My first memory of Mom as a working mother is from second grade. One of the kids in my class was sort of famous because his mom taught third grade in our school. The only kid who seemed more exotic than him was our own teacher’s kid. We knew what his mom was like at school. Here was a kid who knew what she was like in real life!
With my younger brother starting kindergarten, my mother began substitute teaching that year, and this put me on a third tier of teachers’ kids. No one had her full-time, but most kids had her at some point. That made her like a supporting actress, which made me almost cool.
The next year, Mom was a full-time teacher with her own class. She taught sixth grade, so while my friends were all too young to be her students, she was definitely a lady people knew. We could not go to the grocery store, ball park, or Mt. Juliet’s one (at the time) fast food restaurant without someone stopping to chat with Mrs. Stivender.
Despite our occasional complaints that she worked too late to make anything other than stir fry or kielbasa heated in the toaster oven, my brother and I thought this was awesome.
In addition to everyone knowing Mom, her job allowed us to know everything about our school. Along with the other teachers’ kids, my brother and I formed an after school club called the Pies Club (named for the leftover desserts we pilfered from faculty and union meetings). We ran around all over that building while our moms graded papers and wrote lesson plans.
The Pies Club members performed on the stage in the auditorium when no one was watching. We shot baskets in the gym. We buried dead bugs on the playground, asking the kid whose other parent was a preacher to give the eulogies.
When the county built a new school the year I was in fifth grade, Mom and several of her friends were among the teachers to open it. Dad would come on weekends and do things like paint her room and move furniture. The teachers kids took over an empty classroom and filled it with awesome things like beanbag chairs and an old black and white TV. That was a sort of gilded age in our tenure as the Pies Club.
When I was finally in the same grade my mother taught, my teacher was one of Mom’s best friends. There is nothing more fabulous for a nerdy, goody two-shoes kid than to know where your teacher lives, to have been in her home, and to have been at the kids table beside hers countless times at the neighborhood sit-down restaurant when the teacher moms were too tired even to toast kielbasa. (Who remembers the Hermitage Cooker?)
While I had my favorites among Mom’s teacher friends, I know she had hers, too, among the kids in the school. Mom gravitated toward what I thought of at the time as the “bad kids”, but realize now were good, but troubled. She watched after kids whose parents forgot to pick them up, whose parents were going through divorces, who were experiencing illness in their families, or had been exposed to alcohol or drug abuse. I never felt anything other than proud that she was there for those kids, and fortunate she was mine.
Mom is retiring at the end of this school year, after a 30-year career that ultimately led to her becoming principal of the school we attended. She is more or less the last of her close friends to retire, which makes this milestone feel even more like the end of an era.
I don’t know that we are close yet to a day when working moms will stop wringing their hands about whether their career pursuits are damaging or inspiring to their children. But I can say that, for me, it was a wonderful experience to grow up with a mom claimed by so many others.
She may often have been pressed for time, but never for love. I know I’m not alone in my sentiments.