Life Lessons from My Mother
I am a Caucasian female who was born in 1961 and raised in the South. I have lived in my small home town in North Carolina for most of my life, except the time I spent earning my Journalism degree at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1984 and later working in the Research Triangle Park, NC for 20 years.
About 12 years ago, I moved back to my little conservative Southern town, not long after my Mother had passed away from heart disease. Coming back, to my historic town reminded me of all the wonderful life lessons that my Mother taught me. They were gifts. Gifts I didn’t appreciate until I had matured, and not without the influence of her generous insight.
I was in elementary school during desegregation so my memories are through the eyes of a child and are rather scarce except for two events. For me, these events were formative.
It was the late 1960’s to early 1970s, right before desegregation in North Carolina. I was just about to turn 10 years old. Before the students were racially integrated, our teachers were. It was autumn, the new school year had just begun, and I was entering third grade. I remember walking into my classroom at Pine Valley Elementary. The first thing that I noticed was that my teacher, Mrs. McCrimmon, was black.
I remember that the kids around me were wide-eyed, gathering around one desk or another and fervently whispering their concerns. “Is this the teacher?” and “Do we have a black teacher?” several of them whispered.
“Just wait until my momma and daddy find out we have a black teacher!” one kid said. "They are going to go crazy!” another kid snarled.
"My Dad is going to call the principle!” announced a red-headed boy sitting next to me.
I felt like that one kid who didn’t know an important secret that all the other kids shared! The day passed without incident, but for me, with my confusion and feelings of isolation, the day was etched into my memory.
That afternoon, I raced home from school on my bike. I flew up the driveway and tossed my bike down. I tore through the house looking for Mom. To this day, I can remember exactly where I stood when I found her in the hallway. I remember my heart was still racing when I said breathlessly, "Mom! Guess what! Our teacher is black!”
I paused to catch my breath and waited to see her reaction. My Mother was my sounding board and when I bounced something off of her, what usually bounced back was something of a life lesson.
My mother looked down at me. Her first expression was one of puzzlement, then she smiled and tilted her head toward her shoulder. It was what she usually did when she was studying me.
“So what?” Mom said, gently. I was sure that she hadn’t heard me correctly, so I said, "... at school, Mom... the other kids said it was really bad and that everyone’s parents were going to call the principal."
“So what’s the big deal?” Mom said, probing me with her eyes.
The ball was back in my court, so I searched in vain to find a logical answer to her question. I was confused, and I think this was when that I knew for sure that my parents were different… that I was different and, that I was proud to be so.
I was flustered and Mom knew it. Nonetheless, she smiled at me and turned to go about her business, leaving me to work it out. She liked letting me work answers out on my own. It was a real “light bulb” moment for me. That day, with her sparsely-worded response to my dilemma, my mother had taught me volumes.
The most memorable life lessons are those that are practiced and enforced over and over again and my Mother did not waiver.
The next year, I was in 4th grade. This was the year that the students at my elementary school were desegregated and from this experience too, I was taught another life lesson from Mom.
I still was one of those kids who rode my bike to school, and a couple of days before our school was desegregated, my mother got a call from the Principal’s office. They told her that because of the “civic unrest”, all students must be driven to school by their parents until further notice.
I was too young to understand the significance of this historic moment, but once again, my mother, in just a few words, taught me truths.
As my Mom turned onto the long, narrow road that led to my school, I noticed that there were lots of white people, both parents and kids, standing along the roadside and shouting toward the cars in their slow, steady progression toward the school. I remember it vividly.
There were only a few feet between our car and the line of angry, hate-filled people, jabbing their crude homemade signs into the air. I knew that the adults were other kids’ parents, because I recognized some of my classmates marching and yelling right along with them!
Suddenly, I saw a girl I knew standing with her mother, who was one of the most animated sign wielders.
“Look Mom!” I said excitedly, at first oblivious to the implications, “That’s Paula!”
My mother didn’t say anything, so, I followed it up with, “she’s in my class. She’s my friend!”
By this time, traffic to the school had come to a complete stop.
My mother took her eyes from the road, glanced at Paula and her sign-wielding mother. She turned to look at me. It was a look I would eventually come recognize as sorrow mixed with determination. Her look, while one I would never forget, was not nearly as inspirational as what she said.
“I didn’t know you had a friend named Paula,” my Mom said, smiling sweetly. “But”, she said, “Paula is racist. She’s not your friend. Not anymore.”
And, so began my enlightenment. My Mother, who despite her small-town southern upbringing, wanted me to be different. I grew to eventually understand that being racist was a learned perspective. That it was, and still is, passed from one generation to the next. I was very young when I knew them, but neither set of my grandparents were avid racists, but as products of the early 1900s, they were not without prejudices.
So, I have often wondered whether someone, somewhere had enlightened my Mom and Dad. Had someone taught them, made them different from the parents of other kids my age? I still wonder.
How does change-for-the-better happen? I think that for us, as human beings, the cultural landscape can be changed for the better or for the worse by our parents. Mothers, like mine, who are wise, willing and courageous enough to fight for a belief their own mothers did not help them learn.
The best life lesson my Mother taught to me was not simply to circumvent toxic traditions like racism and prejudice… but to question myself, to fight prejudice and hatred and to live an exemplary life. She taught me to be just as outspoken as she had been, and to pass along these beliefs to generations long after she was gone.
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