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Momshells Part 2, One Poet's Mother

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is a poet, professor, and columnist.  
This week, he shares an inspiring interview with his own righteous mom.

At the age of 53 and after 25 years of service as a Special Education teacher in the public schools, my mother retired to volunteer full-time for Al Gore’s campaign for President. At the time I was a sophomore at Virginia Tech and was shocked when she called to inform me of her decisions. I was immediately proud of her for making a change. I’d watched her go through the trials and tribulations of being a Special Ed teacher, mother of two, and wife to a mad scientist. 

After several months of volunteering at Gore Headquarters in my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, she was eventually hired by the campaign and, after he failed to become president, went on to become one of Nashville, Tennessee’s most respected women in campaign politics. In the years since, she’s done everything from running local council and mayoral races to passing a law that reinstates a felon’s voting rights to travelling around the country in 2008 for Hillary Clinton.


Andrew: You were raised in a family that believed women did one of two things: get married, raise children, and, perhaps, be a schoolteacher. You did both very well for many years. What prompted the change?

Linda: The school system I worked in was never going to be able to fund the kinds of supports and interventions my severely handicapped children needed to improve. For several years before my retirement, I had fought with my administration to get necessary changes -- and lost. If I had understood how change really occurs, I might have gotten what was needed, but then I could not have been a teacher.

Andrew: It was really hard on you. You were tired of being “stuck in the mud,” but that that feeling wasn’t just in the classroom, was it?

Linda: Right, I was raised by Victorian, Southern people. The most important day in a Southern girl’s life was her Wedding Day. My job in life was to catch a good man (preferably a medical doctor or lawyer) and to raise successful children. The woman’s role was to support and enhance her husband’s career. None of this was spoken, you must understand. The communication was osmotic; we soaked it up and went along with the program. We girls were not encouraged to be instrumental; we were not taught to be active doers. We were not taught to speak our minds...or to even have minds. We were raised to be servants.

Your grandparents were socialists, and they talked about this. They believed people should have what they need to get by and that it was wrong for a small group to hoard resources. Healthcare was a basic right; they were resentful of doctors (including the same doctor I was supposed to marry) who had so much wealth.

My parents went right along with the rules of the day regarding raising girls but filled my head with socialist thoughts. Maybe that was their way of pushing the envelope.

Andrew: It sounds like they may have been conflicted about all of this, but didn't have a way to express themselves. Was part of your decision to become an “active doer” motivated by a desire to show other women and mothers that they, too, could make a change?

Linda: Mostly, I found political work extraordinarily interesting. I was “infected” with that political virus. Teaching Special Ed is horribly isolating. You’re stuck in a room for 8 hours a day. Maybe if you teach kindergartners you get visitors, but people rarely visited us. I love meeting people and hearing their stories. I was fascinated with finding the people inside my disabled students and helping them have a voice of some kind. Sort of what I still do, except with larger numbers of people. Helping people find a voice and figuring out the change that should follow.

Teaching Special Ed is also connected to the work I do now. There’s a lot of difficulty and chaos and confusion. You have to do hard things every day. You have to persevere. You don’t teach autistic people anything quickly, and you don’t make political change quickly either. As Hillary Rodham Clinton said the other day, world affairs are confounding and complicated.

Andrew: How have these experiences changed you as a woman? I taught you how to use a computer when you first started. Over and over, you would say “I can’t do this; I’m not smart enough.” That’s not the vase anymore.

Linda:  A lot of the credit goes to your dad. He saw that I was smart a long time ago and made me do things I was afraid of, like learning to read maps. [Laughing.] After a while, when I came up against a new obstacle, I learned to say “I have been here before and I figured it out. I can figure this out, too!" That was a very liberating thing to learn. Now I get great pleasure in learning new things. I don’t take on political projects if there’s nothing new to learn.

Andrew: Come now, Dad didn’t do what you did. [Laughing.] You could have walked away. Many people do. And you could have quit politics after Florida in 2000. It sounds like you and Dad are a great team. How has all of this changed your marriage?

Linda:  Dad and I met as teammates, and we have perfected that model over the years. We are a great team, like and Barack and Michelle. Dad has become my “information officer.”  He reads more than I do about politics and has a fantastic “big picture” mind. I am the detail person, the one who accomplishes the goals.

Andrew: Forgive me, but I remember you being a much more deferent mother before I went to college. When I came back, I was like “Whoa, where’d Mom go?!” Now you say what you think, and you refuse to agree to “get along.” How has all of this changed you as a mother?

Linda: You must not know much about post-menopausal women. [Both laughing.] Getting a new career and getting you and Elizabeth out on your own meant that I could have a life -- that I chose -- for the first time. I wanted to marry and have you two very, very much, but it was really hard to raise you and teach school and be a good wife to Dad while he was getting a Ph.D. When that was finished, I got my chance to shine. I regret that I figured all this out so late in my life, but I’m staying healthy and plan to do what I want to do for another 20 years.

I’m good at building bridges among and between people. While being older in my field used to be more difficult for me because so many of my co-workers were SO young, I don’t worry about it much anymore. I’m good with young people in politics. I admire their technical skills, and they count on me for the wisdom of age. I help them understand that the curtain goes down in my brain at 8:00PM and rises again at 5:30AM. We work well together.

I have lost friends to death in the last few years, and this makes me evermore aware of the preciousness of the time I have left. I do it for them because they cannot.

Andrew: So... when are you going to run for office? I’m tired of waiting for the next evolution.

Linda: I think I will stay with getting good people in. Running is a lot of work but governing is even more. I don’t want to work that hard...

Andrew: [Laughing.] Thanks, Mom.

Linda: Back to work!



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