Recalling a mother’s wisdom: “You’re too smart to be that stupid.”

Here is an essay by former Pelham City, Ga., Superintendent Jim Arnold about his mother, his first and likely most influential teacher.

It seemed the perfect column on a weekend of thanksgiving.

By Jim Arnold

Mom passed away September 2014 after living almost 84 years and going through a thankfully short illness. Momma was an amazing woman in many ways, and the lessons she taught us go far beyond the normal table manners and polite forms of address and behaviors she expected but didn’t always get. Raising our Dad and four boys at the same time gave her an inner core of steel hidden by a soft-spoken demeanor that could be deceiving.

She graduated at the top of her class at Ruleville High, was responsible for raising her sisters and her brother, played French horn and bass drum in the band, played girls basketball, was class president and went to Delta State before she married Dad and I came along. She read constantly until her eyesight started failing, and exhibited an innate curiosity about things I never would have imagined she was interested in and showed an understanding of people and their curious motivations that I found to be consistently accurate, amazingly observant and borderline prescient.

“Seems to me,” she noted once and seemingly out of the blue, “that spending all that money to get a man on the moon was a better investment than LBJ’s Great Society.”  “Why do you say that Mom?” I asked innocently. “Those social programs are helping a lot of people.” I was 18 at the time and thinking about the upside of socialism, and she was, without my knowledge, waging a quiet but persistent war to undermine my intolerance for all things establishment. “Kennedy understood,” she said quickly, “that giving people a national goal was better than giving them money. Look at the technology and inventions that have come out of NASA that have improved our daily lives, not to mention the national pride in what was accomplished. Giving people something they haven’t earned just pisses them off in the long run, and doesn’t really help in the way it’s intended.” I mentally marked that moment down as one not just to remember but to learn from and looked at her in amazement.

Mom was a teacher without a license. She adapted the lesson to the individual and realized her five guys didn’t learn in the same way or at the same rate.  She understood and used differentiation when conformity was cool.  She never hesitated to let us try almost anything — band, football, baseball, cooking lessons (oh yes, she did give us cooking lessons), Boy Scouts – and when we got discouraged and wanted to give up we heard  countless times “can’t never could do nothing.”

I didn’t know it until the retrospection brought on by age and experience kicked in, but I developed most of my educational philosophy and teaching methods from her.  She always managed to teach us things without us realizing we were being taught.

Every year there were family gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas at our house or one of Momma’s sisters’ homes. Relatives showed up from all over, and playing with cousins and shirt-tail relatives and sleeping on a pallet on the floor was great fun for a couple of days. I wasn’t allowed to sit at “the big table” until I was over 21, and that did hurt my pride until I saw the kids got to eat first and the big table folks were always busy making sure the little people had full plates several times over before they were sent out to play in the yard and the adults could eat in relative peace until somebody came in crying from a skinned knee or a bruise or to tell them that “Glenn said a bad word.” Momma sensed my disappointment and said, “Stay a kid as long as you can, son.  Being an adult is not nearly as much fun as you think.” She was right, and, once again, I find myself wishing I had taken her advice sooner.

Momma was slow to anger and only rarely let us get to her in that fashion.  She was smart enough to know that anger wasn’t a prime motivator for her and wouldn’t be effective on us either.  She rarely used Dad as a threat and almost always took care of the problem herself. Her voice was rarely raised but we didn’t have any trouble hearing her. Tone and inflection said what was needed to stop or correct almost any behavior. We hated to disappoint her, and she let us know quickly when it happened. The only way I could tell if one of my brothers was in trouble was if I had been there when he committed whatever deed he wasn’t supposed to have done or if I saw his face later because she was smart enough not to compare one of us to the other or use one’s bad behavior as a lesson to the others.

She didn’t try to jump in and solve our problems for us, but let us make our mistakes when she knew what the result would be. “Sometimes a little hurt is a good teacher,” she said. “It’s not fun and it’s hard for me to watch, but you boys are going to do what you’re going to do no matter what advice I give.” She always said, too, that a little suspicion about what folks tell you is a good thing, and not to believe everything we heard.  She told us, “You can tell me something all day long but I know who you are by what you do.”

She condoned my comic book collection.  “I don’t care what you read as long as you’re reading,” she said.  That wasn’t quite true, but it did hold up for comic books. I had Batman, Superman, the Blackhawks, Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, the Hulk, Spiderman…you name it, and I read it…and she was right. I remember her reading to me and to my brothers before we could read ourselves, and she believed reading was the key to educational success.  I still read every day.

She had a stubborn streak, and wouldn’t give in on some things.  One of them was going to church, another was making sure we went to school every day and she was adamant about us “doing the right thing.”  “If you can’t do something in front of your mother,” she would say, “it’s probably something you don’t need to be doing.”

She was mostly right on that one, too.

 

Reader Comments 0

14 comments
Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Yep, too bad we didn't listen to more of the wisdom of people who grew up in the Great Depression and who lived through WW2.


Some of the most memorable bits of wisdom from my youth were obtained from old guys in overalls, who had calloused hands and "farmers tans".  They would often congregate at my uncle's service station and swap tales and talk politics.  Warm weather found them sitting in the rocking chairs out front and winter drove them inside to gather around the old pot belly stove.


These were men whose word and handshake were just as binding as any contract that a lawyer could devise.  These men admired those who worked hard and had no use for sloth.  Their animals got fed before they did and the one good suit was worn every Sunday.


Too bad this country didn't listen.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I wish more of my former students in the last 15-20 years had parents like your mama.

Bitcoined
Bitcoined

A touching reminisce, with common sense very uncommon in this opinion column.

The kind of story which typically appears at midnight only to be quickly pushed down the page by the next morning's genuflections before the liberal agenda.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

". . .Giving people something they haven’t earned just pisses them off in the long run, and doesn’t really help in the way it’s intended.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Jim Arnold is a fine storyteller and, imho, he should write a book of his Southern recollections.  He has captured that time in history that has "Gone with the Wind."  Ah, but I remember it well.  His mother was another of the Southern "steel magnolias" who was wise in so many ways.

But, I have to point out something, here, which I have been giving thought to all day which is an expansion of what his mother saw in "giving people something have haven't earned. . . doesn't really help in the way it's intended." 


What Jim Arnold mother saw, in that concept, is only half true, to my way of thinking.  In fact, it is only a surface reality, as I have come to understand, having lived on this planet for nearly 3/4s of a century, most of it in Georgia.  My reflections today were generated from the AJC online article regarding the fact that young black men are being killed by gang members in South DeKalb County.  One 20 year old, with a very young son, named Messiah, was shot to death near his home and given a funeral at Greenforest Baptist Church, where my child had attended pre-school when that building was called Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, and when that neighborhood was still integrated among blacks and whites.  I taught school in that area of DeKalb County for most of my teaching career, and my grandmother-type babysitter took my child to Mt. Carmel pre-k School and picked my child up each day while I taught nearby.  I began my DeKalb County School System career in 1971 in that area of the county and I retired there in 2000. I loved all of the children I taught from grades 1 -12 during those years. Race made no difference at all to me.  Children are children and share common characteristics of each stage of development whatever their races might be, I learned.

Now that area of DeKalb County has rival gangs that kill one another with semi-automatic guns.  You will not find me blaming the victims.  I know that when one gives up on others and on oneself, despair leads to desperate acts.  Our misguided nation gave up on continuing the noble cause of lifting black people in the 1970s and turned to self-interested greed and blaming victims for their own situations.  Cynicism like I never saw permeate this nation in the 1960s when people tried to help lift black people.  Now it is a national consciousness of "everyman and woman for themselves."  And, it is even worse in Georgia - that selfish consciousness - than in other places in this nation and this world because our leaders are too political too uncaring not even to accept a minimum of Syrian refugees today.  Forty-five years of selfish greed has taken its toll particularly hard in the black pockets of our city and state for these young black men know that we do not care for them as we did when Mary Travers was still alive. Even if these young men are too young to know this consciously, they know it intuitively and they have given up on themselves, America, and on us.


Shame on us all.  We must find a way again to let these young black people, especially these young black men know that we consider them worthy and that we will put our money and our time and our resources into helping them, not with a hand out but with a hand up, once again, because we care and because we know that in America, all men and women are equal.


OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@MaryElizabethSings 

I too read this story in today's AJC, "Life, Death and Gangs: A Dilemma in DeKalb County." It is a story of gang-life, and notes that the victim of the shooting, Oliver Campbell, was found by the grand jury investigating to be a gang-member himself who was probably shot by someone else in his gang for violating their rules. I don't think I am "blaming the victims" when I say that the problem seems more complex than our society not "caring for these young black men." "Giving a hand up" seems paternalistic and I think would be fiercely resented by them. The problem is deeper than that....almost like 1930s nihilism in Germany.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@EdJohnson 

Words of truth.  Just as the law is "the great leveler of mankind" (Harper Lee), so is love the great healer of mankind.

redweather
redweather

@OriginalProf @MaryElizabethSings Do you think "these young black men" might have reasons for caring for our society, or would you say we've made it impossible for them to do that? I ask because there are a lot of things we get right in this country despite our many failings.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@redweather @OriginalProf @MaryElizabethSings

Have you read this article? It's about young black men in gangs. All avenues to caring about the society seem cut off for them; and if they try to leave the gang, then they get shot. I'm pessimistic about what "we" can do except to work harder to see that they don't get in the gangs in the first place.

Yes, I agree that we get many things right for black youth. But the gangs take, I think, the place of the absent family, in a community without structure.

Travelfish
Travelfish

More likely it's simply a result of growing up without a father in the home.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Travelfish 

Many single black mothers are just like Superintendent Arnold's mother. "Steel magnolias" are not only Caucasian. (And in fact, the 1989 movie of that name is being re-made with an all-black cast, with the title role played by---Queen Latifah.)