My 9th graders are writing a piece called “You Are Unique” and then applying the words to their thumbprint. So in an effort to write with my students, and provide a model for them, I crafted my own unique piece. It started out well, and then became about telling a story that I hadn’t told to many people. It is a free-write after all. So without further ado…
I am unique because the path to who I am today has only been walked by me. All the twists and turns along that path have been determined by school. Every decision or defining moment has been crafted by educational experiences. Only my unique path could have led me here.
My parents, both sixteen at the time, met in ESL class inside Hartford High School. While my mom went on to earn a master’s degree and learned to speak four languages, my dad dropped out to work and support his family who still lived in Portugal. Yet they both believed in the transformative power of an education, and instilled that idea in me. As a toddler, I roamed the campus or building where my mom taught french. Schools were as much my home as the little house on Mountain View Rd. was. I would help my mom grade papers, or cut and paste worksheets together for her classes. I would linger on the edges of meetings for students who would travel to France during April break with my mother, a trip I would make with her four times, once I was old enough. I started my own schooling in a Montessori program that encouraged creativity and free-thinking, concepts that I wish I used more often in my own teaching now. I remember those times vividly, the friends that I still have, the caring and kind teachers; no one could have asked for a better start to school than I had. Throughout my life I have been incredibly lucky with teachers who believed in me and encouraged me to push myself and my thinking, to be independent and courageous about ideas I pursued. I wouldn’t be a teacher but for those experiences.
Yet, all of those stories and feelings pale in comparison to my educational watershed. A moment that conveyed the strength and importance of education to my family more than any other. In 1996, as I headed off to college, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. While it eventually went into remission with treatment, it returned in 2001 with a vengeance. I was finishing my master’s degree in education at Tufts University, and had returned home before graduation to be with my mom. At this point she was in hospice care, in and out of consciousness as the cancer had spread to her liver, lungs and brain. Yet, in moments of clarity she talked about my impending graduation and her pride spilled through her words. Days before graduation, she rarely opened her eyes and spoke even less. My father and I debated attending the graduation ceremony, but with encouragement from our family, made the two hour trip to Somerville. Graduation was bittersweet and quick, as we made the speedy drive back to CT to see my mom. Prior to getting on the road, we called my uncle to let him know we were headed back. He said my mom was resting. So we drove.
As we returned home, we called my uncle again to say we were changing clothes and heading over to the hospice. He responded with a whisper.Shortly after he had told me mom, who was not responding to the people around her, that we had gone to graduation and would be back soon, her breathing became calm and quiet and she passed away.
There is nothing that can convince me that my mom was not waiting until I graduated before she chose her time to die. There is no greater testament to the importance of education and school than that moment. Every choice I make as a human being and an educator is impacted by that moment, and that moment alone makes me unique.