As an adjunct professor teaching four writing classes, I’m flooded with student papers. In one of my classes, an outspoken student looked at a tower of students’ essays on the edge of my desk and said, “I’d rather wash floors than have your job.”
An image of my mother immediately passed through my mind. I saw her at her job when she was 16, washing the latrine floors at Auschwitz. I sighed, then acknowledged to my student, “Yes, a lot of papers to read.” She smiled — dare I say pityingly? I feel overwhelmed by work almost all the time. But of all the ways I’ve earned a living while also writing, teaching is the most gratifying.
I can’t shrug off my student’s comment, though, especially in light of my mother’s life. As a child, she was uneducated, worked on her family’s chicken farm and also alongside her mother in the tavern they ran. There was never enough money to feed the six children (another two lived in America), and my mother grew up scrounging: for food, space in the bed she shared with three sisters, clothes. Education was not an option for girls raised in shtetls.
In America, as an adult, my mother was a gorgeous and successful businesswoman. In defiance of having stuck her hands in toilets, she never once left the apartment looking needful of anything. That she had deep emotional needs, though, was clear to me. But her thirst for knowledge didn’t make itself known until I, too, was parched.
Raised in the old-fashioned European way, I grew up planning to work as a secretary until marriage. That was fine until the summer before high school, before turning 14. We moved, then, from our lower-income neighborhood, Crown Heights, where many girls my age were bound for clerical jobs, to middle-income Flatlands, where girls planned on college. I still recall the painful identity crisis I had in those high school years, longing to be college-bound and fit in with my new friends but unable to erase the person I’d been raised to be — not smart but very good with chores and advising my parents on personal and business matters. That image was drawn to fit within a circle that would hold me in place, unchanging.
And so, in high school I was a secretarial student. Only my closest friends knew, as I was deeply ashamed of my typing and steno classes. At 30, I went to college; by then, I was aware of having an intellect. With that came a voracious need to know things and to write. I remember an awful argument with my mother one day, when I visited the apartment in Flatlands. My father and I discussed an article we’d read in The New York Times — reading The Times was a major step for me. My visits usually entailed sitting with my mother, smoking and drinking coffee. That evening I was alive with knowledge, and my father and I enjoyed a heated discussion.
In the middle of our talk, my mother railed at me, “De Ameri-ca-na [you American], you’re not my daughter!” I was horrified and carried home an extraordinary guilt for having stepped outside the circle and hurt my mother. Within that guilt I would discover was tremendous anger. If educating myself was bad, then what was good? Of course, I knew. Good was to be unchanging.
Making something of myself has been my life’s work, especially since I had felt so unentitled. Sometime during my journey, I came to understand how much my mother wanted the opportunities. She was fiercely intelligent with little belief in herself. She wanted to fill up on books and magazine articles, but she read phonetically at a fifth-grade level.
My mother was afraid of losing me to a world to which she, too, felt unentitled. I invited her when I went out with friends to dinner and the theater. But she felt lost when she came along, filled with her own guilt for stepping outside her circle.
My mother and I lost each other for many years. But when I began writing seriously, she was my most ardent fan. At one point she told me, “When I read your articles, I hear my own voice.” That moment, the most sacred love passed between us.
My mother passed away before I went to graduate school. She would be incredibly proud to know that I teach college students. And within that pride might also be a yearning to teach, too — and God knows she had so much to teach.
On Sunday, I’m filled with anxiety about student work. I promised myself to have a real Sunday, meaning play and no work. But on Tuesday, I’m being observed; another anxiety. It’s stressful being outside the circle I was born into. But it’s now the only thing I know how to do. And I believe it’s where my mother wants me. If she were here, she would acknowledge with pride that I’m her daughter. And I would want to feed her the knowledge that is her unclaimed birthright.
Neither of us — no matter how many papers toppled over the sides of the desk, how much anxiety kept us awake — would rather wash floors.
Sandra Hurtes is the author of the essay collection “On My Way to Someplace Else” (Poetica Publishing). She writes from New York and blogs at sandrahurtes.blogspot.com.