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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Mom: Pomp and Circumstance
May 14, 2008 - 9:56pm

Although I am not a preacher, for the past dozen years or so I've spent my Mother's Day in a black robe. A mortarboard with a tassel hangs awkwardly on my head and about 700 other people around me have the same attire. We file in to music we all know by heart and we sit through speeches and names, endless names, until, at the end, the very end, a large portion of the group throw their mortarboards in the air. At that precise moment, the promise of a new beginning swells up in every person in attendance.

This year, that hopeful promise stirred in me a little earlier in the commencement, at the moment when the student speaker delivered his address. I had known this student since the first semester of his sophomore year when he enrolled in my Calculus I class. His name has appeared on one of my class rosters every semester since, save one.

He began his sophomore year the week Katrina hit New Orleans and within six weeks, he and a few friends had put together a relief team to travel there with able-bodied college students. After a 24-hour bus ride there, four days of virtually around-the-clock manual labor, and a 24-hour bus ride home, he showed no signs of fatigue. It was quite the opposite in fact. He returned to campus with a fiery passion to do more. The sterling character he showed the campus community as part of the New Orleans initiative was only further refined the next year when he helped his siblings (and himself) work through the divorce of their parents. His calm, centered personality provided a pillar of strength for an otherwise crumbling family. Still later that year, he effectively guided a befuddled student group through twists and turns, finally charting its course to a much higher and more stable ground.

In his commencement address, I heard his words of encouragement for the years ahead. I heard the cadence of his voice, the carefully planned delivery of precious syllables intended to urge each of his fellow students to pursue a life of excellence. As his voice echoed through the microphone, memories of his undergraduate journey began to mingle with his calculated words. In that time, although I had left copious notes on two substantial research papers, corrected dozens, no, hundreds of calculus problems (single- and multi-variable), and recorded a final grade for him five times, I had actually learned far more from him than he had ever learned from me.

Is it any different with my children? I plan healthy meals, listen to long versions of what happened on the playground at school (the details astonish me every time), and make an attentive audience at their piano recitals. I drive car pool, obtain necessary school supplies and encourage my boys to work out heated conflicts that arise over whether a pitch was really a ball or a strike. I complete the necessary medical forms for extra-curricular activities, keep the band-aid box stocked, and find size 2 navy blue shorts with a five-inch inseam before a given deadline. So what?

My eleven-year-old son holds his head up after a strike-out in the second inning and comes back to hit a line drive in the fourth. My eight-year-old tries four times to draw three horses as they cross the finish line in the Kentucky Derby (and he never wads up a single one of his discarded attempts). Even though another prospective pianist plays five instruments and her parents are professional musicians, my fifteen-year-old daughter stays in the tiny, windowless room as she waits to audition for the one open piano position in the jazz band. What do I know about persistence, patience and courage? I am learning from my children.

While I may not earn the sheepskin for keeping "my head when all about me are losing theirs and blaming it on me" or bouncing back quickly from a setback any time soon, I am forever grateful that my children and my profession make lifelong learning a perpetual possibility. I may get there yet. The calendar will turn to May again and the familiar melody of Pomp and Circumstance will come with it. It's a promise.


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