My Mother the Teacher

Open letter to my mother, Mrs. Presser:

After a career of over 30 years, you are retiring as a public elementary school teacher. As a rookie father of two young children, it is dawning on me what a profoundly delicate balance you have struck between career and family. In the context of your personal journey, your achievements are all the more remarkable.

You moved here from Mexico as a teenager. You faced the challenges of adolescence through the lens of a new immigrant, with the added trials of adapting to a new culture and language. It is a credit to the friendships you forged during your first years in the U.S. that we were brought up with the families of your high school friends. Their children gave toasts at my wedding, and their grandchildren remain fixtures at my own kids’ birthday parties.

You resolved to make such transitions easier for those whose life took a similar path, studying to become a bilingual teacher at UCLA. While a student, you met Dad, and his ribald Cuban sense of humor complemented your more restrained sensibilities. You married, and had barely begun a life together when Dad was diagnosed with lymphoma. You once quietly recalled that when you found out you were pregnant with me, one of Dad’s physicians told you frankly to consider that your child might grow up without a father. I cannot imagine the uncertainty and fear that you must have experienced.

At the end of many months of radiation and chemotherapy, you and Dad were exhausted. You gathered what savings you had left and decided to blow it all on a trip to Europe. The experience restored you both. You returned, broke and very much in love, and dove back into your career as a teacher.

You spent most of your life teaching the children of immigrants, many of them in forgotten or disadvantaged communities. At the end of each school day, a handful of committed “Mrs. Presser alumni” from the older grades would come to your class to help tidy your room, a small show of gratitude for a teacher they still adored. When they entered high school, you instituted a big buddies program where these kids could return to become mentors to your kindergartners. Many became the first in their families to attend college.

You took time off from your work as a teacher to raise four children, shuttling us from swim lessons to reptile classes to Reading Olympics at the local library. When we were old enough, we entered your classroom as helpers. Your love of learning and grasp of the teachable moment, both as mother and educator, were infectious. Three of your children attended Stanford. My brother, ever the black sheep of the family, chose Yale. We remain grateful and proud products of Santa Barbara’s public schools.

You never forgot how to enjoy discovery through a child’s eyes. Over the years this ability delighted your students as it kept you falling in love with the personalities in each new class. When my wife and I discuss job satisfaction in our careers, we refer to you as the gold standard for loving what you do. Dad jokes that you’ll be the only employee in history to retire with over a month’s worth of unused paid sick days.

The years have thrown several challenges your way. A home lost (and rebuilt) following the Painted Cave fire of 1990. The death of your parents. Major health scares and surgeries for you and Dad alike. Despite it all, teaching your kindergartners managed to restore and feed you.

Last month, we celebrated your birthday together. You came home from school with roughly a dozen bouquets of flowers from students and co-workers. Before class that morning, a father brought his guitar and his three children (the oldest in high school, the youngest in elementary school, all graduates of your class) to serenade you.

I am not alone in being awed by your accomplishments; grateful for your contributions to our family and your legacy to our community; and hopeful that the next generation of students is fortunate enough to study under a teacher who makes learning a lifelong love affair.—David Presser


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