My mother reaches five feet tall only in high heels – and even then it’s a stretch. Even though I’m a foot taller, I have always looked up to her. Often she was the breadwinner in the family when my father’s work was slow. She was completely devoted to her family including the extended family. Even now, when my aunts are ill, it is my mother who is always there, caring for them and helping her nieces and nephews. At 84 she is bundle of energy.
One of the things I admire about her most is the lesson she taught me about education and female leadership. My mother grew up in an Italian immigrant family and was raised during the Great Depression and the World War II era. Education, especially for females, was not valued as much as work was. Yet after high school graduation my mother told her father that she was going to nursing school. Of course, he said no. My mother then stood up to her dad (Pops as they used to call him) and refused to back down, something none of her brothers or sisters ever did. In a battle of strong wills, my mother won and my grandfather backed down. One of my aunts told us years later how proud she was of my mother for standing up to Pops.
I bring this up because that battle over education between a father and a daughter more than 60 years ago has impacted my whole life. The educational opportunity that she demanded helped raise a family, and maybe more importantly, showed her own kids the strength of female leadership and the role of woman in society. It was a small battle in the gender war, one witnessed by only a few people but an important one to me and my family.
I’m glad to say that there probably aren’t many girls in our schools today who see those kinds of limits on their career and life because of their gender. Female leadership is plentiful in our public schools from the classroom to the administrative office to Boards of Education. In New Jersey about half of school board members are female. (The national average is 44 percent, according to NSBA.) In the State House and in the halls of Congress in Washington, the number of female leaders is significantly lower: 28 percent in New Jersey’s State legislature and 17 percent in Congress.
Current board members are like my mother – modeling positive leadership as well as the importance of community service to a generation of children. Most of the female board members I have worked with over the years have a passion for public education which began because they were mothers of public school students.
Our male board members also are modeling positive leadership qualities and community service to the next generation. But as Mother’s Day approaches, I wanted to point out how much our society has changed in one lifetime. I also want to point out that, like my mother, small private acts of courage and leadership can have ripple effects for future generations.
Looking back both my parents were very involved in their community. It was expected that you vote, participate in local elections, volunteer at school, in the community and in church. Yet it was my mother who fought the stereotypes and stood up to someone she loved, a much harder endeavor than standing up to someone you don’t like. It was my mother who through her actions, not just empty words, broke some stereotypes. Because she was quiet I did not always see her strength as a boy.
Right now we have many parents serving on boards of education who, like my parents, juggle work responsibilities, their kids’ school, sports and music schedules, and their board duties. I know there are times that it may seem as if you have overextended yourself. Your family may even question why you go to your meetings.
It’s at those hectic, over-scheduled times that I want you to remember that your service as a school board member sets an example for all the children in your community and that your leadership may impact and inspire your own children, even if they don’t realize it for years to come.
I would like to wish all of you who are both board members and mothers a happy Mother’s Day and to thank you for your service to your school district and your support for public education.