children well. Their parents hell (will) slowly go by.

/Sorry for the curses, ma
//Sorry to everyone else for the journal entry. But give your moms a hug. No matter what they’re teaching you something.

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