08/25/2014 12:24 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2014

With a Conscience: "The Educational White Elephant"

"Let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence." - Plato

Most Sundays, I make my pilgrimage back to my childhood home to visit the matriarch of that home, my mother, 88 years old, child of the Great Depression, and two world wars. She is the toughest of the tough. Ma has lived in her house for close to 60 years and mixed in with all of the challenges, laughter along with heartache. What did we discuss today over the best chocolate chip cookies, EVER? My job as a teacher, her experiences in school, and of course, parenting. I've never been a parent. But I know what good parenting is and I'm fairly sure it's a combination of the following elements.

Money doesn't mean happiness. We didn't get everything we wanted but never felt neglected. Pop got up every day at 6 o'clock in the morning, battled for the bathroom with my sisters and I and was home by 6 o'clock in the evening. By the time he washed his hands and grabbed a Pabst Blue Ribbon, Mom had a genuine home cooked meal on the table. That would be the third home cooked or home made meal we'd have in a day. There was no such thing as skipping a meal. We sat down, we talked, we laughed, we argued and drove each other crazy.

Tradition. We never felt like we were missing anything. Or if we did feel deprived, we were reminded that our lives were more than full. Our parents made it clear what the priorities were. They were middle-class, thrifty, and with very clearly defined roles. Mom postponed many of her dreams and aspirations to run a well organized home and to be a parent. In turn, we understood that that sacrifice meant our job was school.

Reading matters. I had a library card at the age of four. Library cards cost nothing. The weekly trips to the library were so special. I'd argue with the librarian about what I could read or couldn't read and Mom would back me up and I'd leave with a book that either challenged me or that I just loved reading over and over again. Those books became my peace and even my medicine when I was sick. Mom or one of my sisters would read to me all of the time when I was little. I grew to love reading because, reading meant I grew closer to those I loved. I made my interpersonal connections because of reading. I became comfortable at communicating because of reading.

Respect for others. When we left the house, either to school, to play with a friend or out to a store or restaurant, everyone deserved our respect and our best behavior. There were no arguments about this until today. I found out that Mom, who loved to write, was accused by a teacher that "she couldn't have possibly written what she had...she must have copied it." How many years later, at the table sharing cookies, I told her I had had a similar experience in tenth grade. We had both been somewhat destroyed by the treatment of these teachers. Mom asked me, "Why didn't you didn't say anything." My response, "Because you taught us, the teacher was always right." "You taught us to respect adults." Silence.

If a teacher belittled a student the way my mother and I had been today, there would be parent meetings, and a letter in your professional file. However, as the educational pendulum shifts to the extreme, respect and self-control still mean something. My parents taught me that.
Failure was not an option. I did not graduate with honors in high school. I was an average kid with an acceptable school average. I struggled but failure was never an option like it is today. It was never "OK" to fail anything, from art to English or mathematics. I watched my sisters get their bachelor's degrees and I was going to get one too. Nothing was going to stop me from going to college and building a future even though it took me years to figure out what that future would look like. I went to school with the appropriate notebooks and pens and pencils. I had to maintain my homework and study. The teacher may not always have been right, but I learned that I wasn't going to like everyone who came into my life but I had to show them respect and work with them until I earned my right to move forward.

Patience is indeed a virtue. Whether we were learning how to knit, crochet or play cards or sew, patience was required to succeed in completing any project. I had no patience for these things but I did have patience when writing and my mother would re-read my words and give me input. When I was younger, and I wrote some quirky story, my sisters would take them to school and show their friends. When I struggled with algebra, my sister would sit with me at the kitchen table and try to help me...indeed a lesson in patience for her as well. She, later on, would be the one to successfully teach me to drive. Brave and patient.

I wasn't good at everything my mother taught me but I learned to have patience with people and respect those who actually finished something or won something, particularly when I was beat in canasta or Monopoly. Family dynamics are far from perfect but putting aside the typical dysfunctions that do occur, family support matters. We are not born to be "Robin Crusoe." We need the love and the support of those we love and trust the most. We need that interaction to learn how the world operates.

No one has all the answers. Mom and I talked for hours today but as I drove away, I realized that seven years of teaching made me see the "white elephant" in the room so clearly. We talk politics, test scores, the evaluation of teachers and all of this is a reflection of the times. No one wants to address the role of parents and their correlation to the success of their kids because it's bad politics and bad capitalism. We choose Nike over Payless. We choose iPhones over NO phones. We put money ahead of the progress of our children who need us. The social networking of today needs to be intertwined with appropriate social skills. The skills I learned talking to Mom after school with a chocolate chip cookie and a glass of milk have carried me this far and after today I realized how important they are.

I don't have all of the answers but what I do know is that the sacrifices and caring for our children will raise their excitement for learning and succeeding. If we are to use the word "entitlement," let's use it in correct context. I was not entitled to anything until I could be trusted and have the respect that went congruently with a work ethic. That's an education.

I think I'll have another cookie.