One of my most beloved childhood memories is the sound of the piano, sighing me sweetly to sleep as my mother practiced in the living room after my brother and I had been put to bed.
The scene of babes drifting off to sleep as their mother strikes the chords of lullabies on the family piano, makes the memory quaint. But as a child, I loved the sound of realtime music infiltrating my dreams–instead of a taped recording–not because it was picturesque; I treasured it because it meant my mom was nearby. She was home. All was right in the world.
All parents are selfless creatures. Their life and desires are put on hold as they care for their children. As a single parent though, I imagine that the task of raising my brother and I was especially demanding. So many nights, I was sung to sleep by a babysitter, my mom still at work. In the mornings, before we all left for our various schools, I remember pleading with my mom to remember to wake me at night once she was home, so I’d know she was safe and sound and close. For virtually all of my childhood, she worked multiple jobs to support her kids, and was too often away from home.
Yet, my brother and I were not her only kids. She had hundreds. As a school teacher, her own offspring were not the only children my mom cared for or loved. To my mom, (and to many teachers), the young people she taught were not just students. Those kids were, are, her kids, too. Because she is a selfless and loving creature, my mom divided her time and love, not just between my brother and I, but between us and the
many kids she taught at school every day. And at times they needed it so much more than anyone in her life.
Santa Maria High School is a semi-rural school where the majority of students are immediate immigrants from Mexico (and now increasingly El Salvador) or are first generation Americans. Most of them speak Spanish or Mixteco at home. Most of them don’t know English as well as they should after 7 years of primary school in California. Most of them can’t read at grade level, are behind in math and science, and probably couldn’t locate France on a map of the world. But it’s not their fault. So many of them must miss school for extended periods of time to work the fields that surround our town, to take care of younger brothers and sisters because their parents can’t, or to travel home to Mexico and support family still living there.
Yet, there my mom is, day in and day out, trying to teach these kids French.
However, that’s an unfair characterization of what she does. To her students, she is not just a teacher, but a counselor, a mentor, even a parent sometimes. She doesn’t just instruct students on how to conjugate -er and -ir verbs or how to use the subjonctif. Non. For her, being a teacher is so much more than that. She encourages kids to apply for college, and helps edit their admissions essays. She shares with them her love of impressionnisme and Dumas and galette des rois. She looks out for them when they need more help than she can give. She inspires them to look beyond themselves and beyond Santa Maria’s strawberry fields and the rolling coastal hills that cut us off from the rest of California. She asks them to see the rest of the world; she inspires them to dream, to learn, to do more, see more, be more than they’ve ever been told they could.
I could share with you my memories of sitting at the kitchen table on weekends, helping my mom grade tests; of going to the store and buying brie and bread with our own money so she could share a new kind of food with her students; of spending days of my summer vacation helping her prepare for a new school year; of our kitchen (mis)adventures trying to recreate king’s cake without any of the proper ingredients, so she could share French holiday traditions in class.
I could also tell you of the times she’s come home distraught, sometimes in tears, because of her intense love for her students and the disappointment she feels that the system continually betrays them.
But so could any son or daughter of a teacher. So could any husband or wife or partner of a teacher. We could all tell you of the times they’ve had 15 hour days at school, first teaching lessons, then planning them, then having parent-teacher conversations, and finally supporting their students at performances, games, and award ceremonies. Teachers are the hardest working and least appreciated of professionals.
More than almost anyone, teachers shape the people we, our friends, our children, our peers, and our leaders become. Yet, in this country, teachers are under-supported, under-valued, and totally overworked. It is criminal, and we do our society a disservice.
“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce; they should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for governments and absolutely free of charge to its citizens.” This is how some people think, yet it’s how almost no one acts. Instead we disparage teachers, saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” We support teachers too little, and demand of them far too much. We expect young people to emerge from high school well-educated, yet we refuse to give teachers the resources, loyalty, or protection they need and deserve.
As a result, we end up with teachers like my mom, like so many of the teachers I had over the years, like so many of the teachers I know my friends to be at their schools now. They must become self-sacrificing. They must learn to be noble and heroic. Good teachers are among the most dedicated, passionate, enthusiastic, and driven of people. I am repeatedly in awe of them and the energy they exude. Even though I left grade school long ago, I continue to learn from them, and appreciate them for the lessons they continue to inspire.
As a young adult, I remember my mom asking me if my brother and I felt abandoned as children, if we felt that she was never around, always at work and caring for other people’s children. To categorically deny this would probably be untrue. Yes, there were moments when I missed my mom desperately: We never saw her weekday evenings when she had to leave the high school for her second job at the community college. Yes, there were moments I worried for her because she would get home so much later then I was expecting. Yes, there were times her anxiety spread to me as I saw how stressed and worried she’d become over the cases of particular students.
Yet, what I couldn’t express as a child, but (with a few too many words) can better articulate as an adult, is that I don’t ever remember feeling resentful. Somewhere deep in my child’s heart, I think I knew what I know now: that my brother and I were left to fall asleep to pre-recorded lullabies at night because my mom chose the noblest of professions. Because she chose to give time and energy to those that needed it most, but who likely didn’t have the courage or ability to ask. I didn’t feel abandoned. I felt, feel proud.
Teachers will always amaze and astound me. In the face of a society that undervalues and underfunds them, they continue to work tirelessly and fervently. To this day, the only thing I could ever feel today about my mom’s long days and exhausted evenings is gratitude and pride. I am so grateful to have been raised and taught by her. Thank you. Thank you to her, and to all teachers, for all that you do. You inspire us all to lead lives of purpose and passion.
It has been far too long since I’ve written anything, but if you want to dig back in the archives:
From this time in 2015: Thanks Obama, for the snow day
From this time in 2014: And Again Goodbye
From this time in 2012: Springing Awake
From this time in 2011: Small Successes