Ten years ago yesterday I slept uncharacteristically late, awoke groggy, and stood in the shower under the hot water for a long time, waiting for the steam to revive me. The phone rang. I think that on some level I knew what the call was. I didn't get out of the shower to answer it and didn't check voice-mail when I got out of the shower. I just dressed and drove up to my parents' house to take my shift caring for my mother and helping the home hospice nurse. My father — who had tried to call me — met me at the door to tell me she had died, taking a last long, deep tidal breath in the morning sun as he drank his coffee and read the paper. She had just turned 55.
People say you don't really appreciate your parents until you get older and face the same challenges they faced. That's certainly true for me. As I've had kids, developed my career, and struggled with balancing work and family, I've come to appreciate much more what she did and what she taught me. Mom was stuck between generations — modern enough to be a career woman and an executive, old-fashioned enough to carry the role of child-rearer and homemaker at the same time. She did both without complaint and with a grace to which I still aspire.
My mother taught me that it was possible to be an ordinary person and do extraordinary things. She was inspiring precisely because she was imperfect. She was perpetually, maddeningly late — I was raised Catholic but didn't know what the first fifteen minutes of a mass looked like until I was 18. She was horrifically disorganized — she kept years of files and reports and papers and junk in the trunk of her car, transferring it from new car to new car over the years. She had ideas about necessary etiquette that were both odd and inexorable — when I was eight she made me write thank-you-notes to classmates who gave me Valentine's Day cards. And yet she achieved extraordinary things. She turned several schools around as a vice-principal and then a principal, inspiring her teachers and winning the respect (and not a little justified fear) of the kids. Everyone knew the sound of her long, loping, determined high-heeled stride down the halls, like a Ferragamoed terminator. Her schools won awards of excellence and improved test scores and achieved goals that teachers and parents previously thought unreasonable.
How did she do these things? She worked damned hard. She worked late into the night writing grant proposals for every dime available out there for her schools, and gave the proposals the spark that others lacked. She refused to accept that her schools, her teachers, and her kids were of limited potential, refused to concede that a working-class, predominantly English-as-a-second-language school could not be distinguished by any standard, not just the standard of its neighborhood. And she made people believe that she cared about them — even difficult kids, parents, and teachers about whom she'd complain at home. Her secret, I think, was that she did actually care about them all, warts and all, even when they made her life difficult — she radiated happy, slightly goofy old-fashioned sincerity that was impossible to dismiss. And so she was an extraordinarily effective diplomat, despite being a white, affluent, Stanford-educated woman running a working-class ESL school.
She did all that while showing those she loved that she could be as human, flawed, irritable, lazy, and judgmental as anyone else, and therefore taught me that recognizing those flaws in oneself is not an excuse not to try, not a license to wallow in flaws or give up the attempt to transcend them.
I miss her terribly. I'm pissed that my kids never got to meet her. I still learn from her every day.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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