We all have ugly and messy things in our past. Things that we try to bury and forget. Things that are so complicated and hard to look at that we cover our eyes in denial, attempting to push them way down in the pits of our souls, so far down into the murky depths of ourselves that they couldn’t possibly resurface. But they do.
They have a way of bubbling up, a way of becoming so intertwined in who we truly are that we must eventually unbury them and come to terms. We must uncover the layers of these ugly, messy things, stripping back piece after piece until we can see the nugget of truth at the center. And these ugly, messy things can transform us if we embrace that truth. They can be used as our catalysts to grow into better people, better teachers, better humans. These ugly, messy things can actually be polished, until they are beautiful pieces that shine through as our authentic self.
One of my ugly, messy things involves my mother.
I never dreamed of becoming a teacher. I never lined up Barbies and G.I. Joes in my room, asking them to listen attentively as I read Judy Bloom out loud. I never forced my little sister to engage in a math task using candy pieces, or pretended to be a school marm with my friends. There was one simple reason: My mother was a teacher, therefore not even a tiny inkling of desire for that profession was allowed to cross my mind (I may have been a bit of a stubborn redhead).
It was my sophomore year of college when I received the call that changed my life. It still divides my past 37 years into two lives: Before “it” and after “it.”
I was in my college dorm at Clemson University when I received a phone call with both parents (which was never a good sign). As I entered the conversation I was racking my brain, thinking of all the things I could have done wrong and was getting busted for (a charge on my “emergency only” credit card was my best guess). But it wasn’t as superficial as that. It was about my wonderful, quirky, redheaded mother.
She had pancreatic cancer and was given two months to live.
My world stopped. I was in a tailspin. And things would never be the same.
My mother fought for almost two years before she lost the war to cancer. I felt like everything that had grounded me in this world was taken from me. It’s really hard to describe to people that haven’t lost a parent-especially a mother-the force that gave you life. You feel as if you are a tree who has just had her roots yanked out and are left floating around without gravity, without an up or down, a left or right. You are trying to make sense of the world on your own.
I continued forward in my life the best I could with the amazing support of my family and my father-now serving as two parents in one. I was in law school when I finally dug up the ugly, messy truth of my past and had a realization. When I wasn’t shying away from it or denying that this horrible event happened, I saw something. My future. I could see that my future was not in law, but was in my mother. My future was teaching. I just had to unbury the mess and pain of my past and come to terms with what it all meant. I had to unbury that nugget.
And today, when I take that ugly, messiness of losing my mother and look at it-really look at it-I can’t help but see all the pieces that make me the educator I am today. The person I am. The mother I am.
So for all the mothers out there, thanks for being the roots that ground your children-you are their foundation. For all the teachers-you are mothers and fathers for all of your students, and have an overwhelmingly important role in each of their lives. For all the motherless daughters and sons, may we each unbury the ugly memories and make sense of them. And to everyone who has ugly, messy things in their lives-we are human. We are beautiful messes. And sometimes when we admit that life is also a beautiful mess, we can unveil the truth that is our authentic self.
Dedicated to Sandra G. Allen, a redheaded science teacher who taught me to be my bold, quirky, and authentic self. The truest model of leading by example.
The opinions expressed in An Edugeek’s Guide to K-12 Practice and Policy are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.