Sunday, May 13, 2012

Better Angels of My Nature

My apologies to Mr. Lincoln, for pirating his line for the title of this blurb. Much of what I have read about the man expresses wonder at the wealth of his knowledge and the extent of his erudition, considering the grim poverty of his upbringing.

I'm not certain how educated my grandparents were. On my mother's side, her father probably made it through elementary school, but I would guess not much further. I know even less about her mother, as she died long before I came along. On my father's side, I don't think his mother attended school at all, as she grew up on a farm in Ireland. Her husband, my grandfather, perhaps did not go to what we consider high school either. But, both sets instilled something in my parents. Although my father's father died when he was but 8, there was money set aside for him (and his sister) to attend college, which they did. My mother had no interest in college, but she did go to secretarial school, where she embarked on a career at which she excelled, even with all the interruptions of raising children.

In our household, it was assumed that my sister, brother and I would attend college. I believe my father thought it best that we go far away from home to do so, as he did not, as he put it, want us bringing our laundry home on weekends. He did have ulterior motives: he often said that the smartest thing he ever did was to move far away from his family and upbringing, as it forced him to be on his own. He wanted his children to have similar advantages.

I married a woman whose passion was teaching. I was not certain how deeply she felt about that until we had daughters of our own. I was astounded at the number of craft projects, the amount of flannel board stories, the variety of the books and the constant educational "plays" through which she led our daughters. Many an evening, I would come home from work, unable to interrupt them, as they were in the midst of some saga or another. I stepped on many a Barbie through their childhoods; I read all the American Girl books with them, repeatedly, plus countless others. And, I answered all their questions, wondering how those young minds could be so inquisitive.

Our daughters grew, venturing to the swamps of Gainesville to expand their minds further, in the midst of all that Gator Nation mania. This was not to be enough for either one of them. Julia went to grad school to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy, so that she can now teach people how to function, despite the impairment of one or more motor skills. This week, however, is all about the younger one, Amanda, who will wrap up her 18 years of school.

Amanda was on an arc to a career in advertising. It made perfect sense: she is brilliantly creative, has an insatiable curiousity and has mastered every media she has encountered. Then, she took American Sign Language as an elective. At her ripe age of 19, she threw the ad biz out the window and found a new calling. She took every ASL class that UF had to offer, volunteered for as many teaching assistant opportunities that she could find and led a crew of younger TA's like some mother hen.

I had never seen her sign until I attended a father/daugther weekend during her senior year. She was signing the national anthem before a gymnastics meet. I was amazed at the fluidity of her motions and the expressions on her face. I could barely take a picture, I was so moved by her polished performance. A few months later, she was the bookends at her college graduation, as she signed the national anthem before and the alma mater after the ceremonies. Her quest has taken her to Columbia Teachers' College, where she will receive her Masters' Degree this week. During her two years in New York, she spent a semester teaching at Montclair State (oddly, about two miles from where my mother grew up). This past year, she has been a student teacher at PS 47, an urban school with a population that could be described as economically challenged. And, she loves it. Another oddity: that school is close to where my father attended high school. Is this kismet, serendipity, or some non-Disney Circle of Life?

In a few days, all those years of formal education will be over. I cannot express the pride I feel in both of my daughters, who have chosen careers that likely will not pay them even a tenth of what someone who trades futures on a commodity exchange will get. I doubt that either will purchase a new Mercedes or a luxury box at some sports arena. Instead, both my daughters are becoming the persons who will change people's lives for the better, who will find ways to connect with individuals, for which they will long be remembered.

So, a belated congratulations to Julia, for the degree she received two years ago and an advance tip of the hat to Amanda, who will receive hers this week. Their great-grandparents would be astounded at how far their descendents have traveled, while being thrilled at the fruition of the value they placed on education a few generations ago.

I am reminded of the line at the end of It's A Wonderful Life. Harry Bailey bursts into the room, holds his glass high, and toasts his big brother George, the richest man in town. I know exactly what he described, for I, too, am wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. I can summarize that sentiment in a simple phrase, which I will utter again this week, as I will say, to someone, "that's my daughter".