Apodaca: Thank you, Mom

In honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week, which begins Monday, andMother's Daynext Sunday, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share the story of the greatest teacher I've ever known: my mom.

Gentle, humble and delicate, Mom nevertheless taught her fifth-grade students with a quiet passion, fortitude and dignity that commanded respect. She could quiet a class of unruly 11-year-olds with a mere lift of her hand, and inspire them to dig deep to find their better selves.

Mom employed modern, progressive teaching methods long before they had a name. Differentiation? She figured that out decades ago. She believed fiercely in the intrinsic value of education, not for resume-building or future monetary rewards, but because of the richness of thoughts, ideas and purpose that an educated mind could achieve.

And Mom never gave up on a child. The bright, fidgety kids, the troubled souls and the underachievers — they all had a place in her classroom. She'd call them her darlings — or "Dahlings," in her Brooklynese accent, as in "Dahlings, I need you to pay attention." Miraculously, they did.

When students had problems, Mom was there to help. I recall when one kid in her class injured his hands. He couldn't dress himself for school, much less write, and his single mother worked long hours. So for the next several weeks, Mom delivered schoolwork to his house, and spent countless hours helping him keep pace.

Mom infused my childhood with her passion for learning. Every week, without fail, she took me to the public library to choose a new book. At home we'd sit quietly together, she in her favorite chair, to read and discuss literature.

"Don't worry about me, Dahling. As long as I have a good book, I'll be happy," she'd always say.

When I was young, I confess, I didn't always appreciate her as I should have. She was an intelligent, educated woman, I thought. She could have done anything, and she chose to be a suburban housewife and an elementary school teacher? How disappointingly pedestrian, I secretly believed.

How utterly wrong I was. How badly I undervalued my mother's extraordinary legacy.

Mom grew up in New York City. A sheltered, bookish only child, she suffered a host of ailments that nearly took her life more than once. When she was a girl, she lost most of her jaw to disease, and had to endure a painful reconstruction and learn to speak again.

Despite the setbacks, Mom graduated from high school at 16, and attended prestigious Barnard College. Afterward, she landed a job as a research assistant at Time and Life magazines. During World War II, she worked on assignments for top war correspondents, including the famous writer John Hersey.

One night she attended a dance that Time sponsored for the military, and met a dashing soldier who'd been raised in Arizona and Texas. Mom, who'd never been west of Pennsylvania, thought him wild and fascinating.

One night he stood her up for a date. Weeks later, a letter arrived from Europe explaining that he'd been shipped out suddenly the night they were to meet. They continued to correspond and, a little more than a year after the war's end, married in a Catholic church near Mom's home.

But Dad was restless, and yearned to escape the concrete confines of New York. He talked constantly about California, a beautiful land of wide-open opportunity, he said. One day, they boarded a westbound bus and never looked back.

Despite Mom's physical frailty, she managed to give birth to four children, including her last — me — at an age at which most women of her generation had put childbearing long behind them. She earned her teaching credential and master's degree, and landed a permanent teaching gig the year I started kindergarten.

I attended another school, but once I was allowed to enroll in Mom's summer school drama class. It was one of the best times I ever had as a kid. Most of her students had been in her regular school-year class, and they immediately embraced me as a friend.

Mom didn't show a whit of favoritism. Most of the time, I trailed behind her, carrying her paperwork and supplies, taking notes and running errands. We put on plays all summer, but she made me wait until the last one, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," to have a speaking role. I hammed it up shamelessly as the loud-mouthed Lucy, but Mom just laughed and let me go for it.

I lost Mom too soon, her broken body at last delivering the final betrayal. At her funeral mass, former students and colleagues filled the pews. Afterward some of them approached me.

"Your mom was the best teacher," one said. "I'll never forget her."

No, great teachers are never forgotten. Their lessons live on long after they've gone, their influence enduring throughout the years and the challenges that life brings.

I keep a photo of Mom in my room. It was taken on my wedding day, not long before she died. She's clinging to my brother's arm, struggling to walk, and, as always, smiling through the pain.

But when I picture her in my head, she's in her stuffed chair, reading glasses perched at the tip of her nose.

"Don't worry about me, Dahling," she's saying. "I have a good book, so I'm doing fine."

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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