By Guest Columnist CHARISSE WILLIAMS, president of Young Audiences, a division of the Woodruff Arts Center
In December 2012, I received a message on Facebook from a young man my mother had taught in 4th grade in Chicago over 20 years ago. He was living and working in London and usually had lunch with Mom back in Chicago over the holidays.
He had reached out to her for their annual lunch for the past couple years, but hadn’t gotten a response. It was really incredible hearing from him after not being in touch for more than a decade.
I come from a long line of amazing educators who have had this kind of effect on their students. And not just any educators — educators of the ilk that cause libraries to be named after them and parades to be thrown in their honor when they retire.
My maternal grandmother, Wilhelmina Sanders, and maternal great aunts, Sarah Washington and Mary Sanders, were all incredible educators in Georgia. My mother, Willette Sanders, who was born and raised in Augusta, Ga., moved to Chicago after college and retired as a 4th grade teacher from Chicago Public Schools in 2009.
My mother was such a passionate teacher, and I benefitted from that so much growing up. She taught me to be intellectually curious and to never stop questioning.
It’s funny to think of it now in the internet age, but I can remember her encouraging me to look up answers to my questions in my Deluxe Edition World Book Encyclopedia. I can also remember many Saturdays exploring the incredible Carter G. Woodson Library on Chicago’s South Side while my mother did research and wrote papers for her continuing education classes. I could, and often did, get lost for hours in the magical children’s library.
What was really unique about my mom as a teacher was how she used the arts and creativity in every class. She used songs to teach geography, and she played the game Jeopardy to help her students prepare for tests. She bound her students’ poetry into books and sent them off to national poetry competitions. She used creative writing and drawing to help her students retain key science concepts. She also played the piano and created elaborate performances for her students, complete with acting, singing and choreography — with me often helping her.
My mother was also an incredible storyteller, and she could captivate me for hours with stories of her students’ quirky little 4th grade-isms. She was always so proud of their work and accomplishments, and she loved sharing her students’ writing and art work with me.
When I came home from college on breaks, I loved visiting my mother’s school because I always felt like a rock star in her classroom. The kids would smother me with hugs and assail me with questions about college life in the faraway land of Ithaca.
They wanted to know everything—how was the food? Were my classes hard? Did I have a ton of homework? Was I homesick? I never tired of their questions and bright eyed wonder. What I saw in their eyes and eager smiles was a reflection of how much my mother talked about me and how extremely proud she was of me.
When I think about my path to becoming president of Young Audiences, a division of the Woodruff Arts Center, I know my mother played a huge role.
In addition to instilling in me a love of learning, she ensured that the arts were a big part of my life growing up. I took dance lessons, piano lessons and sang in the Chicago Children’s Choir. In high school I fell in love with art class and studied photography.
So somehow, even though I was trained as a lawyer, worked in philanthropy and previously ran a leadership development/college scholarship program, the fact that I now run an arts in education organization all makes sense.
So, when I received the Facebook message from my mother’s former student last December, my heart was lifted and broken at the same time. The problem was that my Mom passed away in 2009. While I was past the worst of my grief, it saddened me to have to share the news of her passing with him so many years later, especially over Facebook.
When he wrote back, he gave me this incredible gift: “Your mom was an amazing woman. She absolutely changed my life. She taught me to love learning, that I could do anything if I worked hard and to always laugh at myself.”
She taught me the same things and so much more.
Most of us have had at least one incredible teacher in our lives; I was just extra lucky to have had one as my mother.