When I teach, I feel my mother's presence

Mother's Day is typically celebrated with calls and visits, cards and flowers - not memories of educators. But since my mother was a teacher, and I've followed in her footsteps, I can think of no better way to honor her than to celebrate my memories of her teaching days.

Truth is, I didn't think much about my mother when I made the shift from public relations to teaching. But a few days into teaching college freshmen, I could think of little else.

Hearing of my students' problems with early morning fire drills and schedule conflicts, I realized just how young they were. It brought me back to my freshman year of college when I was coping with the death of my mother the year before. Being in the presence of kids the age I was back then made me realize just how young I had been to experience such a devastating loss.

And so teaching became more than just a choice I was making for myself; I came to view it as a tribute to my mother and a way of carrying on her legacy.

When I was a child, however, my mother's role as a teacher was a decidedly mixed blessing for me. But I did enjoy the minor celebrity status it conferred on her and, by extension, me.

We'd be shopping at the A&P or taking books out of the local library when I'd feel someone's eyes upon us. There'd be a boy tugging at his mother's sleeve and pointing at my mother, or racing over to my mom, beaming.

Those were pride-filled moments. But trouble came when my mother became a substitute teacher for my class. When I was in third or fourth grade, I was young enough to think this was cool. The only issues for me then were what to call her in class (Mrs. Wagner? Mommy? Mom?) and whether or not to be a showoff in front of the other kids.

But by fifth grade, having your mother as a substitute teacher was decidedly uncool.

The problem was that my mother wasn't playing by the Unwritten Code of the Substitute Teacher: Thou shalt take attendance, prevent any visible injuries, and look busy, but under no circumstances shalt thou command the class to do any actual schoolwork.

Apparently, Andrew assumed my mother would abide by the Code. Andrew kept popping up out of his chair to visit his friends, talking out of turn, and generally being a nuisance in a cheerfully clueless style - not seeking any confrontation. But my mother, who did not distinguish between the intention and the act, threatened Andrew with disciplinary action.

"But then I won't get the football my parents got me for my birthday," Andrew cried out. "You should have thought of that before you started misbehaving," my mother responded.

That's when Andrew started to cry.

And that's when I wanted to die. I felt awful for Andrew but, even more, I recognized that if my mother went through with her threat, I'd be known as the kid whose mean mother prevented hapless Andrew from receiving his football. So I pleaded and cajoled, and, my mother gave Andrew a chance to redeem himself.

I'm a different teacher than my mother was. Her need to exert discipline has been transformed into my non- authoritarian classroom style. While she derived pleasure from teaching young children, I have an affinity for college-age students. If more professional choices had been open to her, I don't know if she would have chosen teaching, whereas I've made the choice to teach despite all the choices now available to women.

But despite these differences, whenever I step in the classroom, my mother enters with me. And I'm grateful for the company.

Meta Wagner is a writer who teaches at Emerson College in Boston.

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