Education Matters: Leaving our mark on the world

I stare into the fire, jabbing it with my poker. It’s been a long holiday week. My kids came home from cities far away, I turned another year older, and caught a vicious cold.

Why I’m so content as I poke among the embers I can’t explain. It’s so unlike me. With laundry running for four days straight, crusty food on dishes piled up in the sink, doors slamming and showers running continuously, I should, given my previous pattern, have been royally annoyed.

But I don’t care. Although I’m on Day Six of this cold and the bridge of my nose still feels like it will explode, I’m oddly satisfied. The kids are good kids. Sure, they have no regard for water conservation, general neatness, or normal sleeping and eating hours, but they are good kids.

They came up the walkway with smiles and laughter, their arms filled with bouquets of flowers for my birthday, reminding me that birthdays, which I used to dread, are now most welcome.

I am now the age my mother was when she died. So my next birthday, when I surpass her age, will be even more welcome. And it will be one year this month since my father died. So there’s a sense of mortality certainly.

But it’s more than that. There’s also a sense of peace that’s beginning to settle in. Instead of anxiety and worry about what might happen if … or what could develop when … or how it could have happened if only … I now have fewer regrets and more gratitude.

Leaving a lasting mark on the world is for all but the tiniest fraction of the population a pipe dream that will never come to pass. We influence our little circles of acquaintances, family and friends, but for almost all of us, that’s it. And suddenly, in a peaceful sort of way, that’s acceptable.

I was reminded how fleeting our lives can be when I got it into my head to tell my kids everything they would need to know about me and our possessions after I die.

It wasn’t even morbid, just practical. But as I took out a few rings and trinkets from grandmothers, mothers, sisters and cousins – and told the stories about each item and who it belonged to and why it was meaningful – I looked up and saw the blank looks on their faces.

They weren’t being rude; they tried to understand and empathize. But I realized at that moment that they will never know who their grandmothers really were, since they both died long before my kids were born. Great-grandparents? Forget it.

It’s one thing to try to impress upon our children the generational longing we have for our ancestral history, and to teach them how they are part of a long line of people who each had lives full of hope and love, despair and pain. How do we impart to our children the desperation for the freedom America offered after hardships unimaginable in other countries from which they escaped?

How can I describe the fear that drove immigrants to sew gold and jewels into the linings of their clothing, to run from their homelands with nothing but what they could carry, leaving family and customs and language behind, in pursuit of a dream that for many could never be realized?

How do I tell my kids how one little piece of silver may have meant life or death for their ancestors, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents who, had they not been successful in reaching the Promised Land, neither I nor my children, nor my yet-to-be-born children’s children, would exist?

Never be Pope

Living in the same house for 21 years, a place where we raised our children, can be a trap. So as we prepared to move away, going through all the collected minutiae of our lives, the detritus accumulated over the decades, served to remind me so painfully of how much time has gone by.

I worry less about airplanes falling from the sky and terrorism at the mall than I do about medical uncertainties that flit in and out of my immediate awareness like a mosquito that whines incessantly in your ear.

But even that, the stuff that used to keep me awake at night, like the mosquito, is losing its grip on me.

I’ll never be Pope, a rock star or a famous athlete. Not a famous novelist or a renowned political activist. What have I done with all those years?

I have a group of readers who like what I write (sometimes), and a very vocal group who will be overjoyed to never see this column again. But my absence will not be missed for long should I disappear.

My editor, bless her heart, allows me the freedom to write when I am inspired. So just when those I’ve angered think they are done with me forever, I pop up unexpectedly with another tirade about a new bond to threaten homeowner taxes, another testing fiasco, a school board member going off the deep end, or some other educational episode that violates public trust.

“Good that you have enemies,” goes the famous quote. “It means you cared deeply enough about something to make people angry.”

And that keeps me going.

I’ve become a mom, a wife, a writer, a decent daughter, and a loyal friend. Will I be remembered after I’m gone? Maybe for a little while. But not long. I’ve seen how people are mourned, and then time passes and life goes on. They are not forgotten, but nearly so.

And that – as my husband’s Aunt Ida said after she had her debilitating stroke – is that. We each leave our mark – and hope our children will remember.

Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at