What my mom taught me about patience.

Looking back over the students I’ve taught over the past nine years, I can say that I’ve worked with some phenomenal youngsters. Many of the proudest moments have been those that have required a great deal of patience in moving them forward and helping them develop. There are many times when I’ve felt I owe it to the world to be patient because, well, I know others were patient with me. When a toddler sits behind me and plays the ‘kick-the-seat’ game on a flight, I just sit and take it. I played that game. Actually, I did worse – I perfected an imitation of the call-button ping so that flight attendants would hear the sound, and then look around frantically for the light indicating which row needed attention. I would giggle hysterically; my mom (I assume) hid her face and shook her head.

Me, Josie, and my parents in a Shanghai garden, during my parents’ visit to China last fall.

My mom’s patience has always been boundless. When I would make messes in the kitchen with my experiments, she would kindly ask that I clean up after myself. In the many cases that I didn’t, she would remind me, often while I stirred my chocolate milk, loudly. Then I would slurp it, spoon by spoon, each successive clink of the spoon on the glass louder until she would snap, screaming my name sharply to tell me to just drink it. One more clink, then compliance.

I wasn’t the only one that pushed the limits of her sanity. As the middle child of three brothers, we were the worst/best when we worked toward the common goal of mayhem in her midst. Shopping trips at the grocery store were opportunities to get extra things into the cart. In spite of her vigilance, we often succeeded in getting giant rubberband balls, quart containers of honey, and boxes of sugar cereals she subsequently kept from us.

In spite of all of the ways we tested her, she still went out of her way to give us the enriching experiences that shaped who my brothers and I have become. She signed me up for magic lessons at the library. She not only tolerated my interests in collecting insects and animals and getting unbelievably muddy during the process, but scrounged up things like mason jars and film canisters and all the books, field trips, and camps she could find to learn to do these things well. She has always kept me honest. She would look up the facts I claimed were true to see if I was full of it, as I had repeatedly proven I could be. She was the one that broke the news to me that the reason my hamster couldn’t walk that morning because it had a tumor. After tolerating my tears and anger in the midst of the devastating tragedy this was for me at the time, she followed with a completely straight-faced phone conversation with a veterinarian about how one might go about putting down a hamster.

One of the reasons I can maintain a positive outlook on things is that I know that good people are looking out for me. I do my best when people demand the best I have to offer, but understand that there will always be setbacks and failures along the way. My mom was doing this long before I ever realized or appreciated it. Striking the balance between being strict and direct with rules and directions and granting the freedom to try and explore and learn from one’s mistakes is the hardest part of being a teacher. But I get to go home and try again the next day with my students. She put up with my stomping around and singing for no pay in the same house, and had only a crossword puzzle to hide behind.

She managed this balance like a pro, despite the working conditions. I still push her buttons and put my smelly feet on the kitchen table. She shoots the same look she gave me when I was nine. This sort of consistency is rare. It is also what makes me smile knowingly when my students start playing the button-pushing game with me. I just smile and nod to defuse the situation, and that works well enough for me.

The thing I can never get right in the moment, however, the secret that I think my mom had figured out from the beginning is this: she always let me think I had won. I could go on to torture one of my brothers; she could get back to taking care of the important stuff, and being entertained by seeing us battling with each other. I can’t say for sure that this was her tactic. She knew a lot more than she let on when I was younger, but has always been modest enough to just say that I knew how to drive her crazy. I think that is true. I have this sneaking suspicion though that she has always had the upper hand.

I wish her a wonderful Mother’s day. I am committed to trying to be as patient with my students as she was with me, as well as to leaving my dirty socks on her computer in the near future. For the record though: I maintain that Ben was involved in the sandwich incident that resulted in my head getting cracked open.

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