Dec 20, 2010

Thoughts while putting up the tree

Another story of failure... sort of

Christmas time is very nostalgic in my family. Our tree, rather skinny and pathetic by modern standards, has been in the family for just about 40 years. It's an old style artificial tree - with prickly needle bunches, protruding from prickly branches, and pressed into metal holes in the not-to-scale tree trunk. Without garland, lights, and ornaments, it reminds one of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, only taller. With the 1970's lights and decades of ornaments, it creates a charming picture, that perhaps only a family member can appreciate.

As Mom and I were carrying the tree box up the stairs, I asked her if she was going to take the tree when she moved from the house next year. "Yes!" she said, a surprised look on her face. "I will keep this until it disintegrates."

With such fierce loyalty to a tree, you can imagine the degree of loyalty my parents show to their own children. As typical Chinese parents, they had no illusions about us: We talked too much and we needed to work harder. And they always wondered if we really worked as hard as we could (no matter what grade we got). But with all their criticisms, when it really came down to the wire, Mom and Dad were there for us, with the ferocity of lions.

Take when I was in 3rd grade. After finally conquering the 2nd grade speed tests, I proceeded to turn in flaw-filled multiplication homework. Again, the teacher told my mother, I didn't know how to do math. Mom, a bit irritated with the whole thing, told her to test me. I was pulled aside from class and given a series of flash cards. I got performance jitters but apparently answered correctly enough times to verify that I did know how to multiply and divide. However, my poor homework grades were still a mystery.

Mom, not giving up on me, watched me as I did my homework. She had me talk out loud about what I was doing, verifying that I multiplied correctly. However, when my answers came out incorrect yet again, she looked closer. Mom, with her practiced eye, saw that my numbers were all misaligned. I was adding up the wrong numbers. She arranged for me to use graph paper so that I could keep my numbers straight. If it weren't for her loyalty to me as an intelligent student, I would have been branded as a poor one, especially in math.

Mom, a chemistry professor, was as equally demanding on her students as on her children, but she supported them with as much ferocity as she did us. I think that is why they always tried their best for her. I try to do the same with my students.

Loyalty is about making sure the people you care for gets what they need, not necessarily what they want. The trick is how to provide high goals, support, and care all at the same time. Mom never hesitated to give me a good dressing down when I was behaving badly. Like the time in 6th grade when I, for some reason, thought I didn't need to turn in a library assignment because it was "stupid." I ended up with a B that term and had to explain how that could happen. Wow, I never knew Mom could scold me so severely. That was when I learned the hard lesson that sometimes things I thought were stupid still needed to be done - and if it was stupid, then there was no reason I couldn't get an A on it, she added.

Logical, demanding, and loyal. Those were my mom's characteristics as a teacher and as a mother. I only hope that I can continue that tradition with my students and loved ones.

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