I am on my way out of the house when my cell phone rings. I look down and see my mother’s face lighting up the screen before I slide my thumb across the smooth surface and answer.
My mom’s voice holds more excitement than usual. “You’re on speaker with my class! Kids, this is my daughter.”
This isn’t the first time this has happened. My mother, a middle school counselor and teacher, has asked me to talk to her fifth grade students before. She has deemed me, a recent Notre Dame graduate, worthy to serve as a role model. Usually, she gives me advance notice. Other times, like today, it feels like a friendly ambush. Every time, my mother’s voice takes on a heartbreakingly proud tone. It is I who should be proud though.
I take a deep breath, aware that expectant little eyes and ears are focused on my mom’s phone. “Hi guys!” I smile, sit down and put my car keys on the counter. I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.
The woman known as Ms. Jansen to her students launches into questions about communication, time management and treating others with respect. I do my best to reiterate the wisdom she has imparted to me.
We wrap up the conversation but my mind lingers on my mother’s whimsical office in Cass Junior High School. Since I was small, I loved visiting her there.
The walls are barely visible beneath a collection of posters — Michael Jordan, the Beatles and shots of Notre Dame’s campus — all offering aspirations. An eclectic mix of lamps gives the cozy space an orange glow. Fluorescent lights have no business here.
Above her perpetually cluttered desk, there hangs a sponge-painted bulletin board. I can still see her, in raggedy, stained clothes, painting it herself. Why settle for plain old corkboard? On it are tacked pictures of my sister and me through our life stages. First grade school photos intermingle with senior portraits and graduation snapshots.
Here and there, I spot notes I’ve left for my mom over the years. “Good morning mama. I hope you have a great day!” Some are written in wobbly child’s script while others reflect my current honed handwriting. She has kept them all.
In the fall, there are pumpkins here. In the winter, there are snow globes and sweet-smelling potpourri. All year round, there are twinkle lights artfully strewn across the two couches in the corner. I always wonder how these lights haven’t been deemed a fire hazard. My mom’s brain doesn’t entertain such worrisome thoughts.
The office is an oasis. A safe place for the thousands of students who have come to see Ms. Jansen over the 35 years she has worked here. That tenure is longer than my entire lifetime.
If you sit in on one of her classes or watch her interact with a troubled student, you’ll see what it looks like when someone is answering their calling. My mom becomes a different person in this place. Not in an inauthentic way. In the most authentic way. Here, she embodies her purpose with effortless grace.
Her class is called Choices.
When my sister was little, she proclaimed, “I know what she tells them in there.” And then sighed with the wisdom of a 4-year-old who has heard it a hundred times, “She tells them to make good choices.”
I’m convinced there is no set curriculum. There are definitely no tests. I’m also convinced that it’s the most important class those fifth graders may ever take. She teaches them how to be good humans.
One main theme runs through her lessons. It is a word printed on a sign that hangs in our family kitchen. It is the credo by which my mom lives her life. And it is what she has taught me. Empathy.
Empathy drives her work. Only by putting herself in her student’s place, by feeling what they feel, can she see how to help them. She has seen it all too – divorce, abuse, depression, bullying, eating disorders, learning disabilities, suicide.
I know she has saved lives. Some students, after they’ve gone on to high school and then college, have told her so. They’ve written or visited to say that they wouldn’t have made it without her. I know I wouldn’t have.
And now she has decided to retire. The next school year will be her last. I wonder if they’ll ever get all the remnants of her “creativity” off the walls of that office. I worry for the children who will pass through this school without my mother there to guide them.
While she looks back on 35 years of making a difference, I find myself staring forward wondering what my life will look like. My mother exemplified the purpose a career can have, and now I can’t unsee that potential.
As I try to navigate the real world and watch my peers do the same, I continually stumble, get up and falter again in an effort to figure out just what I am meant to do in this life.
What is my purpose? It feels odd to ask such an existential question, but I worry that it isn’t asked often enough. Is this conversation taking place during late night discussions with friends or between parents and children? I worry that we’re so concerned with gaining stability, finding a partner and achieving status that we overlook purpose, fulfillment.
Is it enough to do something that makes you happy? Is the point to make others happy or at the very least improve their lives? Is it to reproduce and provide for your family? That is certainly a noble task.
The answers may not point to the life we expected. It may not be as comfortable as we would like or as recognized. But it will be alive. Perhaps it isn’t about what type of job you do, but how you do it, how you devote yourself. That old adage, it’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.
Ms. Jansen, in her crazy office in its own little corner of the world does not receive acclamation. But what she does matters. It has to do with taking this beautiful struggle that is life and making it easier for someone.
Her approach is the opposite of my generation’s. She is face-to-face, not reliant on technology or social media. She is loyal to her school. We are over stimulated, restless, constantly documenting and quick to change jobs. I see my peers looking for greener pastures, and I am certainly guilty of this perpetual dissatisfaction. This restlessness could lead us away from our purpose. When the time comes for us to devote ourselves to something that matters, I hope we’re able first to recognize the opportunity and second, seize it.
By our standards, my mother would be a failure. No high salary. No ascending career trajectory. And yet, I know she is a huge success. She is not complacent. She chose this profession. She understands that her work is not about her and is willing to sacrifice for it.
She says she doesn’t want a retirement party. She doesn’t need the fuss. There is perhaps no one who deserves fuss more than Ms. Jansen.
Elle Metz is currently a master’s student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.