by Karen Nemeth
If you knew my mom, Ty Nelson, these pictures wouldn’t surprise you. But, if you know my work now, would you have guessed I had a mom like that? She had a sweater or vest for every season and holiday! I hope reading this will bring up all kinds of memories for you – so please comment and share your memories of early childhood education… and my mom!
Today I arrived at the National Association for the Education of Young Children
Annual Conference & Expo (NAEYC) in Atlanta. Last time I was here for the NAEYC conference, my mom was here, too! My mom was a member of NAEYC in the 60s. She was a nursery school teacher for about 50 years – because when she retired, she started right in the as the volunteer Music Lady at the same Packanack Cooperative Nursery School where she taught, where my brother and I attended, and where my daughters also attended. When she passed away in 2007, many grownups were there to share their memories of my mom as their first teacher – and they brought their children who also knew my mom as the Music Lady.
My mom went to high school with astronaut, Buzz Aldrin. He signed her yearbook, which was a big deal because he was a leader even then. Do you think his career was more influential than my mom’s?? Just think of how many young lives she touched! And, by inspiring me, think of how many more teachers and young children have been touched by her legacy!
My mom did her student teaching at Bank Street. She had a New Jersey N-8 teaching certificate at a time when early childhood teachers had to demonstrate proficiency on a musical instrument to get certified. How many of you remember playing a real instrument with your kids? She was an original developmentally appropriate teacher and mom. I grew up making my own play dough, whipping ivory soap flakes with water to paint snowy textured pictures, creating fairy houses in the garden, and acting out grand theatricals in the living room with my mom accompanying on the piano. How many little girls grow up dancing to the dramatic Hall of the Mountain King or the Nutcracker Suite these days? I was never allowed to have talking dolls or things that “did the playing for you.” Our basement was lined with shelves filled with the tools of her work: empty coffee and juice cans, toilet paper roles, old magazines and greeting cards, buttons, pine cones, scraps of wallpaper, yarn and cloth … and dress up clothes by the trunkful!
Even so, I did not set out to be an early childhood educator. I studied psychology and language development. But, sure enough I got drawn into the field bit by bit moving from college faculty to professional development presenter to author and consultant. But my mom never saw me do my job – for nearly 25 years – until the last time NAEYC was in Atlanta in 2006. She had moved south by then and was able to come over to the conference. She sat in on my workshop on strategies for using technology to meet the needs of DLLs (see how this all comes together?). She loved it… And of course I had her stand up and take some of the credit.
But she was having trouble walking – I could see something was wrong – but we didn’t yet know what it was. With some help, she made it down to the exhibit hall. Can you imagine the look on her face when the doors to that magic wonderland opened? She asked for a copy of the conference book to show her friends. It was too far for her to walk so I said “wait here by this stage and I’ll get it.” When I came back there was my silly, little, white haired mom doing the chicken dance along with Red Grammer as he performed on stage! You better believe I got her a copy of that CD signed by Red!
Soon after that my mom’s health deteriorated and she was barely able to communicate, but she always responded to those nursery school songs. She listened to that Red Grammer CD till the end — always with a twinkle in her eye. She passed away in 2007. In 2008, my granddaughter Vivi was born and those traditions started up again right on cue. Guess who now makes her own play dough with me and creates grand theatrics in my living room to the Nutcracker music? And then along came her brother, Wyatt, and her cousin Theo. My collection of preschool music and dress-up clothes and empty containers is growing. And now here I am back in Atlanta for the NAEYC conference and it means more to me than ever. I hope you’ll comment and share your memories – maybe we can make a nice collection to pass on to the next generation!