My mother died on a brutally cold day in January in 1988. She was a grade school teacher for forty-one years, starting at a small country school when she was eighteen and retiring at the age of fifty-nine, the age I am now.
Nights, when I was a small boy on our farm, I sat at the kitchen table with her, and I did my homework while she graded papers and made lesson plans for her third-grade class. She used a red marking pencil and wrote in her lovely hand. When I was older, she sometimes gave me the key to an exam and let me check the answers her students had missed. She often let me read the scores to her so she could record them in her grade book. It occurs to me now that she must have gone back later, after I was asleep, to make sure I’d read the grades properly, to make sure she’d recorded the right marks for the right students. She let me do these things because she knew they gave me pleasure. I’m not sure whether she ever knew that they also gave me a vision of what might be possible for my life. Because she took the time to indulge me, she made me want to be a teacher.
Depending on the time of year, my father might be figuring crop yields, studying farm equipment manuals or seed catalogs. He might be out to the farrowing house if a sow was about to deliver, or in the barn if he had a sick calf. Sooner or later, he’d come to us, showing my mother how many bushels to the acre our beans or corn or wheat had made, asking her opinion of a certain variety of pole bean for the garden come summer, or needing her help with the livestock.
My mother wasn’t just a teacher; she was a farm wife, too, and I’ve come here now to praise her and all the other women like her who somehow manage families, and work alongside their husbands on their farms, and keep impeccable houses, while teaching all day and catching up on schoolwork at night. My mother drove grain trucks, milked cows, crawled under combines to grease fittings. She prepared reading lessons, did artwork to use on her school bulletin boards, stayed up long after I’d gone to bed to make sure she was ready for her students the next day.
She taught me that teaching was work, all done for the sake of someone else. She taught me to love that work as well as the necessity of sacrifice. She taught me how to give what would benefit the whole without any expectation of receiving anything in return.
When she died at age 77, more than one person at her visitation—men and women whose hair had gone to gray, whose skin had wrinkled, who had lived past the time of their school days—took my hand and said to me, “Your mother was my teacher.”
What sweeter words, for she was my teacher, too. Such a life she gave me, and countless others as well. No one moves through this life without the influence of those who teach us, who put in the long hours, the hard work, while meeting the obligations of their day-to-day living, who take the time to love what they do, to care enough to make a difference even if they never know down the sweep of years what they may have helped make possible.
My mother was my teacher. I feel her spirit moving with me every day.