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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 25.1 (2004) 212-225

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How Do You Spell Mother?

Sitting on the steps of Long Library on the campus of our small liberal arts college one beautiful fall day, my future husband, Rick, and I daydreamed about getting married and having a family. As we watched the bustle of activity on the central grassy square in front of us, we considered the possibility that our family might not be the ideal that we dreamed of, that our child or children might not be able to have, or perhaps not even want, a college education. What would we do if we had a child who was "not academically inclined?" Even at that point we knew that our lives would always entail research and writing. As we talked about the issues as we saw them, we decided that, although higher education was essential for us, it was not necessarily the best path for everyone. It would be our goal to instill in our future child or children the worth of human achievement in its many forms and the quest for the best quality of life possible. The truth is, in our altruistic discussion that day, it never occurred to us for a moment that we might have a mentally retarded child whose challenges would be greater than just choosing technical courses over academic ones. But here I am, many years later, waking up every morning to a reality that includes not one, but two children with cognitive disabilities. These two children, Maria and Isaac, did not come into our lives by the traditional way, but joined our family of four over a period of years as their parents died from AIDS.

I got a glimpse of what the future would be like with the children one day when Rick and I took Mary, their biological mother, to a conference with school officials who had gathered to discuss her five-year-old daughter Maria's academic future. The room was not air-conditioned on that hot August day, and the open window let in a suggestion of fresh air as well as the noise of traffic on the busy city street. Mary squirmed on the chair beside me, her gaze shifting from person to person, trying to sort out what was being said. The decision in favor of Maria's entrance into the special education program was reluctantly made by all. Each person at the table had to sign a form that indicated both agreement and relationship to the child. Mary looked at me questioningly [End Page 212] as the paper made its way around the table. When her turn came, she signed her own name in a hesitant scrawl, then leaned toward me and whispered, "How do you spell Mother?" As I replied, I was struck by the symbolism of that question. It is a moment I have never forgotten.

I served, in that situation, as an intermediary between the text and the reality, a kind of keeper of the word; it is a role that I have both cherished and feared. On the one hand, I cherish it in the classroom and dedicate myself to making language and literature live for my students. On the other hand, I fear it, because there is a tremendous amount of power in being a "keeper of the word." This role has made me reflect on my own relationship to literacy. Once, at a conference get-to-know-you session, we were asked to respond to the question: What was the most valuable thing you have ever accomplished? When it was my turn, I responded, "Reading... I learned to read." I can still remember the somewhat shocked reaction of the other members of the group, as they turned to look at me and said, "That's it?" What they couldn't seem to understand was not only that it was a grand enough accomplishment, but that it also has been the key to nearly everything I am.

I have always pursued an academic...