My Mother, Sandra Johnson Kerley, The Teacher Who Made Me The Teacher I Am

Mother’s Day is coming up, so I am thinking of my Mom a lot these days.  It doesn’t really matter about Mother’s Day nearly being here actually; I think about her all the time anyway.

My Mom died three years ago at 62 years old.  She was a beautiful, kind, intensely creative person.  She was my first and most influential teacher and for that I am so, so lucky.  She, more than any other person, event or experience, made me who I am today.  That is an amazing thing to say (and for her part she would have loved hearing it and absolutely never believed it) because at nearly 44 years old I have been a fair number of places, experienced a pretty wide range of things and met more than a few people.  What I said about my Mom’s importance is true though, and I see it more every day.  I see it in the way I relate to people, and in how I experience the world.  I teach people of all ages and levels, including quite a lot of children.  My work with them is where I see my Mom’s impact on me the most.

My Mom stayed home with me and my sister.  As a kid I was utterly unimpressed by that, most especially as a preteen and then as a teenager.  I remember one day when I was about 13 telling her that when I grew up I was going to be someone important, not like her.  “What I do is important” she said.  “Yeah,” I said “but I’m going to be in the encyclopedia.”

It sounds like an innocuous enough comment, but that is because the written word does not convey my snideness.  I really regret undervaluing my Mom that way, particularly because the moment I am describing here was not the only time I did it.  These days being in the encyclopedia is no big deal; pretty much anybody can make it into Wikipedia.  Back then though we bought our encyclopedias in installments and not every family had one in their home (We did).  If a kid’s family did that was pretty much a sign his/her parents, in addition to being fortunate enough to be able to afford one, really wanted him/her to grow up to be a well-educated “successful” person.  I am guessing that sort of public esteem for the encyclopedia is where I got the idea to say such a thing.

When I tell people this story they find it amusing.  I do not.  For me it embodies all the arrogance (and there was plenty of it, unfortunately) I carried around as a kid, and for a long time after that.  I’ve read Lacan, Freud and Jung on the stages of consciousness and maturity and I’ve talked to mothers and specialists of Human Development.  They all tell me my comment was just normal kid behavior and that being treated like an idiot comes with the territory of parenthood and especially with being the mother of a 13 year old girl.  I see my students treat their mothers that way, and have for over 20 years.  If my mother even remembered that comment as the years passed she would no doubt have found it adorable.  I do not.  I remember that comment as if I had made it only yesterday.  And I can’t say that for a lot of comments.  I haven’t been nice to all the people in my life all the time and some bad or at least unfortunate things have happened to me over the years.  There’s not much I regret though, or that I would do differently.  That one moment with my Mom though, I would change if I could.

When I got my Ph.D., and I don’t mean just the day I got it, I mean ever after I got it, my Mom would (and here I am being absolutely, 100% serious and literal) stop people on the street and tell them “My daughter is a doctor”.  Imagine.  Unbelievable, right?  But that’s how she was, how much she loved me and how incredibly proud she was of me.  Right up to the end.  And way before I ever got the doctorate.  I mean all my life.  The Ph.D. was just another of her pretexts to tell people how great I was.  For her I think my Ph.D. was as much hers as it was mine.  And I mean it sincerely when I say she deserved it more.

I remember one morning in my first year of teaching, high school at that point, we were talking and I had to rush off the phone to make it to my French class.  As we hung up she said “You go teach those kids French”.  It was an offhand comment, really just akin to a goodbye.  But I still think of it all the time when I am on my way to teach, especially my little kid students.  I think how proud she would be to know that I teach so many little kids now, that I’m good at it, and that my work with them means so much to me.

These days I think that really just about the most important (and powerful) thing you can do is to touch and help form the life of a kid.  My Mom would laugh and then smile to hear me say that.  And then she would tell it (proudly, again and again) to everyone she knew.  And then to everyone she didn’t too.

I am lucky to have had my Mom, and for as long as I did.  I am so blessed to have had her as a mother, as a mentor, as a friend.  She made me who I am.  And thank God, so infinitely much more bearable than I would have been without her.

Happy Mother’s Day to all you Moms; please know how important you are in your children’s lives.  If they never get around to telling you, please hear it from me and know it really comes from them.

I love you Mom.  Thank you for all the things I know to thank you for.  And thanks for all the rest too.

Below I have inserted a video my sister made in 2007 for our first Mother’s Day without my Mom.

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