(Editor’s Note: I do my best to follow the 70-20-10 rule for social media, in which only 10 percent is about some form of self-promotion. Today is one of those 10 percent days, so feel free to skip it if you feel I’ve already used up your willingness to tolerate me in promotion mode.
Also, if this or anything else I’ve ever done has helped you in any way, please feel free to wish my mom a happy birthday in the comments section. I’m sure it would be appreciated. -VFF)
Six months ago, I had to find a way to celebrate my dad’s birthday virtually, thanks in large part to the emerging pandemic and the fear associated with climbing case numbers in Wisconsin.
No way, I thought at the time, this is going to impact Mom’s birthday in November. I wasn’t optimistic enough to assume we’d have a cure by then, but I figured we’d have some sort of control over this thing, mitigating its spread or at least keeping the numbers low.
This is why I don’t get paid to prognosticate.
Numbers are skyrocketing, especially here in Wisconsin and ICU beds are packed to the gills. It also seems like the disease keeps getting closer and closer to us, with more people at Amy’s work testing positive and various family and friends either testing positive or locking down thanks to close contact.
The governor of our state is essentially telling people, “Stay the hell home as much as you can. And if you want to see your family for Thanksgiving, buy a Swanson’s Hungry Man turkey platter and hook up a Zoom call.”
The same 100 miles of I-41 separate me from my folks that did back in March, although it now seems so much longer and bleaker. I held on to Mom’s birthday card until this weekend, planning to sneak down there and throw it to her from a six-foot distance across a frozen backyard. Then, I got a text from Amy saying ANOTHER person she was in contact with tested positive.
I put the card in the mail the next day.
In what is a rather perverse irony, as much as I miss my mother and I know Mom wants to see me, the ability to persist through this giant crap taco known as 2020 was instilled deeply in me by my mother over a lifetime of love and lessons.
So, without further ado, here are four things my mother taught me in life that might be helpful to you, too, as you try to hang in there for as long as it takes:
You’re tougher than you think you are, so pick yourself up and get back to work: The kitchen table in every house I ever occupied served as an important place for the family. It was where we ate, sure, but it was where we had family discussions, where we paid the bills, where we did our homework, where we worked through important business and where we just talked out whatever needed to be talked out.
When I was in college, I would come home on a Friday and sit at the table and talk to my mom about whatever was kicking my ass that day, week or month. Mom would have the ironing board propped up and she’d be plowing through a massive pile of wrinkled laundry as she listened to whatever was happening.
She didn’t always understand exactly why I was so upset about something or why I thought the way I did about the problem at hand. (Truth be told, I was probably being way more of a drama queen than whatever I was complaining about required me to be…) Still, she listened and asked questions and poked back when I went too far into the “woe is me” realm of self-pity.
In each discussion, I found that Mom somehow helped me realize that the problem I brought wasn’t insurmountable or that the impossible task could be done if I’d just work through it. She always told me she loved me, but she never blew sunshine up my keester. She gave me practical advice, helped me see things in a way I hadn’t and set me back on the path I needed to walk.
In short, she told me, “You’re not beaten. Get up. You are tougher than you think you are.”
And she was always right. And still is.
Use your gifts to help others as often as possible: Each year of her 45-year teaching career, it seemed, Mom would go back to her school and there would be at least one new teacher who looked as lost as a kid who got separated from their parents during Black Friday at Walmart. In the “teams” and “partners” that the schools used over the years to group the faculty, Mom constantly found herself paired with someone that had about six months of student teaching under their belt and a terrified look on their face.
It would have been so easy for her to have a “Crash Davis grouse session” each time she got paired with a newbie and had to start all over again, explaining everything from the location of the teachers lounge through to how to instill classroom discipline among a throng of hormonally challenged pre-teens. Instead, she found a way to get the best out of these people, giving them ample access to her materials, her lessons and, above all else, her experience.
Mom had a gift for being there for other people in the exact way they need it. It’s something that I always wanted to do, but it’s still something I’ve yet to master. In watching Mom operate, I realized this is part skill, part art and part gift.
What I have been able to do, however, is mimic her giving spirit in this area. When the pandemic hit, I had friends and colleagues in a panic over what to do or how to handle assignments, so I stopped everything I was doing to throw together the Corona Hotline page for journalism instructors. The fact that other people were struggling and I had a line on how to fix those struggles meant it was my responsibility to do something to help them. It’s also the reason I volunteer to critique newspapers, visit classrooms, speak at conventions and more.
If I could help someone, especially because I’d been lucky enough to have a gift that made it possible, well, I better damned well do it. That’s how I was raised.
Don’t let others dictate the terms of your life: If others were allowed to set the parameters of how my mother’s life were to play out, she would have been a wonderful housewife who would have raised a kid in a duplex and maybe seen a few of our 50 states while visiting random family members during the summers.
Even that might have been a bit much. The legendary family story had Mom and Dad explaining to my mother’s parents that they wanted to get married, only to be told, “You can’t right now. We need to buy new furniture.”
Instead, she spent 45 years teaching literal generations of kids in Cudahy, Wisconsin, having earned a college education during the early years of her marriage to my father. She wanted a college degree, so she fought for it. She wanted to teach, so she made it happen.
She has visited Canada, Mexico, Germany, Greece, Italy, England, France, Singapore and probably a dozen other places I’m forgetting, traveling with family and friends to see some of the greatest things this world has ever produced. She always came home and shared her photos and stories with as many people as possible (see the point above) and reveling in the opportunities to learn and grow.
She also spent 53 years (and counting) married to my father, outlasting the furniture that once populated my grandparents’ living room.
It would have been so easy for this shy daughter of a police officer to acquiesce to the demands of other people, particularly growing up in a small town during a time in which norms dictated actions. However, she decided that she had one life and she was going to use it as she saw fit. She wasn’t about to let other people tell her “no” for no good reason.
Her courage served as a model for my life.
The first journalism teacher I ever had the displeasure of meeting told me that I would never be a journalist and I probably wouldn’t be much of anything unless I learned a trade so I could provide for a family.
My undergraduate academic adviser and it seemed like half the student media world told me it was a fool’s errand to try to bring the Daily Cardinal student newspaper back from the brink of insolvency.
My doctoral adviser told me I should look for a high-level research institution so I could do scholarship and avoid dealing with undergraduate writing classes.
In each case, and dozens more, people thought they knew better than I did about what I should or shouldn’t be doing. In each case, I would politely nod my head and then go out and do what I knew I should do. Like Mom, I wasn’t going to let the expectations of people who didn’t have to live my life determine how I would go about living it.
In the end, that sense of self-evaluation gave me the most wonderful life possible.
Love what you do, no matter what: For her entire teaching career, Mom taught grade school and middle school students in one school district. Some people would wonder why she hadn’t earned a master’s degree, “moved up” to the high school and taught there. At the very least, why not bounce around to several districts and jack up your earnings and value?
Others, including her own father, thought she should have climbed the ladder, becoming an assistant principal, then a principal and maybe even a superintendent.
I’m glad she didn’t do any of these things because she essentially taught me to love what I do, no matter what.
She easily could have gotten a master’s out of the 1,923 academic credits she seemed to amass over the decades of “continuation learning” that was required of her to keep her teaching certification current. She had more than enough skills, expertise and knowledge to teach any college class on history or English, let alone teaching introductory composition to freshmen in high school. She oversaw plays, musicals, events and more that would have befuddled half the administrators in her district, so the ability to run a school or a district was in no way beyond her capabilities.
However, that’s not what she loved doing. She loved to teach specific subjects to those students in that district. So she did it.
The pressure to move up and climb ladders is always all around all of us. A “better” job is always one that offers more money, higher levels of responsibility and bigger organizations, it seems. If there’s one thing Mom taught me that I try desperately to teach my students is that they shouldn’t chase other people’s dreams. If they want to be happy, they need to find what makes them happy and do that.
If I had the inclination, I’m sure I could be a chair or a dean or a provost or whatever. (Amy would likely love it, dragging me into Brooks Brothers and telling the guy behind the counter to “Fix this.”) I’ve had the chances to do those things, but I’ve begged out of those opportunities every time.
The same is true about moving to a “better” job or a “name” program. Every so often, a friend will tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, we’ve got an opening and you’d be great here…” I politely thank them, think about it and then stay right where I am, teaching kids the difference between “libel” and “liable.”
Being happy doing something you love is like a double rainbow: A beautiful thing that doesn’t come around all that often. Mom found it and stuck with it. In doing so, she showed me that I could (and should) seek the same kind of thing for myself.
That’s one gift I could never thank her for enough.
Happy birthday, Mom. I love you.