Learning to Mother: We are all teachers

Years ago I attended the first eighth grade graduation for a charter school I helped open. That morning, pressed for time, I raced right past a sea of navy blue caps and gowns flanked with Kente cloth. Everyone was so dressed up, high heels and suits, bow ties and up-dos. I couldn’t believe they were my kids. That is, until I saw Rosita. She used to call me every fall and spring to tell me the latest school news. But it had been a few years since we’d spoken. We stared at each other for a moment and then threw open our arms in embrace. “I knew you’d be here,” she said to me. “I just knew it.”

“Yes,” I said in return. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I had always wanted to open a school. I happily worked fifty to sixty hours a week. It was our chance, I used to say, to get “it” right. The school sat across the street from a large vacant lot, discarded food wrappers and bits of garbage woven into the chain-link fence. Abandoned buildings and boarded up windows filled the neighborhood, a greasy spoon around the corner, an empty cathedral down the street, and our newly renovated school with fresh paint, murals and cozy reading nooks. I knew every child there.

When Rosita was in third grade, I left the school to go coach in other Chicago public schools. It was a bittersweet decision. On the day I had to say goodbye, I went classroom by classroom. The kids met me on the rug—Chad with his shy smile, Rosita with her unabashed curiosity, Arnell with his mismatched socks. A small decorative box rested in my hands. “This is our penny box,” I told them. “Just like the character we read about in the book The Hundred Penny Box, who had a penny for every year of her life. We’re going to have pennies for our memories together.” I shook the box. The pennies rattled around. One by one, the children came forward to share their stories. There were never enough pennies for me.

Looking closer at the sea of graduates, I smiled as Rosita pointed out her friends. Some I knew; others I did not. In no time at all, a group of girls came forward calling out my name. The boys followed—Travis in his grey suit and Chad in a pressed shirt and tie. Arnell and David, too. They circled around me, brimming with nervous energy, talking all at once about their plans for the summer and high school come fall. I wondered where the years had gone.

When a teacher came outside with a loud speaker, I listened proudly as their names were called to line up for the opening procession. I could still hear them running down the second floor hallway as if it were yesterday, stopping at the water fountain and then racing back to gym class, water dripping down their chins. I saw them curled up under the window ledge, leaning against as many pillows as possible, lost in the pages of a good book. I remembered them sitting at their desks, their heads bent low, determined to capture the words in their hearts.

I turned to hide my tears and went inside to the washroom. Standing in front of the mirror, fixing my hair, I watched as one of the graduates walked up to do the same. I searched her face for signs of the young girl I once knew and discovered the same quiet confidence in her eyes. “Charita,” I asked gently. “Do you remember what you did the day we said goodbye?” She shook her head.

“You were in third grade. It was close to the end of the year,” I began. “You took off the plastic star ring you were wearing, wrapped it in your fist, and put your fist in my hand. You pressed it down as hard as you could and you said, ‘Don’t ever forget me.’” Charita smiled. “I just want you to know,” I continued, “that ring is still sitting on my dresser.” In the quiet that followed, her eyes filled with tears, and we walked out of the washroom hand in hand.

When you teach in communities that society deems “disadvantaged,” it’s easy to think your job is to save the children. You see the streets and the neighborhood they call home. You see the years of hardship and pain and disappointment chiseled in their parents’ faces. It bears down on your shoulders and ravages your sleep. And yet, every morning, when you walk through the parking lot, you see joy pumping high on the swings. You hear laughter running down the hallways, squeezing in between friends at crowded lunchroom tables, sharing secrets in the line outside the washroom. Resiliency and struggle and joy sit side by side in every classroom. They are inseparable.

Watching the graduates walk across the stage, I realized that it was my students who had taught me how to mother—to be firm and gentle, strict and patient, challenging and understanding. Day in and day out, lunch count after lunch count, from my first classroom to my first charter school, hundreds of students taught me how to love, how to do what needs to be done without question.

And all these years later, it is still with me. I know it well. They have been good teachers.