November 4, 2008 was a day of firsts: Barack Obama was elected President and I learned that my Mom is on Facebook.
For more than 30 years my mother was the librarian at Yankee Ridge Elementary School in Urbana, IL. When she began teaching in the early 1970s, she was the first black professional many of the students had ever met. In 1976, she wrote a short phrase to teach the students about discrimination, acceptance and understanding: “Life if short; therefore I shall be a crusader in the struggle against ignorance and fear, beginning with myself.” Every class of kindergarten through sixth grade learned and recited the quote at the beginning of each class in the library.
She taught the students to ask questions about racism and inequality; important but difficult topics for adults, much less young children, to discuss. My mother talked about race because she believed it would make her students better people, neighbors and citizens. She read books to children as young as six and seven-years-old about the lives of actor Paul Robeson, teenage diarist and Holocaust victim Anne Frank, slave liberator Harriet Tubman, and workers’ advocate Cesar Chavez, among others. By the 1990s, Mom was teaching her students to “recite” the quote using American Sign Language.
While watching the news with President-Elect Obama speaking from Grant Park on Election Night 2008, I got an email from one of Mom’s former students. The woman wanted to let Mom know how the campaign and Obama’s election had her recalling what she learned in my mother’s classes at Yankee Ridge some 20 years before. Mom’s student wanted to share her good wishes on that special and historic night.
From the email, I learned that many of Mom’s former students had been sharing their memories – some touching, some outrageous — about my mom and her quote in the Facebook group Fast Times at Yankee Ridge. After connecting with other former students, I found another group on Facebook, I learned sign language from Ms. Vickers-Shelley, featuring comments from yet more students who reflected on what my Mom’s teaching has meant in their lives. Her former students include teachers, librarians, farmers, lawyers, activists and Moms and Dads. One is an official in the Obama Administration, another runs an anti-racism nonprofit and another lives for classic Corvettes. While they represent varied ethnic, racial, faith and political perspectives they share common values of acceptance and understanding. And now I’ve become friends with many of them on Facebook.
Mom didn’t have a chance to see all the ways her legacy shaped her students. By the time Facebook was popular, she was struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. When she passed away last year, many of Mom’s former students honored her by reciting and signing the life-shaping lesson they learned as children, “Life is short; therefore I shall be a crusader in the struggle against ignorance and fear, beginning with myself.” My mother would have turned 76 years old today. She is still on Facebook.