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Lessons on Napkins



In 1974, my mother was a junior at an all-girls Catholic college in New York.  She was an excellent student and wanted to be a special education teacher.  But, her dreams of becoming a teacher were interrupted by an unexpected child: her own.  My mother became pregnant with me during her junior year of college and left school to marry my father.  Yet even though my mother left the field of education formally, she did not leave it entirely.
     
When I was born, my mother immediately made learning an integral and fun part of my life.  Everything we did was a positive learning interaction, whether we were baking cookies or spending the day at the library.  I never watched television, not because I was not allowed to, but because it was more fun writing stories with my mom.  There was never a lot of money in our home, but with all of the books, laughter and hugs, it was a scarcity I never felt.
     
When I finally entered a school classroom at age five, I was excited, but terrified.  That first day of kindergarten I quietly sat at my desk during snack time and opened my Miss Piggy lunch box.  Inside the lunch box I found a note from my mother written on a napkin.  The note said that she loved me, that she was proud of me and that I was the best kindergartner in the world!  Because of that napkin note I made it through my first day of kindergarten...and many more school days to follow.
     
There have been many napkin notes since the first one.  There were napkin notes in elementary school when I was struggling with math, telling me to "Hang in there, kiddo!  You can do it!  Don't forget what a great writer you are!"  There were napkin notes in junior high school when I was the "new girl" with frizzy hair and pimples, telling me to "Be friendly.  Don't be scared.  Anyone would be lucky to have you as her best friend!"  In high school, when my basketball team was the first team in our school's history to play in a state championship, there were napkin notes telling me, "There is no 'I' in team.  You have gotten this far because you know how to share."  And, there were even napkin notes sent to me in college and graduate school, far away from my mother's physical touch.  Despite the tumultuous changes of college changing majors, changing boyfriends, changing the way I looked at the world my one constant was my mother's encouragement, support and teachings, echoed in years of love, commitment and napkin notes.
     
My nineteen-year-old sister is now a college sophomore.  Somewhere in her dorm room, amid her varsity basketball uniform and her nursing books, she has a box of well-read napkin notes hidden, but accessible.  At home, my sixteen-year-old sister and nine-year-old brother also have their own private stashes of napkin notes.  When they read them I know they feel the same warm surge of confidence that I felt all through my school years.
     
For Christmas this year, my mother received a book bag, a daily planner, notebooks and a full-tuition college scholarship.  These gifts reflected an impending change in her life.  After a twenty-five-year hiatus, my forty-four-year-old mother was finally going back to school to earn her degree in teaching.  And although I was immensely proud of my mother for following her dreams, I wanted her to know that she didn't need a degree to make her a stellar teacher.
     
So I also gave her a Christmas gift for school: a lunch bag filled with her favorite foods.  She laughed as she opened the lunch bag and took out cans of tuna fish and V-8.  Then she pulled out a napkin with writing on it.
     
As she opened up her "You can do it!" napkin note from me, tears began running down her face.  When her eyes met mine, I saw she understood my unspoken message: My mother is and always has been a teacher.

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