I Am Motherwise; I Cannot Be Otherwise

May 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



  1. I know you to be motherwise, otherwise, I might not love you. Your words have, yet again, touched me. Mothers like yours, who inspired you to be the person you are and to share what she shared with you, allow me an opportunity to learn what being a mother means. As you know, I did not have a loving, caring, nurturing, wise, strong, mother. Instead, I had a selfish, abusive, cruel mother. Yet, somehow, I am able to know a mother’s love vicariously through your accounts and, for that, I thank you from the child within.

  2. My mother would be glad, but she would also tell us both that one of the most wonderful things about life is that we can choose who to be with–and for–our own children regardless of how we were raised.

    You would have loved my mom and she would have delighted in knowing you. W-OZ

  3. Evolving Teacher

    The past year in the MAT program has been filled with some of the most rewarding experiences in my life. I started out thinking I knew a lot about teaching, but quickly found I had a lot to learn and very little time to learn it in. One thing I did not expect was the closeness and camaraderie among me and my fellow MAT students. I think one of the reasons why we became so close was due to how both Roni Adams and William Greene set the tone with us in the very beginning. They allowed us to put ourselves out there and really get to know each other beyond a superficial level. This bond has been very important to my success and maintaining my sanity throughout the program. During the fall term, we would go out to dinner every Thursday after class. It was a fantastic time to decompress and work through our experiences together as a group. I am so grateful to have gone through the MAT program with my colleagues and for the richness they have added to my experience.

    I also feel very fortunate for getting my student teaching placements with both Jerry Hagstrom and Mindy Lilly. They are both very caring teachers who love what they do. Also, they are polar opposites with how they approach teaching which enabled me to have a very well-rounded student teaching experience. What I did not learn from Jerry, I learned from Mindy and vice versa. Another reason I feel very thankful for my placements is because one was with twelfth grade students and the other was with sixth grade students. It was nice to have the opportunity to experience both extreme ends of my authorization level. Overall, I am very happy with my MAT experience.

  4. And I’m delighted to have gotten to know you and enjoy the laughter that’s always part of the Spain Experience. Your CTs are fortunate as well. W-OZ

  5. Last week of School

    One would think that a student teacher would have many times throughout her experience where she felt she learned “the most.” I would have never imagined that my most reflective time would be during the last week of school. The last week has always been a fun week filled with turning in late work, watching movies and most importantly signing year books. The latter I quickly realized I was not ready to do as a teacher.

    When I was in school I prided myself on my ability to write witty remarks in everyone’s books, but as a teacher I was totally flabbergasted to have students come up to me in hopes of having me sign their yearbook. I suddenly realized, I wasn’t sure what to right. The first book was the hardest. I sat and looked through the pages of the book stalling because I had no idea what to write. Suddenly it hit me. Instead of the typical ” Thanks for being in my class and have a great summer” I decided to thank students for being themselves, told them I was proud of them and encouraged them to take pride in themselves as well. Then naturally I added the “loved having you in class and have a great summer” tid-bit. I always wrote truthfully in the books because I felt that was above all important, but I really decided I wanted students to feel worth. And this was my final simple way of trying to make this happen. ( I even had a student come back later in the day to say “that was the nicest thing anyone has ever written in my yearbook!)

    Although this was just a small almost insignificant moment in my student teaching career, it really helped me label and identify what I want to leave students with: self-worth. This was one thing that my parents and teachers gave me as I was growing and during my time teaching I have sadly found that there are very few students out there who are proud of who they are and believe that others find them valuable and care about them.I want to/ I am that teacher who cares, who sees the worth/value of each of her students and only seemed to come to understand that the last week of school.

  6. Have to say that although I enjoyed reading this, I really loved reading “The Mrs.”!!!!! It’s after ten and we just got home and now I want some chicken! W-OZ

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