It’s 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning. The house is quiet and I find myself in front of the glowing computer screen with a tall glass of orange juice. My Inbox is bursting with student assignments and I’m determined to make a dent in the virtual stack. Before I start tapping on the keyboard, I pause for a moment of peace and reflection. I look out the window. The day is just beginning and I want to pick up the phone and call my mother. I want to tell her about my students, read her a few paragraphs from their essays, ask questions, commiserate and laugh. But I am unable to make the call.
My mother surrendered to lung cancer at 49 years old, just a few weeks shy of her 50th birthday, shortly after I graduated from college in June 1990. On her gravestone the inscription reads “A lifetime of giving to others.” Her funeral included a long line of students, faculty and administrators who came to say goodbye and celebrate her life. My mother began her teaching career at Saint Nicholas School in 1960. She went on to teach in the Chicago Public Schools for many years and had a phenomenal relationship with her students. She was known as the tough love teacher. She didn’t flinch when her car tires were stolen in the school parking lot and often gave students money for lunch. She taught her last class at the Illinois State Youth Center in Warrenville and her students brought me a booklet filled with pictures, essays and notes of encouragement — sweet memories of my mother, our teacher.
My mother was born on the south side of Chicago; her family’s roots were from Ireland. Her voice was loud and crisp. She would tell me, “Stand up for what you believe in. Fight like you mean it. Don’t take any guff.” She subscribed to the American feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s. My mother followed activists like Gloria Steinem and would constantly engage in intellectual gymnastics, stretching her knowledge base in computer science, finance and literature. As an only child, the two of us had daily discussions about women’s equality. She would pepper me with rhetorical questions about how women are viewed in the world. My mother embodied positive motivation and a high standard for excellence. She inspired me to pursue a career in higher education.
My philosophy of education is steeped in investigating life experiences. My framework stems from Lev Vygotsky’s concept of inner speech. I take an ethnographic approach in collecting students’ stories. Taking time to embrace student stories will enrich our curriculum and improve our sense of community.
Students’ voices can be heard everywhere if we listen. I often assign journal response writing in my online classes. Students are asked to describe their feelings about reading a variety of text. My students frequently write about their families as part of their response. They share intimate details about their fathers, mothers, siblings and grandparents.
Although we are separated by a computer screen, we are connected by our life experience. These are their stories, our stories. It was no coincidence that the first assignment I opened today was a student writing about her father dying. And I immediately relate to her loss.
My student writes:
Twenty-three days before my birthday, I lost my Dad at the age of 54 years. I never knew I’d lose my Dad at such a young age. I felt as if my heart stopped beating and my life stopped. Half of me faded away; here I sat in disbelief. I had to face the truth and realize I would never see my Dad again.
My Dad stood six foot tall, with brown skin and dark brown eyes. His hair was salt and pepper curly. His presence was felt in any room he entered. My father was a well-known man, he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. My Dad was a man of integrity, courage, understanding and patience. On March 3rd, 1998 my Dad passed away. His health started to decline prior to 1998. Within the time frame of three years, my Dad had three strokes. The first stroke was mild, the second one severe and the third one took his life. My Dad was a chain smoker. His smoke of choice was KOOL 100’S. If I knew back then what I know now, I would’ve convinced my Dad to stop smoking to have him around longer.
My Dad played a very instrumental role in my life. As the leader and provider for my family, my Dad assured us he would provide shelter, food and clothing, along with survival skills for life. He helped develop my morals and values, which has transferred into my adulthood.