I’m always secretly amused by educators, policymakers, and parents who complain in angry, aggrieved tones about the high-stakes testing now sweeping American public schools. It isn’t that I don’t share some of their concerns; I do. Like them, I don’t want to see teachers primarily “teaching to the test” or students wilting from test anxiety. It’s just that I believe pressure is an unavoidable part of academic achievement. And I believe this for good reason— Lillie Good, to be exact.
Lillie Good is my mom. She lives with my dad in a retirement village in Florida, where she divides her time between hustling blue- haired old widows at mah-jongg and visiting doctors of every specialty under the tropical sun. But back when my three brothers and I were growing up in the cold suburban wastes of Long Island, she was an educational leader—at least around our house. She exercised her leadership in a manner that, though certainly effective, would be considered controversial (or perhaps even illegal) today.
Take the episode of the flashcards. Many parents use flashcards to help their children learn colors, shapes, numbers, and so on. I doubt, however, that any parent has ever used them quite as relentlessly as my mother did when I had trouble memorizing the multiplication tables in 3rd grade. Almost every evening while we kids ate dinner—she generally waited to eat with my dad, who often worked late—she hovered over us, monitoring our intake and flashing at me cards emblazoned with 8 x 6 = ___ and 6 x 7 = ___ and 7 x 9 = ___. This did little to enhance the flavor of my meatloaf and mashed potatoes or fish sticks and spaghetti, staples of a fifties childhood. Nonetheless, I can now multiply like a whiz, especially with my mouth full.
My mother had sayings that might as well have been on flashcards, so ingrained did they become in my consciousness. One of her favorites was “Better you cry now than I cry later,” which sounds ominous, but wasn’t necessarily (unless she was chasing you through the house with a hairbrush when she said it). Most of the time she was just warning my brothers and me that cry and plead as we might, we were destined to live up to her standards rather than she live down to ours.
Unlike today’s postmodern parents, who are subjected to a constant media barrage of child-rearing advice from so-called experts, my mom never worried especially about stepping on our rights or damaging our psyches. In fact, I’m not sure she even realized we had psyches. I remember she walked into my room one day and found me drawing at my desk. She wanted to know why I was wasting paper.
Obviously, my mother wasn’t a patron of the arts. She saw her job as a parent in strictly pragmatic terms: to prevent us from growing up to be the kind of sons who broke their mother’s heart. And what kind of sons was that? The kind who didn’t become pre-law or pre-med majors in college.
There was an almost paradoxical, Zen-like quality to some of my mother’s sayings.
There was an almost paradoxical, Zen-like quality to some of my mother’s sayings, such as “You get out of things what you put into them.” She rarely thought I put into them enough. If I got an 80 on a test, she would ask, “Why not 85?” But then, if I got an 85 on the next test, she would ask, “Why not 90?” This is still her pattern. Just a few years ago, when I called to tell her that I had been promoted to associate professor, she actually asked, “Why not full professor?”
Although I can laugh now at my mother’s tactics, I must admit it is rather rueful laughter. She raised my brothers and me in such a way that we will perhaps never be completely at ease with who we are or what we accomplish. Two brothers are fabulously successful doctors, while the third is a fabulously successful lawyer. Yet I detect in them, as well as in myself, a strange and restless discontent, a hunger that no amount of material wealth or professional recognition seems able to relieve. A great sage once posed the question, “Who is the rich man?” and answered, “He who rejoices in his portion.” By that measure, I’m far from rich. Of course, being a teacher, I’m far from rich by any other measure, too.
I suppose the critics of high-stakes testing could point with some justice to my brothers and me as negative examples of what happens to children who are pressured to excel academically. But many students brought up with low academic expectations have worse problems—ignorance, apathy, lack of understanding. Given the demoralizing effects of human stupidity on culture and society, a little carefully applied pressure to educational standards is probably overdue.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the poignancy of my mother’s commitment to her sons’ education. She was 12 years old when she went to work, 17 when she got married, 19 when she had her first child. If her methods of motivating us sometimes bordered on the brutal, it wasn’t because she didn’t love us or was incapable of tenderness, but because she believed in her motherly duties with the crazy fanaticism of a kamikaze. She was determined that we do well in school and go to college and become men of science and learning. Now here I am all these years later, a teacher myself, striking tiny golden sparks in the desperate gloom.
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Mom’s Still the Word