Teaching Opinion

Dad’s Happy Birthday Message Inspires Teacher to Live Passionately

By Marilyn Rhames — October 09, 2013 3 min read
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It’s my birthday today, and I am grateful to be alive and to be carrying a life. At this time last year, my dad left a message on my cell phone in which he sang “Happy Birthday” and recited a little silly poem in my honor.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I didn’t call him back right away because I was mad at him for not returning home to Chicago as he had promised. He was living in Washington D.C. at the time, and was not taking care of himself properly. Just three months after leaving me that message, he died.

I’m using my birthday to pass on a special message to you, my esteemed readers. I am celebrating another year of life, and for the past 33 weeks I’ve been carrying an unborn life*, but I am also still grieving the death of my dad. Having a son gives me so much to look forward to, yet I am hurting because this is my first birthday without my father. Plus, I regret last year’s birthday when I didn’t honor him by at least returning his call, let alone saying “Thank you, Dad, for giving me life.”

I was too annoyed. I actually didn’t want to “ruin” my birthday by having another frustrating conversation with my father about coming home. He would just explain that he was lobbying Congress for this cause or that; that his cause was too important to abandon. So I put off calling him for another day, and by the time that day rolled around I had learned that he was extremely ill. I ended up playing his happy birthday voicemail in the slide show I created for his funeral, and I’ve replayed his song over and over in my head almost every day since.

This blog, “Charting My Own Course,” is a precious gift to me. Each week, I am privileged to share with you my perspectives on education and my life as a classroom teacher. But the greater honor is that you actually read my work, and sometimes even send me your own reflections.

Right now my baby boy is churning in my womb like he’s doing the Cha Cha Slide. Though unborn, he is the purest representation of the joy of life, literally hope for a better future. Yet, on days like today, the sorrows of the past haunt me, like not returning my dad’s call for weeks. When I did finally talk to him, I told him that I loved him and he told me that he loved me. He had already been sick when he left me that singing message, but I had no way of knowing it.

Our classrooms are much the same: they hold our private joys and pains, but the students in them often don’t know. (Likewise we don’t always know theirs.) I suffered through four miscarriages in my ten years of teaching and not many people knew; I continued to teach and reach out to students. In the midst of my private grief, I dealt with the frustrations that all teachers experience: bouts with irrational parents, disrespect from unruly students, unkind treatment from by insensitive administrators or colleagues. Many days I cried at my desk while my students played at recess or ate lunch. And like all teachers, I pulled myself together before they returned.

Teachers have incredibly big jobs but at the end of the day, we are but mere humans. Teachers have marital problems. Teachers file for bankruptcy. Some teachers even battle depression and suicidal thoughts. I should know: I lead a spiritual support ministry for teachers. I hear all kinds of stories, and I have my own.

So in the midst of all the Happy Birthday emails and texts I am receiving today, please don’t be alarmed if you see tears or sense a tinge of grief. I simply miss my dad. He was far from a perfect father, and at times in his life was not a very good one, but he loved all eight of his children. He was a gentle man with a fierce determination and an almost overwhelming imagination and optimism. Some people called him a dreamer; I call him a genius, born in Jim Crow Mississippi, denied an education and equal opportunity, but became an avid entreprenuer and justice seeker. Only in his death have I realized how much like him I am.

When my students file into my classroom today, I will do all I can to keep my eyes dry. I’m teaching reading from the novel Things Fall Apart; it helps that the protagonist Okonkwo is a brutal man and nothing at all like my father.

In writing, however, I am launching the memoir unit, which is much trickier. I’ll ask students to be nostalgic, which increases the risk of emotion. Perhaps crying in front of my students would be okay in this context. After all, I have a quote hanging on my classroom wall by Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

Rest in peace, Dear Father, Robert J. Anderson. I dedicate my 39th year to futhering the passion of your legacy.

Click to hear my daddy’s sweet birthday message to me.

*UPDATE: my fetus just turned 33 weeks today and I hadn’t noticed!

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course 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.