It is five minutes past the first bell, and a timid freshman peeks with her usual hesitancy into my classroom. Her tears show that she’s upset, although I do not need so see them to know it. Lilah usually does not conceal her feelings. She is also readily trusting, without protective barriers that make her wary about telling me the cause of her crying. I stand by; I am beside her. I am not immediately convinced that I’m doing enough, but I am committed to remaining present to her.
It is an approach that I learned from my mom, a former teacher who has a Marian way of observance and nearness. I recall the many students who pulled up a chair to her desk in their distress. As my mother did, I do this for Lilah, to remind her that she is brave.
I absorbed much from my mother. Her support is determinedly given in all things, but I’ve never felt it more than the past year. By chance, she retired unexpectedly, so her final year as a teacher ended just as my first one began. For her, school’s sudden end because of a surging virus meant missed goodbyes to colleagues and students. Meanwhile, I began teaching even though I wasn’t sure I would ever be fully prepared to start. These simultaneous shifts rushed us into uncertain circumstances. With no time between when I entered into a role that had ended for her, I often turned to her words about teaching to manage the months that were ahead.
I first heard her words as a child during the mornings and afternoons we commuted together. The three schools that I attended for kindergarten through 12th grade surround a single intersection, each on a different spoke of the roads that led to it. She was a three-decade constant at the middle school, and I had her for physical education in sixth grade.
Being together helped me understand my mom’s experiences, most of which resisted easy description. She cared especially for the loneliest kids, which reminds me now to pay attention to the sophomore who works by himself too many days in a row. Mom noticed the distractions and lows of girlhood—those things that matter a lot at thirteen, but become laughable with age—with deliberate gentleness, even as she sometimes privately revealed her impatience. When students choose to confide in me, I try to take it as seriously as they do, just as my mother did.
It is simple and true to say that I have never doubted my mother. Her will is firm and she is unfailingly sincere. You get her unfiltered, giving you the very essence of how things really are, which in teaching can mean triumphs that nearly overwhelm you and unthinkable tests.
Even so, nothing about teaching seemed to frustrate her. She was completely amused by absurdly complex, unpredictable, and profound teenage minds—like the ones in my classroom, who ask me daring and insistent questions about why the world hurts and needs in the ways that it does. Or the student who tries to reason out of a consequence with convincing humor, or those who reveal to each other the disappointments of history but do not excuse them as just some commonplace ignorance of a past time.
My mother relentlessly looks for this goodness in each student, and then persuades them that they possess it. The encouragement that she shares with me has been a crucial buoyant force, a lift that I am intent on giving all those I teach.
More recently, this assurance has been a part of the maternal embrace that I have received from my students’ moms. Their reminders of worth relieved a letdown conscience that, with unsparing self-scrutiny, doubted if I was and did enough in every way that counts, even as I tried it all seemingly, all at once, then undeterred, all over.
In unsettled moments, when I feel embarrassed in my efforts to serve kids who are worthy of more than mere competence, these moms gave me back footing after missteps and made me informed about the subtleties of their children. They are tender and tolerant in the words they share, which have been sustaining to me in the same way that my own mother’s have been. It is their unprompted and frequent check-ins that encourage me, as the one who emailed me about her daughter, Lilah: “You inspire her. Thank you for giving her a chance.”
Learn more about ACE Teaching Fellows at ace.nd.edu/teach.