I Am Motherwise; I Cannot Be OtherwiseMay 8, 2011
There is an alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmuted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness. • Pearl S. Buck
It is Mother’s Day, my first Mother’s Day without a mother to call, to get a card for, to send something special that would tell her that I see her as a human being, know her as a person, hope to make her happy because I understand how impossible it is to feel that your work as a mother is ever enough. But she is gone and instead I celebrate the wisdom that permeates my being.
I was looking for examples of my educational philosophy to include with materials for Humanizing Instruction, a course I’ll be teaching this summer, and I came across a speech I gave several years ago for a local alternative school’s graduation. As I reread what I shared, I thought of the words of Pericles who wrote, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” My mother’s wisdom is woven into the fabric of my teaching life:
Congratulations. I am honored to be part of this celebration. I was also daunted when I tried to think of what to say to you. As most of you can imagine, no matter how many times you speak in front of an audience, it’s challenging. And on an important occasion like this it’s particularly challenging. What can I say that won’t sound like a bad Hallmark card or a particularly cheesy self-help book? What wisdom can I share that will be memorable in any way?
At first, I was going to speak about the importance of alternatives in education. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t know from our own lives how important it is for schools to value each human being for whom she or he is. But I can’t bring myself to talk about systems today, regardless of how meaningful they are. Instead, I hope to talk with you about things that matter as you continue on into the rest of your life.
I decided to ask other people what they would say if they were speaking here today. I asked my relatives, my students, other teachers, my son, my husband, and even a couple of people in the checkout line at Target. Some of them told me not to worry, that no one ever remembers what a speaker says anyway. Others offered me the kind of heartfelt sentiments I believe in, things that have been said so many times before to so many people celebrating important milestones that they sound like clichés. But there is truth in clichés, and Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that what is not spoken from the heart will not reach the heart of the listener. These words are from my heart, and I hope they will reach yours.
I’d like to share a story about my mother. She’s 85, and still working as a musician. She’s also filled with wisdom that comes from closely observing the world and thinking about what she sees, hears, and experiences. And that’s my first piece of wisdom. The world is vastly interesting for anyone who really sees it. Don’t be bored. Be interested.
But back to what my mother told me: One of her friends called her in tears, distraught because someone had stolen her purse and was using her driver’s license and her credit cards and even her Social Security number. This friend kept crying to my mother that her identity had been stolen, and this is where my mother shared something with me that I cannot forget.
She said, “Even while I comforted her and told her she would get past this, I couldn’t help thinking that we get very upset about this kind of identity theft, and yet every day we allow other people to steal our personal identity when we compromise who we are or what we want to do or be because of someone else’s expectations or because we’re afraid that they won’t like us or we’re worried that what we want to do will seem silly or impossible to accomplish.” My mother was speaking from her heart. It isn’t easy to grow old in our society, particularly if you are still active and still talented, and still want to share your talents with the world.
There are times when it seems that you are always too something: too young or too old or too inexperienced or too unrealistic about your hopes and dreams for your life. And here’s my second piece of wisdom: Life actually is tough sometimes if you aren’t independently wealthy and you have to pay everyday bills, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up your vision of who you are and what you can be.
I am a poet and an artist and I don’t make money doing those things, but I love them, and they allow me to love my life and stay interested in my own possibilities even though I also have to work for a living. It’s actually not true that any of us can be anything we want to be—the NBA is unlikely to have wanted me no matter how much I wanted it—but each of us can be far more than we imagine if we accept that some of the things we choose to do will feed our souls, but not our pocketbooks. Despite the fact that Mark Twain said that be yourself is the worst advice you can give some people, that’s my third piece of wisdom: Be yourself. Be your best self. Believe in—and live—your possibilities.
Here is my fourth piece of wisdom. It is more challenging to live in personal truth than you might think. No matter how old you are, there are likely to be well-meaning people who think that they know better than you do what you ought to be doing with your life. The late undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau followed his dreams throughout his life, and often faced difficulties. He was asked why he persisted despite them, and he replied: “If we were logical, the future would be bleak indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work.”
Here’s what I believe to be the true alternative message needed in every student’s education and it’s my final piece of wisdom: You matter. What you do matters. How you live your life matters. Your small acts of kindness and goodness and truth and beauty and hopefulness can change the world. These are all clichés. But they are all true.
If we have lived ordinary lives, it’s difficult to imagine that our passing will matter to anyone except those who knew and loved us, but you do not have to have known my mother to know who she was. Her wisdom lives in me and her influence lives on in every classroom I create. I am motherwise and I cannot be otherwise.
What is your wisdom?
There is a wisdom of the head, and…a wisdom of the heart. • Charles Dickens