Well, I’m getting June’s Heart of the Month in just under the wire, but I have a good reason: today my mother, MaryAnne Crowley, officially completed 34 years and nine months of a truly inspiring teaching career. She did a few other things in the meantime, such as gave birth to and stayed home with three children, moved house 5 times, supported my dad as he went to law school at night to pursue his own professional dream of becoming a lawyer, got a Masters Degree as a Reading Specialist, learned to play golf, travelled to more countries than I can think of, and compiled a truly spectacular shoe collection, especially for someone with size 5 feet. The best line at her retirement party was spoken by one of the younger teachers my mother has mentored: “You may have tiny feet, but you have very big shoes to fill.”
The retirement party is what I wanted to tell you all about, because it was the perfect combination of personal, professional, and, as these things often are, slightly absurd. It was on June 4th at a lovely inn, and two other teachers and a school custodian were honored that evening as well. There were lots of women there because most teachers are women. And for some reason on this particular night, a lot of them were short. Also, the custodian was shorter than my mother, who is 5’3”. My 6-foot tall brother said to me at one point, “Doesn’t it seem like there are a lot of short people here? I feel like Gulliver. I’m afraid to fall down.”
Later in the evening, I needed to use the ladies’ room and it was up a narrow flight of stairs, and of course, there was a long line, because everyone was waiting for the one ladies’ room. The men’s room was empty, and I thought, “Oh come on. There are about 3 men at this party. Who is going to care?!” I said this out loud and one of the teachers said, “Go for it! I’ll watch the door and then use it after you.” So I did, and who did I hear on the stairs about 3 minutes later, telling people to use the men’s room? My mother. “There’s someone in there,” the ladies told her, and when I walked out, we burst out laughing. “It’s my daughter,” she laughed, “I trained her well!”
One of the teachers being honored was my mom’s gorgeous, elegant friend Nancy, an art teacher who has always seen the best in all her students and managed to help them express it in incredibly creative ways. Also there was my mother’s best friend Susan, who is the Ethel to my mother’s Lucy. That’s what they call each other, and in 20 years, they will be the two old ladies you see making their way through the sale racks at Lord and Taylor. My mother and Susan started their teaching careers together 34 years ago in Ossining, NY, and my mother and Nancy finished their careers together in Woodcliffe Lake, NJ. That my mother shared both of these moments with these two phenomenal, strong, funny, loving and classy women almost says more about her than any accomplishment in her teaching career, though those are numerous as well.
As I listened to the younger teachers talk about my mom and her colleagues, one thought kept going through my head: “It’s the women who know.” It’s the women who know each other, they know who is dealing with illnesses, divorce, problems with their kids, the losses of spouses and parents; they listen to the symptoms and recommend doctors; they discuss; they know and share the joy of weddings, babies, grandchildren. They know the conflict and unshakeable importance of families. It’s the women who teach the children, and it’s the women who hold each other up every day as they do this work that is valuable beyond measure.
My mother wears red every day during December. One of her colleagues said, “And if don’t see her in red one day, and think you have caught her out, she will tell you that it’s in a place you can’t see. And then she’ll pull you to the side and show you!” It’s the women who pay attention, to the silly things and to the important things.
Here’s one very important thing:
Despite 35 years of teaching experience, my mother never once took her work for granted. She agonized about every new skill she had to learn—putting lesson plans on the computer, making a class web site, collaborating with special ed teachers—and she got nervous before every observation. Sometimes, listening to her on the phone, I used to roll my eyes and think, “What could they possibly do to you? You’re the best teacher they have, and you’ve been doing this forever, for God’s sake.” But she didn’t think of it that way. She cared about doing her best until the last day. And everyone there knew it.
Here is an excerpt from something my mother read at the retirement party:
“I’d like to share a quotation with you, because I feel it describes what I have always tried to do in my work with teachers, parents, and colleagues: ‘Integrate what you believe in every single area of your life. Take your heart to work and ask the most and the best of everyone else, too.’
To young teachers, and to anyone continuing to do this very important work, never doubt that what you do, every single day, one student at a time, matters more than you can ever know. Take your heart to work, and remember that teaching is more than a job; it is a vocation, and one I have been proud and honored to call my own.”
So, my friends, please join me in congratulating my mother, MaryAnne on her 35 years of teaching. And Ma’am, I’m more proud than I can say.
Today’s poem is by Taylor Mali, a poet and someone incredibly passionate about teaching. His poem, which is a performance poem (you really need to watch it), is called “What Teachers Make.”
What Teachers Make, or
Objection Overruled, or
If things don’t work out, you can always go to law school
By Taylor Mali
He says the problem with teachers is, “What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?”
He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true what they say about
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the other dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite company.
“I mean, you¹re a teacher, Taylor,” he says.
“Be honest. What do you make?”
And I wish he hadn’t done that
(asked me to be honest)
because, you see, I have a policy
about honesty and ass-kicking:
if you ask for it, I have to let you have it.
You want to know what I make?
I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional medal of honor
and an A- feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time with anything less than your very best.
I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.
Why won’t I let you get a drink of water?
Because you’re not thirsty, you’re bored, that’s why.
I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something Billy said today.
Billy said, “Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?”
And it was the noblest act of courage I have ever seen.
I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.
You want to know what I make?
I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write, write, write.
And then I make them read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math.
And hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you got this (brains)
then you follow this (heart) and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this (the finger).
Let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
I make a goddamn difference! What about you?