Lessons from a mother

mother-new-yorker

Since I began teaching in late September, I’ve had no time for a book and very little time for  magazine articles.

So when classes ended last week, I treated myself to a simple pleasure: a morning cup of joe, my recliner and The New Yorker. Flipping through the latest copy of the magazine, I was drawn to an article headlined “The Teacher.”

How could I resist?

Although I still have a final exam to give this week, I was feeling pretty good about how things went during my first stab at teaching an 11-week course in communications.

What insights might I gain from a first-person essay written by the son of a teacher?

At least three, it turns out.

The author, James Wood, opens with a scene from his mother’s funeral (she was 87), then segues to a discussion of how teaching ran in his family (his father also was a teacher and his mother’s grandfather was in charge of a small school in the Scottish countryside) and of what he learned about his mother after her death.

It’s clear-eyed prose, written with the precision of a New Yorker staff writer and book critic who also teaches literary criticism at Harvard. Drawing on childhood memories, Wood recalls the selfless sacrifice his “perpetually impoverished parents” made, each working multiple jobs, so that their three children could attend expensive boarding schools. An unnecessary sacrifice, he says, because a grammar school not far from town sent kids every year to Oxford and Cambridge.

But his mother was determined that her two boys and one daughter would have nothing but the finest private education, even if it meant she worked a Saturday job at a bookstore cash register in addition to teaching English at a girls’ high school.

My three takeaways?

1. A glimpse of a Northern European culture I know little of. Wood describes his mother as a hard worker from the lower middle class with a demeanor reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher.

In many ways, she was an almost stereotypically Scottish mother (the goyish version of the Jewish caricature)—passionate, narrow, judgmental, always aspiring. Her children were her artifacts, through which she created the drama of her own restless ambitions. These ambitions were moral and social. She wanted us to be morally successful, to get the best possible grades from the Great Examiner.

It’s uncanny that the description popped up at the same time Lori and I were laboring through a Netflix film about a young Scottish girl in the early 20th century, overcoming hardships in a household headed by a father whose disciplinarian ways spilled over into physical and emotional abuse. Not that I’m saying all Scots are this way…

2. A reminder of my own mother. Wood describes receiving an email from one of his mother’s former students, an accomplished poet who was one of her great success stories. He writes:

All sons adore their complicated mothers, in one way or another. But how powerful to encounter, from someone else, the beautifully uncomplicated statement “I adored her.”

As a young boy and continuing into my mid-20s, I thought the world of my mother. In my mind, she was the standout among six sisters in a family of migrant farmworkers — smart, funny, feisty, pretty, a hard worker, and utterly devoted to my two sisters and me. Deprived of the opportunity to attend even high school, she encouraged me at a young age to do well in school and go to college.

After Lori and I became parents, complications ensued and things were never the same. Differing views over religion and child-rearing were exacerbated by distance. Toward the end of life, she became more reclusive, less physically active, and focused on a variety of ailments, both real and imagined.

I loved her, of course, and I knew she adored me. But “complicated” hardly begins to explain our relationship.

3. An even greater appreciation of the teaching profession. Having just concluded a course that demanded of me far more time than I imagined, I am fully aware that one goes into this line of work not for the money, but to have an impact on others’ lives. Wood writes:

I had a sense that my mother was a good teacher, but I had no idea that she had been such an influential one, and in the very area I had chosen, and struggled to succeed in, often in the face of parental doubts. She had been not just a good teacher but a crucial literary encourager, and I had not been able to see this well enough…

Through the eyes of others and only after her death is Wood able to see the gift his mother gave — not to just her students but to him as well. I can only hope to have the same positive influence on the young men and women who come through my classroom.

Read Wood’s essay: “The Teacher”

Illustration: Gerard Dubois

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