The summer of 1924 was a momentous time. International statesmen wrestled with the continued problem of German reparations following World War I, and Adolf Hitler sat in prison following his conviction for treason in the wake of the failed “Beer Hall Putsch.” Back home in the United States, Calvin Coolidge, having ascended to the presidency after the sudden death of Warren G. Harding the previous year, received the Republican Party’s nomination for a full term of his own. The United States was three-and-a-half years into its ultimately unsuccessful experiment with Prohibition, and many Americans were enthralled by the gory details of Leopold and Loeb’s “perfect crime,” which they believed would prove their status as übermenschen. Though financial recklessness would plunge the country into the Great Depression five years later, no one would have predicted that at the time. The American industrial economy was in full swing following its postwar reconversion, the stock market was beginning a tremendous bull market, and consumer goods—automobiles, refrigerators, and the like—were more readily available than ever before. Amidst all of this, on June 20, Margaret Orlean Owens was born to sharecroppers in rural Marengo County, Alabama. She was my grandmother.
Maggie, as I called her, was almost sixty when I was born, but until she was diagnosed with cancer, I never noticed any signs of aging. Unlike my grandfather, who dealt with a host of health issues, Maggie was vibrant and fun. She took a special interest in me, and she encouraged me to learn and get good grades—indeed, to pursue excellence in all things. If I brought home a stellar report card, I would often receive a card in the mail with a $5 or $10 bill a few days later. If I happened to play a great baseball game while she was in town visiting, I might get a silver dollar. (It’s worth noting that the use of extrinsic motivators was something of a family habit. Maggie’s older sister, whom I call Aunt Frances, once promised me $5 when I could name all fifty states and another $5 when I could name their capitals. I collected on the first offer; I never did on the second.)
Interestingly, as a teacher, I’m a fairly staunch opponent of extrinsic motivation for learning, and I can see the reasons why even in my young self. I’m not sure Maggie ever really recognized that she had created a monster, but when I was about eleven or twelve, I drew up a “contract” filled with what we now call “incentive clauses” for my upcoming baseball season. According to the terms, my parents would be obligated to pay me for certain milestone hits, RBIs, and stolen bases, as well as for each home run I slugged. Not surprisingly, my parents did not agree to the terms. Said contract went unsigned, and I remained in that sense a “free agent.” I have no doubt, though, that had I could have talked Maggie into signing such a sweetheart deal had she still been living.
Maggie had been diagnosed with breast cancer when I was too young to understand what cancer was. She received treatment and was in remission for several years, but in time, the cancer returned. With her second diagnosis, Maggie progressively lost her independence, first moving to the town where we lived (though in her own apartment), and later, as both the cancer and the treatments became more aggressive, moving in with us. By this point, I was aware that Maggie was sick, but I thought her moving in with us was the best thing in the world. It meant that my greatest champion was just down the hall, and I could spend time with her every afternoon after school.
While she lived with us, Maggie often asked what I had learned about that day, and if her interest was feigned, she deserved an Oscar. I still received rewards for good grades, though sometimes it meant accompanying my mother to the bank to make a withdrawal on Maggie’s behalf. Showing my report card to my parents was something I had to do; showing it to Maggie was something I couldn’t wait to do. The money played a significant role in that, I’m sure, but looking back, it’s the warm glow of her pride that I can still feel after all these years.
I still have a few things from Maggie. One of those is the last card she ever sent me, which I saved though it contained no money. I was spending the summer at my father’s house, as I always did then, and Maggie’s condition deteriorated. When it appeared that the end was near, my mother sent for me, and I returned home. By the time I arrived at Maggie’s bedside, she had slipped into a non-responsive state. At my mother’s urging, I squeezed Maggie’s hand and told her I was there, and at this, the faintest hint of a smile crossed her lips. That was all, but it was enough. She had said goodbye. I was ten years old.
I know enough now to realize that this may have been an involuntary response, a stimulus of some kind from my squeezing her hand. Still, I prefer to think of it as one last smile for me. She passed away later that night without regaining consciousness, and a few days later, after the funeral, I returned to my father’s house. Waiting for me there was the card, which had been mailed just a day or two before I went home to see her. The envelope was addressed in my mother’s handwriting, and it didn’t immediately occur to me who it was really from, but Maggie had clearly insisted on signing it herself. You can tell from the signature—sloppy but unmistakably hers—that her strength had been fading. The card’s message was simple, but perfect: “Don’t forget—I love you.”
I had felt numb in the immediate aftermath of her death, and I had kept my emotions in check fairly well. But I remember vividly the moment when I opened this card. I was crushed, and I cried uncontrollably for what felt like hours. Even now, twenty-three years later, as a grown man, I am moved to sobs when I re-open this card and read it. That is the power of her enduring love.
Maggie loved me, and she believed in me. The love she gave was never conditional—never dependent on my performance in school or on the baseball field. Still, something about her love made me want to earn it. I’m not sure how she did that, or if she was even conscious of it, but Maggie’s masterful blending of unconditional love and extrinsic motivators set an early tone for my life. I knew that I was loved, and yet I strove to be worthy of that love. Maggie believed in my power to be extraordinary, and when I doubt myself today, I remember this. She confronted—and eventually succumbed to—a debilitating disease, and yet even in the most difficult moments, she invested herself in me. She shared her abundant love until the very end, and I never forgot it.
I can’t think of a better description of a teacher, and though becoming a teacher had never even crossed my mind when Maggie passed away, perhaps it was her example that led me toward this career. It is certainly one that I aspire to, despite knowing that I fall far short of it on a daily basis. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day: the assignments, the grades, the e-mails, but education is, at its core, about relationships. To have the impact that I hope to have, my students must know that I care deeply about them—that I believe in their potential and am willing to invest myself in them. As I enter the classroom today to begin my tenth year as a teacher, I’ll try to keep Maggie’s example closer to fore of my mind.