Get Schooled

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Recalling a mother's wisdom: "You’re too smart to be that stupid.”

Here is an essay by former Pelham City, Ga., Superintendent Jim Arnold about his mother, his first and likely most influential teacher.

It seemed the perfect column on a weekend of thanksgiving.

By Jim Arnold

Mom passed away September 2014 after living almost 84 years and going through a thankfully short illness. Momma was an amazing woman in many ways, and the lessons she taught us go far beyond the normal table manners and polite forms of address and behaviors she expected but didn’t always get. Raising our Dad and four boys at the same time gave her an inner core of steel hidden by a soft-spoken demeanor that could be deceiving.

She graduated at the top of her class at Ruleville High, was responsible for raising her sisters and her brother, played French horn and bass drum in the band, played girls basketball, was class president and went to Delta State before she married Dad and I came along. She read constantly until her eyesight started failing, and exhibited an innate curiosity about things I never would have imagined she was interested in and showed an understanding of people and their curious motivations that I found to be consistently accurate, amazingly observant and borderline prescient.

“Seems to me,” she noted once and seemingly out of the blue, “that spending all that money to get a man on the moon was a better investment than LBJ’s Great Society.”  “Why do you say that Mom?” I asked innocently. “Those social programs are helping a lot of people.” I was 18 at the time and thinking about the upside of socialism, and she was, without my knowledge, waging a quiet but persistent war to undermine my intolerance for all things establishment. “Kennedy understood,” she said quickly, “that giving people a national goal was better than giving them money. Look at the technology and inventions that have come out of NASA that have improved our daily lives, not to mention the national pride in what was accomplished. Giving people something they haven’t earned just pisses them off in the long run, and doesn’t really help in the way it’s intended.” I mentally marked that moment down as one not just to remember but to learn from and looked at her in amazement.

Mom was a teacher without a license. She adapted the lesson to the individual and realized her five guys didn’t learn in the same way or at the same rate.  She understood and used differentiation when conformity was cool.  She never hesitated to let us try almost anything -- band, football, baseball, cooking lessons (oh yes, she did give us cooking lessons), Boy Scouts - and when we got discouraged and wanted to give up we heard  countless times “can’t never could do nothing.”

I didn’t know it until the retrospection brought on by age and experience kicked in, but I developed most of my educational philosophy and teaching methods from her.  She always managed to teach us things without us realizing we were being taught.

Every year there were family gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas at our house or one of Momma’s sisters’ homes. Relatives showed up from all over, and playing with cousins and shirt-tail relatives and sleeping on a pallet on the floor was great fun for a couple of days. I wasn’t allowed to sit at “the big table” until I was over 21, and that did hurt my pride until I saw the kids got to eat first and the big table folks were always busy making sure the little people had full plates several times over before they were sent out to play in the yard and the adults could eat in relative peace until somebody came in crying from a skinned knee or a bruise or to tell them that “Glenn said a bad word.” Momma sensed my disappointment and said, “Stay a kid as long as you can, son.  Being an adult is not nearly as much fun as you think.” She was right, and, once again, I find myself wishing I had taken her advice sooner.

Momma was slow to anger and only rarely let us get to her in that fashion.  She was smart enough to know that anger wasn’t a prime motivator for her and wouldn’t be effective on us either.  She rarely used Dad as a threat and almost always took care of the problem herself. Her voice was rarely raised but we didn’t have any trouble hearing her. Tone and inflection said what was needed to stop or correct almost any behavior. We hated to disappoint her, and she let us know quickly when it happened. The only way I could tell if one of my brothers was in trouble was if I had been there when he committed whatever deed he wasn’t supposed to have done or if I saw his face later because she was smart enough not to compare one of us to the other or use one’s bad behavior as a lesson to the others.

She didn’t try to jump in and solve our problems for us, but let us make our mistakes when she knew what the result would be. “Sometimes a little hurt is a good teacher,” she said. “It’s not fun and it’s hard for me to watch, but you boys are going to do what you’re going to do no matter what advice I give.” She always said, too, that a little suspicion about what folks tell you is a good thing, and not to believe everything we heard.  She told us, “You can tell me something all day long but I know who you are by what you do.”

She condoned my comic book collection.  “I don’t care what you read as long as you’re reading,” she said.  That wasn’t quite true, but it did hold up for comic books. I had Batman, Superman, the Blackhawks, Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, the Hulk, name it, and I read it...and she was right. I remember her reading to me and to my brothers before we could read ourselves, and she believed reading was the key to educational success.  I still read every day.

She had a stubborn streak, and wouldn’t give in on some things.  One of them was going to church, another was making sure we went to school every day and she was adamant about us “doing the right thing.”  “If you can’t do something in front of your mother,” she would say, “it’s probably something you don’t need to be doing.”

She was mostly right on that one, too.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.