By Ellen Bari
My mother was a lifelong educator. Unfortunately, her life was not as long, or as easy, as it should have been. By the age of 17, she was not only orphaned, but also had a license to teach Judaic studies. She taught girls only a few years younger than herself, including the mother of my close childhood friend. I found this shocking, because all of my own teachers at the time seemed so old (and probably were).
During my pre-school years, my mother continued to teach two afternoons a week and on Sunday mornings. She had a fur coat that she had reversed by a tailor, so that the exterior of the coat was an understated, tan gabardine and the lining was the softest mink any child could imagine. We had a ritual for the days she taught: after she put on the coat, I would crawl inside to experience that luxurious fur, and from inside this warm cocoon, give her a big farewell hug.
The summer I was six years old, my mother took a job on the educational staff of a sleep-away camp in the Catksills. She was the division head of my group and I was the youngest kid on the girls’ campus. I was overjoyed to have her around, but she asked me not to call her “mommy”. She did not want to upset the other little girls whose mothers were not there. How odd it felt to call my mother by her first name!
At around that time, my mother decided to get her master’s degree in education, which meant she was often busy on Sundays with teaching and her own schoolwork. I felt a little sad that she was missing out on all the Sunday fun, but she was never discontent. She was on a path and that seemed to make her happy.
Once I was settled in elementary school, my mother began to teach full-time in the NYC public school system. She was a Middle School Social Studies teacher, and loved both the subject and the students. She adored teaching and thought it was the best job in the universe because, in addition to doing something rewarding, she also got two months off each summer and tons of holidays throughout the year. She had that work-life balance thing worked out long before the term was coined!
She often described to my brother and me the new edicts handed down by the NYC Board of Ed. She set very high standards for her students. She was irked when all teachers of subjects other than English were instructed to disregard misspellings, misuses of grammar, etc. If there was a glint of a comprehensible point in a child’s work, that was good enough. She strongly disagreed with that approach, but went along with the flow, marveling at the absurdity of perpetuating a system that would not serve her students as they moved on.
Somewhere along the way, she befriended one of her colleagues and invited her to join us for holiday meals. As I got a little older, it struck me that this woman spoke about the school with such venom, it seemed impossible that the two of them were working for the same institution. When I questioned my mother about this, she said that no matter how much you love what you do, there will always be aspects of any job that you just don’t like. Whether it’s the paperwork, administrative stuff, politics or personalities, it’s crucial to focus on the things you do love and recognize that any package contains imperfection. Lesson learned!
My mother was incredibly well-organized and always planned ahead to minimize being overwhelmed by the reality of her existence- that ‘a mother’s work is never done.’ She had her shopping schedule down pat, and knew what she had to prepare on Thursday nights in order to work a full week and still have an elaborate family meal on the table every Friday evening. She was a very early health club adapter, joining Jack LaLanne with a life membership when he was still pretty much ‘the only kid on the block.’ She would come home from the club on Sunday afternoon beet red in the face, having relaxed in the sauna in preparation for a new week.
When my mother was in her mid-fifties, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Dedicated as she was to her students and job, she scheduled her treatments in such as way that she could rest on the weekends and never miss a day of class. Somewhere in between her first bout with the disease and her death, she took a sabbatical and with my dad, finally visited the places she had been teaching about for over twenty years. It was a glorious experience and she was excited to be able to bring back artifacts from each place to share with her students.
My mother passed away at age 60, the year she could have retired. She had plans for all kinds of continuing education projects and travel. By being frugal and smart, she had managed to leave a respectable amount of change for each of us. How unfair that she never got to enjoy a well-deserved retirement, after a lifetime of true commitment and dedication to education.
How lucky for me, though, that she taught me more about work life and the realities of being a working mother than I could have figured out on my own in a whole lifetime.
Momasphere’s My Mother’s Work Project is a national campaign to collect stories about OUR working mothers, in honor of Mother’s Day, and to honor our mothers. Whether your mother’s work was inside the home, or out, our mother’s work ethics and experiences have clearly helped shape who we are. Please submit your 200-600 word story to ellen@Momasphere.com with My Mother’s Work Project in the Subject Line, and the story in the body of the email. While we appreciate every single submission, we may not be able to publish everyone’s story. For more information about how to participate in this project, CLICK HERE.
Ellen Bari, a freelance writer and creative consultant, is the co-founder of Momasphere, which creates innovative programs for moms in and out of the workplace. Ms. Bari has developed award-winning multimedia, exhibits and programs for children and adults for clients including Sesame Workshop, US Holocaust Memorial Museum and American Express. Jumping Jenny, her upcoming picture book (Lerner Publishing) will be out next spring.