A Child’s First Teacher

My mother died and then she disappeared. The last time I saw her was when she was lying on the kitchen floor. I thought she fainted because the oven door was open and the room was very hot. I did not realize at the time that a cerebral aneurism had burst and had taken her life. I was a nine-year-old boy and not expected to understand the role serendipity played in death or allowed to attend her wake. My mother’s funeral mass was crowded with friends and family and my hurriedly purchased suit did not fit well. I remember staring at her casket and wondering if she was wearing her favorite blue dress. I wanted to open the casket and place a photograph of my brother and me in her hands but was afraid to look at a dead person. I watched the hearse take my mother away to a place called Long Island and was then taken to a neighbor’s house. I always regretted not leaving the pew and placing the photograph in my mother’s hands.

A Child's First Teacher by Tony Mullen

The Irish are strange mourners. Some treat the dead as though they have never left and others pretend the dead never lived. I grew up never seeing a photograph of my mother or hearing about her life. She died and then disappeared. But the small gravestone in front of me is proof that she once lived and had two small boys who called her Mom.

It’s Mother’s Day, and it is cold and raining in New York. The cemetery is usually crowded on special holidays but today I see only a few people standing solemnly under umbrellas. It is a perfect day to speak to my mother.

A lot happened last year. I was invited to the White House and met the president this year; he was friendly and joked with your youngest grandson. I spent a year traveling throughout the country and visiting some foreign countries. I tried my best to remind people how special teachers are and what they mean to children. What? Yes – I really did meet the President of the United States. But you knew that, didn’t you? I turned fifty this year. Can you believe your youngest son is fifty? I’m sorry you only lived to be thirty-eight. What should I say to all the teachers who are mothers? Yes, I do hear what you are saying but the rain is making me wet. You were once a teacher? I did not know that. Oh…yes, every mother is a child’s first teacher, and you were my first teacher. I must leave now but will be back next Mother’s Day.

I leave the gravesite and head toward my car. My mother was right. She never taught in a classroom but was my first teacher. Every mother is a child’s first teacher and every classroom teacher is a surrogate mother to all children. Is it any wonder why a teacher is so special in the hearts of children?

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Tony Mullen
Special education teacher Anthony Mullen was named the 59th National Teacher of the Year in 2009. He now teaches full-time at an alternative high school and part-time at a local college. He writes for various education publications, voicing his opinion from the perspective of a classroom teacher. His commentaries are often contrary to the opinions of politicians, policy makers and pundits, but they have their agenda and he has his.