I’m watching Netflix when she comes in, eyes wide, and whispers, “I got in.”
Is this how it feels to be a proud parent of a high school senior? I wonder. The student is my middle-aged mother and I’m her proud adult daughter. After 30 years, she’s returning to school for her master’s degree in social work.
She’s worked in domestic violence intervention and other social services her entire adult life. But life (having me) got in the way of her graduate school plans in the 1990s. And, like many women of color, she put her goal aside to provide for her family.
In my childhood memories, she’s always working. The summer I was 16 and attending Oxford University, she napped in her car between her two jobs. She’d taken an extra, night-time job to pay for expenses my scholarship didn’t cover. Not believing in “idle summers,” Mom enrolled me in scholastic programs every summer until college, determined to cultivate an environment for her daughter to become a global citizen.
A job took me to Boston in 2017, and I invited Mom to move in with me. When it came to her own reckoning, her own ambition, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d only known her to coach me on my path, not hers. But to watch my mother is to watch a woman be her own victor.
Leading up to the fall term, Mom brushed up her computer skills, reviewed course syllabi, bought textbooks, and set up a workspace in our living room. I gave her a Passion Planner as a back-to-school gift, but what she really wanted was at-home tech support. I’d come home to find her waiting at the door. “What’s ‘Canvas’? What’s a ‘university email’? Why can’t I use my Gmail if the university’s already using Gmail?” Then tougher questions: “Why does the professor keep changing the syllabus?” And she wondered why she had to meet deadlines when he kept extending his own.
A year in and she’s earned all A’s. She points out a syllabus error to a professor. He hasn’t taught the course lately, he replies to her email, closing with “. . . we will forge ahead!” “Who is ‘we’?” she demands. “I’m the student, he’s the professor, ‘Do your job!’” This is when I remind her I, too, am a college lecturer who’s constantly revising syllabi. She shrugs, “And I hope you do better.”
Suddenly I’m back in sixth grade, sitting at the kitchen table after dinner, swinging my legs in frustration, still doing homework. When I say I should stop, it’s nearly bedtime, Mom says, “That’s OK, honey, you take all the time you need. I can always call the school if you have to be late tomorrow. Now do your work.” I’m back in graduate school, opening a Valentine’s Day gift she sent: a little stuffed bear that says in a familiar voice as I squeeze its tummy, “Do your work, Linda. I love you so! Mommy.”
From virtual day one in August 2020, Mom’s often the only one to speak in class. I sense her frustration with her peers, especially with group projects. “I know they didn’t do the reading,” she sniffs, and Tracy Flick flashes through my mind.
It’s May 2023 and I’m sitting with her two best friends watching names scrolling on a giant screen. She stands with her row and they walk in formation to the stage. People are whooping for their wife, their best friend, their twentysomething child. I want her to get the same applause as everyone else. I stand, turn my camera to record, and as “Toni Laverne Shamwell” is read aloud, I scream to the rafters, “THAT’S MY MOM!”
It’s a precious thing to witness a Black woman, a Black mother, do something entirely for herself. To do something that has nothing to do with her being a mother — and yet, it does. It’s vain to think that my life and achievements are her best work. All this time, she was preparing for her own reveal.
Linda Chavers is a writer in Chelsea. Send comments to email@example.com. TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.