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Column: I lead a college, but my mom schooled me

My mom was named Dorothy, and she loved to read, though she thought herself stupid. She passed away this year —- a death that was a blessing after her three-year struggle with Alzheimer's — but not before I got a quiet education from this woman who never finished high school. She was a child of the Depression, the Second World War, and of Brooklyn. Mom was the youngest of a textbook Irish family — lots of drink, lots of drama, testy relationships. Her mother died when Mom was a young teenager and she was raised by her older sisters with a pretty lax supervision. Not too surprising, Mom dropped out of school to go to work — a menial job at the Cotton Exchange on Wall Street. She married her childhood sweetheart when he returned from the war — now a Navy vet.

Three kids, life in the suburbs of Long Island, Dad a New York City policeman, and Mom the prototypical housewife and homemaker of the 1950s. Her life's instability morphed into the stability of schools, kids' organizations, church, dinner on the table at 6 p.m. sharp, homework and just a little television on some nights — never before dinner, though.

The challenges of happiness came and went. Dad passed away suddenly of a heart attack at 50 years old. His pension and some Social Security let her put together a new life and to live comfortably. Her Depression-era upbringing had molded her into one of the most frugal people you could find.

Because she had dropped out of school, Mom was convinced that she was wasn't very bright. But she was. She handled the family finances, and wrote wonderful, long letters with complete sentences, correct paragraphing and nearly flawless punctuation. She read a great deal and made regular visits to the theater.

At that same time, I was recently married to Pat, and we had moved to Tallahassee so that I could go to graduate school. Our life was pretty well organized around my needs as a graduate student, with Pat working well below her "pay grade" and me working part time as a graduate assistant. Every Sunday, Mom would call to check on my progress — long-distance was still a luxury so we were at the ready when the phone rang. Although Mom had no idea of how graduate education was organized, nor how one progressed through to a dissertation, she dutifully asked questions and gave her loving encouragement. I eventually secured the prize after five years — a Ph.D.

But the lessons of life are always better than those of the classroom. About six months after I had completed graduate school, an envelope arrived in the mail. It was a manila envelope from Mom, obviously containing a document or letter that couldn't be folded. Mom, who was 56 at the time, was notorious for sending old photos or other keepsake items from my childhood — but this was very different.

The envelope contained a Xerox copy of a GED diploma, the recipient being Dorothy Law. She had enrolled at the local high school at some point after Dad's death, but was too embarrassed to tell anyone.

Never once in those years of phone calls to encourage me did she seek some reassurance or encouragement for her academic quest. Only after she reached the goal was she willing to share her dream. How humbling for me — everyone in my life worked to make my path a little smoother or straighter and I thought I was really challenged. Yet the person who probably had the most doubts, who had the least confidence, who could have benefitted most from loving encouragement had stayed the course on her own and had reached her goal in quiet triumph. Who really should be the role model for others?

The story has a postscript. A few years later when Mom was visiting us, I noticed her pocketbook sitting on a chair in the corner. In the pocketbook was a copy of Crime and Punishment, the challenging classic of Russian literature. When I pressed Mom on how she had come to select that work for "casual" reading, she told me that she never felt the diploma she earned was the same as a "real" high school diploma, so she had gone back to the local high school and had secured the honors 12th grade reading list! She was dutifully working her way through the list to assuage her feelings of having taken a shortcut to her goal.

I'm glad she's resting in peace, now. Teaching life's lessons is hard work.

Bill Law is president of St. Petersburg College. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: I lead a college, but my mom schooled me 05/11/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 10, 2013 3:27pm]
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