When Mom Retires
Having packed up her office yesterday, my mother will begin to settle into retirement after decades working as an educator.
Her final place of employment gave her a chair to celebrate her service. It’s one of those ornamental-type of chairs not really meant to sit in, but to look at much like you would a plaque on a wall. Her name is engraved on it, along with her years of service. It’s a nice gesture.
It makes me chuckle to think about the suggestion the chair elicits: “Hey, thanks for your
years of work. Now go sit in this chair and relax.” Relax and do what? Think about all you’ve done? Think about the future? I don’t know. This is probably not what the chair was meant to convey.
To be honest, the idea that my mom is retired is a bit disorienting for me. I don’t feel old enough to have a retired mother. But the fact is she’s beyond retirement age by several years and I don’t imagine the idea of not reporting to the job she loved and worked so hard for is going to be easy. Perhaps she’ll start with personal reflection about all she did and accomplished, and perhaps letting go of some of the things she didn’t.
When I think back on my life, growing up as her son, there’s one particular day that stands out in my mind and provides for me a visual image of my mother as an educator. I think it’s an odd memory to serve this purpose, because it doesn’t have much to do with her … educating.
First a bit of a backstory...
Mom and Dad had set certain expectations for their children as far as our after-school routine was concerned. It was simple. We were to complete our homework and practice our instrument before playing outside or watching TV. I don’t recall ever doing my homework, and I’d practice the piano for ten minutes at most, if at all. Ten minutes was just long enough so that when they asked me if I had practiced, I could say yes. But when my parents caught up to my non-homework-doing ways, or to address any other disciplinary issue I may have had, they’d go to their favorite discipline tactic. They’d take away my TV-viewing privileges.
We’d lose TV for a week or so. Maybe longer sometimes. I don’t know that it was all that effective, because we’d find ways around it. This was in the early days of cable TV, and the very earliest of days in parental tools to curb their kids’ ability to watch cable. The cable box had a little switch on the back of it that a parent could put in a particular position and then, using an actual padlock, lock the switch so that the box would not work. It was an effective way to keep your children from watching TV when they shouldn’t be. It worked for us.
Well, it worked twice, until my sister found the key.
When one child in our home lost their TV-watching privilege, and mom and dad weren’t home to unlock the box, then nobody could watch. So if my sister wanted to watch, she was going to have to locate the key, which she did. I eventually found a way – probably through blackmail - to get her to tell me where the key was. Now the only thing I had to do was to keep mom and dad from finding out we had information they didn’t want us to have. There were two main tasks to complete to make sure the secret was safe:
1) Threaten my younger brother’s very life to ensure his silence.
2) Make sure the TV was locked appropriately, key “hidden,” and TV off before they arrived home from work.
It was pretty simple.
Until I screwed it up.
On one particular day, mom called from the school where she worked to inform us she was on her way home. I knew the drive from her school to home was about half an hour or so, but I either lost track of time on that day, or the stop lights were just right for her to arrive home a little early. Either way, about mid-way through an episode of He-man I heard a loud tapping on the window just outside the family room where I was sitting in front of the boob-tube. My head turned so fast I think I pulled my sternocleidomastoid. (That’s a neck muscle, and also the longest word I know how to spell.)
There was mom. She was standing in a skirt suit with her purse in one hand and work bag in the other.
She was irate, her eyes the scariest combination of yellowish-red you’d ever seen. If steam could have come out of her ears, it would have.
Ok, so her eyes weren’t really that color, but you know what I mean… She was mad.
I got up slowly, walked to the tv, shut it off, locked the cable box, and “hid” the key.
While she peered through the window at me.
I was in trouble.
While it had been some time since I’d experienced “the wooden spoon,” I thought there was a pretty good chance she’d dust if off. Other than the fact that the wooden spoon remained in the kitchen counter catch-all and was not used to bespeckle my buns, I don’t remember what happened after that. I imagine mom and dad grounded me or something. But when I recall mom’s career, it’s that day that comes to mind. Yeah, I know. I have a weird memory bank.
There are, I think, two reasons this memory is the one that comes to mind when I reflect on mom’s career.
The first reason is simple. It’s how she looked. The days of skirt-suits and heavy bags are what I remember first. Her clothing choices through the years adjusted with the times, but the skirt suit is burned in my memory.
The second reason is because I was scared to death. Mom knew discipline, and I knew I was about to experience it. I’ll say more about her gift for disciplining children in a bit.
Though mom’s work experience in education predates my birth, my earliest memory of her teaching was when we first moved to Massachusetts in 1983. She served as a long-term substitute in the Boston Public School system. And though I visited that school with her once or twice, most of it is a foggy memory. In fact, only one part of her time there stands out.
I remember the day she lost that job.
She had come home crying that evening, and while I wasn’t sure why, I had the feeling she’d been fired. I couldn’t imagine any other reason for her to be crying. I was correct.
Years later she told me why she was fired. I was in a school play, and mom had requested time off to attend. Her request was denied. When she pressed the issue, stating it was important to her to be at my school activities, she was told as a matter of fact that she could either keep her job or attend my play. She chose my play. The principal was true to his word, and she lost her job. I’m sure there are more details than that, but it’s what I remember.
Her kids came first.
A few years later, I remember her beginning to work on her M.Ed in Special Education, which quickly became known as “sped.” Mom was becoming a sped teacher. As she was learning the ins and outs of child development, she’d use us kids as educational-testing guinea pigs. Every time she had a test to run on a student, that student was us.
As a child, I typically found schoolwork to be tedious. But when I think back to the time mom spent with us during this testing I get a warm feeling in my heart. I liked that time. My brother and sister and I would compare the experiences, and mom was careful to point out that the differences in our results were because we think differently, were different ages, and that nobody did any better than anyone else on these tests. I’m sure there were dozens if not hundreds of questions she put to us, but I only remember one specific testing experience.
We were sitting at the dining room table in the room just off the kitchen and above the family room. In fact, I was sitting about 10 feet above the family cable box. The fear I previously experienced, re-locking the TV, was at the polar-opposite end of the enjoyment I was getting out of doing the testing with her.
I’d just completed a creative writing exercise and “Mrs. Scott” was asking me about how I experienced it. She asked me if I liked it and, for the first time in my life, I took time to consider whether academic work was - gulp - fun. I was surprised to find I had, in fact, enjoyed an activity I thought was supposed to be boring. Go figure! She then asked me if there was anything about it I found frustrating. I told her I had a hard time figuring out how to end what I was writing. Now, more than 30 years later, I still enjoy writing, and I still find it difficult to come to a conclusion.
Finally, after mom had conducted all of her tests, written all her papers and such, she earned her M.Ed. It was May of 1987. Her sister also graduated from college the same day, at the same school, and we had a pool party at our house to celebrate both graduates. I remember it was a particularly cold day in May, even for New England, and it turned out to be a pretty low-key celebration.
Per my memory, mom’s first steady job was as a special-ed teacher at the John K. Tarbox elementary school in Lawrence, MA. What I remember most about the school is that it didn’t seem there were many kids without special needs, and the needs were more than just needing help in the classroom. For instance, she once had a female student that was part of a family who had immigrated to the United States. The 12-year-old student was in an arranged marriage and was experiencing things at home that would make you cry. While this was an extreme case, it fit within the scope of “normal” problems her students faced.
At the time, Lawrence was known for leading the country in car thefts, and her particular school was in one of the more active theft zones. And while “Tarbox” was the name of a previous congressman from the 1800’s to whom the school was dedicated, the image it connotes was appropriate for the condition of the school and neighborhood it served. It was rundown and sometimes felt forgotten. This was where the roots of mom’s career took hold.
Fortunately for Mrs. Scott, she had a special gift for administrative discipline. It’s a gift that was probably part of why she was given her first shot at administration as the assistant principal at the Tarbox. It was her knack for discipline.
As my friends in the neighborhood and at church back in the day would tell you, Mrs. Scott was a disciplinarian – locked cable box notwithstanding. She had a way of communicating that put the fear-of-god in kids. Children knew she wasn’t messing around when giving instructions. She did so with eyes demanding attention and a tone to match her expression. She wasn’t rude or abusive, she just meant business and you knew it. And if you failed to heed her instructions … well, you knew you didn’t want to do this. You wouldn’t like the outcome.
The interesting thing was, the outcome was never as horrible as you might expect. Perhaps a student would have to sit by themselves at lunch or there was a phone call placed to a parent. It was nothing extraordinary. She just knew how to communicate in a way which moved kids to action.
It even worked in the neighborhood. Nobody wanted to mess with Mrs. Scott there, either. I remember once having trouble with the neighborhood bully. I ran straight home to mom. He didn’t even attempt to follow, and I think that’s because he knew I wasn’t running home to mommy. I was running home to Mrs. Scott, and he wanted nothing to do with her!
I’m at the risk of making her seem cold, menacing and uncaring. The truth was just the opposite. She cared a ton. She loved so much, and I’d often hear her conversations with friends and colleagues about how what she saw broke her heart. Her bark was far worse than her bite, but on the occasion where she had to bite, it had the desired effect.
Mom moved on from the Tarbox school to the rural setting of Litchfield, New Hampshire where she was principal of Griffin Memorial School for 11 years. Her experience there was a far cry from the inner-city of Lawrence, MA. Tucked away in the trees of southern New Hampshire she was able to focus a bit more on helping teachers teach. I was grown and had moved out of the house around the time she began this new role, so I don’t have a lot of personal memories of her time there. I do know it’s where she was during 9-11, and it’s where she was as she studied, worked, studied and worked some more, and in 2001 became Dr. Scott. After I was married and had my first child I’d occasionally take an hour-long drive to the school to let her show off her grandson to all her teachers- an opportunity she always loved.
There was a stint of about a year, as I recall, when mom spent time as the associate superintendent of schools for the Peabody, MA school district. We were all proud of her, and bragged on her a bit to those that would listen. But she grew frustrated in this position as so little of it had to do with helping kids learn. Rather, the political situation meant pleasing whoever wielded the most power and influence in town. Mom had a lot of appreciation for the way her boss – the Superintendent – handled the politics of it all, but had no desire to ever do it herself. A year was enough. And as it turned out, her heart came calling too.
Eastern Nazarene College (ENC) was always a part of our family’s world, almost since its inception. Floyd Nease (mom’s grandfather) was an early instructor and then president of ENC until his untimely death in 1930. His wife (and mom’s grandmother) Madalyn, was registrar for almost four decades. Mom’s father, Stephen Nease, worked at the college for years in various capacities, ultimately as the president in the 1980’s. ENC is where mom earned her undergraduate and graduate degree, the latter being awarded to her by her own father. My brother and I both met our spouses and graduated from ENC. I could go on, but it would belabor the point. All this to say, a lot of us carry a deep appreciation for the school - particularly mom.
Back in the late-1980’s - not long after mom finished her M. Ed. - mom began teaching college and graduate courses at ENC as an adjunct instructor. While principal in Litchfield she began serving as a trustee and continued to do so until ENC asked her if she’d be willing to fill a full-time teaching position. She was ready, and began to share her experience with teachers-in-training. So it was only natural that in 2006, when administrators came to her about teaching full-time, she took the leap.
As long careers typically do, by the time she began working at ENC full-time her work experiences had combined to create a knowledge-base useful to the college administration. As such, in 2010 they saw fit to name her the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. We were thrilled for her, and knew this would likely be the position from which she’d retire. We were right.
Growing up we kids learned how to, shall we say, “work within our parents’ strengths and weaknesses.” For example, when we misbehaved and faced corporal punishment - aka spankings - mom would sometimes give us the choice of her or dad carrying out the sentence. I think mom thought the choice was to get it over with immediately, or wait with worry until dad got home. What it meant to us was a choice between the unforgiving welts of the wooden spoon, or the forgiving softness of dad’s leather belt or better yet - his hand. I don’t think there was ever any time we chose the spoon. The reason being that dad just wasn’t as effective as mom was at spankings.
(Seems worth stopping here to point out spankings weren’t an everyday experience in our childhood. And as I recall they ended sometime around 1983 or 84. I don’t think they really had their intended effect of curbing our behavior. Second, the last spanking I remember was for my younger brother, Jeremy. Dad was the choice to execute the sentence, of course, and when it was over Jeremy began to feign tears until he could no longer hold in his laughter. The kid laughed right in the face of my father who then began laughing with him! Some parents would have worked harder to prove who was the boss. That wasn’t the case when it came to spankings for us.)
As we grew, however, we also began to differentiate between the more substantive abilities our parents possessed. For me, this meant when I had need of an editing eye, or advice during the brutality of a job search, or how to navigate the labyrinth of doctors and hospitals, I’d go to mom. She was and remains my go-to for administrative know-how.
It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies all the time. I do recall when she was in the midst of working on her Ed.D., she was met with the high-brow snobbery sometimes associated with higher education when she was told that she might be a department head some day, but she’d never be a Dean. Snobbery or not, it turned to be a prophetic statement. In the ten years she served as the Associate Dean, her family watched as she worked her tail off as more Deans and acting Deans went through the revolving door just above what was apparently the appropriate administrative level for someone with an Ed.D.
On more than one occasion, this meant she had to finish up some work they’d left undone. Mom would never tell you this.
However, her son might.
I’m not here to say she’s perfect. I know she can at times be abrasive. But the testimony of her life to me is that the work you do is the legacy you leave. I don’t remember a moment in her life when she wasn’t working hard at something.
Hard work isn’t something I’ve always been good at. This is evidenced by my watching He-Man back in the day. Mom’s retirement has given me an opportunity to reflect not only on her career, but my own as well, and to see areas where I’d do well to emulate her discipline. To be her disciple, if you will.
Burgeoning writers have a tendency to procrastinate. Sometimes I don’t do my homework or practice (writing) when I should be. Not long ago I discovered He-Man was available on Netflix.
Then I heard a faint tapping on the window of my memory…
Thanks for all you’ve done, mom. Get ready to edit.