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Since it’s the night before mother’s day, it seems like an opportune time to reflect back on my mother, Freda Rebelsky. The essay is perhaps even more self-indulgent than is my norm, but I think it’s appropriate for the occasion.

As I reflect back, much of who I am and how I act comes from my mother, Freda Rebelsky. My approach to the world, many of the things I enjoy, my talents all seem to draw from watching her. (No, it’s not because she was a child psychologist and developed clever interventions to make me who I am.) I can’t hope to cover everything about her in a short essay, but I thought I’d focus on the things that first come to mind as having a big influence on who I am.

Mom clearly cared about people. She listened to her students, colleagues, and friends, and gave good advice. She also did some things that I thought were excessive, such as buying cheap umbrellas to keep in the car in case she saw people who need an umbrella when it rained, but it stemmed from a clear desire to make a difference in other peoples’ lives. I can think of way too many examples of her going out of her way to help someone - to loan money, to lend an ear, to just check in.

Mom was also an incurable optimist. She assumed the best in everyone. (Well, almost everyone; I’m not sure she assumed the best in John Silber.) Even when I would have thought someone was taking advantage of her, or approaching a situation with less-than-good intentions, she would tell me that I just didn’t understand. She was also convinced that she could make a difference in the world, which strikes me as a particular brand of optimism.

This does not mean that she thought everything was good; she certainly acknowledged lots of problems. And she also thought it was important to speak out against things that were wrong. When I was a young faculty member, mom said something interesting to me: Many young faculty members don’t speak out for fear of not getting tenure. But by the time they get tenure, they are used to keeping quiet. And so they stay quiet. (That’s a paraphrase, as is every quotation in this essay, in case you couldn’t tell.) Mom certainly wasn’t afraid to speak out, even when it caused her problems. (I still find it depressing that in 1994, when we were both teaching my salary as a visiting professor at Dartmouth was about the same as hers was as a senior professor at BU; her regular barbs at John Silber clearly kept her salary low.)

Mom was also a creative and thoughtful teacher; there’s a reason she won the APA teacher of the year award and the Danforth (I think) award at BU. She reminded me early on that different students show strengths in different ways, and she was great at letting students choose individual approaches. Some students write essays well; some answer test questions well; some design projects well. She wasn’t afraid to choose approaches that played to student strengths. She also wasn’t afraid to challenge assumptions. I remember a time when she ended up giving everyone in a seminar an A. When challenged (I don’t believe everyone in a class can earn an A. And I know some of your students; they aren’t A students.) she showed the challenger that all of the students had done A-level work.

Mom loved nature. I was always impressed by the birds, and the plants, and the animals that she could name. I share her joy in being out in nature (although I don’t remember to partake in that joy enough), but I don’t have her exhaustive knowledge of things.

Mom cared deeply about the arts. She loved music, theatre, painting, sculpture, literature, and more. She also believed that the arts were important for all. I can’t remember the context, but I remember talking about some social service programs with her, and she said Yes, we need to make sure that people are fed, clothed, and housed. But we need to give everyone access to the arts. Without art, what’s the point?

Mom was also frustrating, stubborn, challenging, and more. She made some bad decisions (and some really bad decisions). But as I reflect back, I see not only that I was incredibly fortunate to grow up with someone like her, but that I frequently approach the world like she did (although rarely quite as successfully).

Thanks mom!

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-10-13.