Monday, November 14, 2016

You Are One Kind of Person

Ricky spent most of his days sitting in an abandoned car that was parked outside the trailer he shared with his mother, siblings, and a family of rabbits that ran free.  The trailer was propped up on concrete blocks to keep it from flooding during the rains that kept the Bayou perpetually damp.  It had been pulled up in front of their previous trailer that had burned when a space heater caught fire.  The car didn’t run, but the battery allowed him to listen to the radio and offered a refuge.  Ricky, who suffered from a laundry list of developmental and behavioral issues didn’t attend school.  Instead, my mother, a homebound teacher for the public school system, taught him three days a week.  She too avoided the trailer, so the two of them would sit in the car completing the necessary requirements dictated by the school board.  But my mother knew that the skills she was teaching him had little value in the life of a 5th generation fisherman with an IQ well below normal.  So she set out to create her own curriculum, one that she felt would benefit Ricky in the long run.  Once he was reading on a 4th grade level and had mastered basic math, she went to work teaching him how to read the Farmer’s Almanac and determining how much money he could make based on the market price of shrimp.  Ricky liked to tinker, so she found a video about washing machine repair at the library and a donated washing machine, and the two of them set out to return it to working order.  Her methods were unconventional and often controversial, but they always had the needs of her students in mind.
There were countless other students like Ricky who came in and out of her life during her tenure as a public school homebound teacher.  Morgan, another student in the Bayou, learned math shooting pool in the backroom of the local gas station.  Their science lesson was held on the beach and he learned to read thanks to Spider Man comic books.  When she agreed to teach the first HIV+ student in the school system, they read about the death rituals of different cultures around the world then made up their own.  Whatever worked. 
Her students called her Miss Pat and she blended into any environment thanks to her unassuming personality.  She could walk into any home without judgment.  She knew that for most of these families each day was a struggle to survive.  Like a country doctor, families often showed their gratitude with what they had to offer:  fresh shrimp, vegetables from their garden.
She often took me to work with her.  At the time, I thought I was getting a day off of school, but later I realized that what I was learning was a lesson in gratitude and compassion.  There are many things from my childhood that shaped my world view, but my mother’s work as a special ed homebound teacher taught me the most about empathy.
I saw her job begin to wear her down.  Regulations kept her from serving so many of these children in a way that would allow them to be self-sufficient.  Even more, she knew, would never be self-sufficient.  She saw single parents trying to navigate work while tending to the daily needs of their child.  She witnessed families dealing with addiction, incarceration, and the vicious cycle of poverty.  And she started to lose hope.

There were hundreds of families over the years, but one family held a special place in my mom’s heart.  Mother began teaching Johnathan when he was eleven.  A quiet child whose medical needs kept him in and out of school, he quickly became one of my mother’s most beloved students. 

His mother, Miss Sandra, stayed home to care for him.  A skilled seamstress, she studied at the Art Institute of Atlanta.  With brilliant smiles and infectious laughs, they respected one another.  They navigated parenting together.  When my mom was dying she worried about Johnathan and his mother.  Miss Sandra was also dealing with a health crisis, and she worried that Johnathan would also find himself grieving her loss as well.  Before she died she signed over the title to her truck, because she wanted to make sure they had reliable transportation.
It had been several years since we had seen each other, another example of life getting in the way of well intentioned plans.  Miss Sandra arrived for our dinner together in a lovely outfit she made herself.  Johnathan brought his new wife.  My daughter joined me because I wanted her to meet them and to hear the stories they had to tell.  These stories are the only way she’s been able to get to know her grandmother and I am grateful that there are so many to tell.
Miss Sandra was happy to oblige.  I could tell that revisiting those memories brought her such joy.  She calls my mom her sister, and they are.  These two women, one white and one black, might have seemed different on the outside, but at the end of the day they were two single moms trying to raise good kids.  They understood each other.
Today Johnathan is married to a middle school teacher.  His health has stabilized.  He’s worked for the same company for the past 10 years, rising through the ranks.  The shy young boy who used to keep his head down now radiates confidence.  

After dinner Johnathan and I walked out to the car together.  He told me a story:  He was dealing with a family crisis so Mom took him to lunch at a locally owned restaurant to cheer him up.  She said to him, “You are not defined by your family because, Sweet Thang, you are one kind of person.”  But something else happened at lunch that day.  The waitress kept ignoring Johnathan, speaking only to my mother.  Johnathan asked repeatedly for a Sprite and she never brought it.  Finally, my mom confronted her and said, “Excuse me, but you haven’t brought my son his Sprite.”  The waitress, flustered, said that they were out of Sprite.  Mother looked around the restaurant pointing out the other customers who had Sprite.  And then the two of them got up and walked out. 
My mother was a tireless advocate for her students and she saw it as her duty both inside and outside the classroom.  Her students always knew that she had their back.  These are the stories that I crave when I miss her most.  These are the stories I was never told, but make me so proud.  My mother and the people she brought into our little world helped to shape my first 40 years, but these are the stories that I hope will inspire my actions in the next 40.


  1. Oh to hear the stories you never really knew about. What a beautiful tribute to her mother and the amazing work she did. Love this.

  2. Think globally, act locally has been a recurring mantra in my life and your mother's compassion, kindness, and dedication showcases that perfectly.

    Your storytelling is always compelling and I look forward to reading more.

  3. Love this story. Truly a wonderful and loving lady. We need more people in the world like your mother.