"She's Really Your Mother?"
Guest Column by Wendy Saul
Long before anyone even dreamed of gentrification on New York’s Lower East side, I was a first-year teacher at JHS 22M. After a full day of unsuccessful teaching, I would return to my apartment, turn on the TV, and if the screen went blank and hummed, I had neither the energy nor will to adjust it. But the next day I would make my way back to school, determined to figure out how to become a better teacher. The most distressing part of this tale is that my supervisors saw me as fairly successful — no one was ever physically hurt in my room, and at the end of the day the sidewalk under my window was not strewn with books, wadded paper, colored chalk, and bags from chips and sunflower seeds.
Feeling desperate and diminished, I invited my mother, a seasoned teacher with substantial confidence, to come to school to see what she would do in this situation. Undaunted, she took the stage — to show me how to do better and that she could do it better. Frankly, she was pretty good — she got people’s attention by whispering rather than yelling, and knew when to wait rather than step in. That said, she was also helped by the strangeness of the situation — what teacher brings their mother to school? “She’s really your mother?” the kids asked over and over again.
Forty-some years later, my mother’s determination and egocentrism flash before me, often as both point and penalty. She barely let her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer get in her way — continued to shop as pounds melted from her body, bought expensive make-up, went on vacation. Her dying words — “I think I need a cup of coffee” — are testimony to her confidence and deep-seated sense that things would be better if she could just figure out the right corner to turn next.
Others prepare for death as a long road and a destination. They seem tired as they wait for their train car to arrive. My mother, by contrast, barely took time to consider more than the present. For her, there was delight in solving problems and in having yet another problem to solve. She loved congratulations and gracefully bowed to her internalized audience.
Her phone voice still filled the room as her body diminished. Her advice was never about dying. She didn’t even leave a will.
I never did learn to take the stage as my mother could, but with notes and stories, conversations and poems, I made contact with my students, sometimes deep contact. And like my mother, I understand the pleasure of fixing things or minimally making them better.
Now, well past the age of those school administrators who examined the detritus that fell from the windows of JHS 22, I have time to gather my own scraps. I unroll the wadded papers, check out books from the library, and even enjoy a bag of sunflower seeds, as I still try to make sense of it all.
Wendy Saul is a retired professor of education and coauthor of Thinking Like a Generalist: Skills for Navigating a Complex World.