When I was 16 years old, my mother gave me a copy of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. A rather large tome of a college textbook that highlights the North American canon of literary texts, ranging from the founding of the nation to the beginning of the 21st century. It was definitely a unique gift for a mother to give to her son, but that was just the type of mother she was.
My mother had worked for the university system her whole life, teaching as a professor and managing programs as faculty. She has taught mostly in composition writing, both online (while she raised her four children) and in person. The college she worked at was like a second home to me, playing computer games in the classrooms and reading books in her small office. My mother would tote me around during the summer when I was young because it was easier (and cheaper) than sending me to daycare. I was a quiet kid, and like all children, the adults loved having me around to make jokes with.
I have had a large amount of privilege growing up with a professor for a parent. She has always valued my education, putting it above most things to make my success the most realistic option. While growing up, she would remind myself and my sisters that college was the only option for us, because she described to us in blatant detail that the only way to make a well-paying career in this world would be to get a college degree.
She graduated from high school top of her class, got a full ride scholarship to community college, and worked her way into a masters and eventual PhD program, and she did this mostly on her own without the support of her family. In this way, she has always been an academic role model for me, someone who was consistently beaten down by the system but still managed to rise up to every challenge and overcome it. Her accomplishments are impressive; however, it is the same standards she put on herself that she puts on her kids. The constant expectation (often unsaid) she has of academic success is a pressure that I have felt since learning what college was (I can still remember the often serious lessons my mother had taught me in the first grade when we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, and my mother would sit me down and explain all the grades I would need to get and the paths I would need to pursue to make this dream realistic). Going to her and admitting that you were struggling with academics was not even plausible, she oftentimes took the role of professor over mother while raising her children.
Which brings us to the gift of the American Literature textbook. She had found an extra copy lying around that was free from another faculty, and she thought this the perfect idea of a gift to give her so. Don’t get me wrong, I honestly did enjoy the gift quite a bit, but this isn’t the only occasion she has given me textbooks before or after as ways of connecting with me. It was clear that even the little presents she would give me were usually always connected to her expectations of me getting a college degree.
I both appreciate and despise how she went about teaching me the expectation of getting a college degree. On the one hand, I can very much acknowledge my privilege of having a parent who understands the college system so well, who can help me with FAFSA, and in picking classes, and understanding how to take out loans effectively and pay for college and apply and all the other smaller things to think of when it comes to the university system. These were all definite advantages for understanding college, but again, it was the pressure that she instilled that was often crippling. I had a constant fear of failing classes growing up, getting anything below a “B” in a class was often grounds for her to be disappointed, asking if I would be trying harder next semester and asking what went wrong in the class. I constantly tried to overachieve and overextend myself in high school, not for my own satisfaction but because that’s what she expected.
During junior year of high school, I was lucky enough to go on a school trip to Europe (which I had worked as a dishwasher for a year to be able to pay for). During this trip, I had brought one book to keep me occupied on the long plane ride and the constant train rides during the travelling, and that was the Norton anthology of North American Literature my mother had given me. I brought it because I was enrolled in an AP U.S. History course, and I thought it best to study some of the text for the exam coming up in a few months. It was somewhat comical, seeing this American tourist with a rather large textbook on American texts in Europe, but that was something I wouldn’t realize until much later on. Even while on this trip, a fun little vacation overseas, I am still constantly studying per my mother’s expectations. What should have been a break was often interrupted with studying for an exam that if I passed would have given me several college credits (I ended up doing very well on the exam, whether that was because the high expectations my mother had put on me or the constant studying I cannot tell, probably a mix of both). This moment is how I often see my relationship with my mother and education, that even in times of enjoyment and relaxation, I cannot escape the fear of failing her expectations of me, and so I have often pushed myself to the point of exhaustion in hopes of impressing her.