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Mother’s lesson lasts a lifetime

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Updated: June 13, 2013 6:14PM

No child should ever go hungry. If you’ve done the best you can; that’s all you can do.

Share what you have with others who don’t have as much.

That was the worldview of my mother, and her words are with me always.

A child of the Great Depression, she went to work in a sewing factory as a teenager. It was what they called a sweatshop in those days. If you needed to use the washroom, you had to raise your hand and get approval.

She never finished high school, a fact that would torment her throughout her life,

That’s why she read the newspaper religiously every day, trying to understand the world, learn new words and comprehend political events that often confounded her,

There was a time when newspapers served as the gateway to the world for the working poor. Through them they learned about foreign lands, science, famous people, and maybe even got a chuckle from the funny pages.

My mother imparted her love for newspapers to me, along with the joy of learning and story-telling.

But most of what my mother knew, the really important stuff, came from her life experience.

For me, as a child growing up on the Southwest Side of Chicago, racism was a part of everyday life.

My playmates often used vile language to describe people different from ourselves. Those words had no meaning to me, but were repeated to demonstrate I was one of the gang.

“Never use that word again,” my mother scolded. “You don’t like it when people call you names, do you?”

Embarrassed, angry and wanting to save face, I turned to the universal defense every mother hates to hear.

“But all the other kids . . . ”

“There are good people and bad people of every color; in every religion,” my mother said.

“Judge each person by the way they treat you. And never let other people tell you how to judge someone else.”

It would be decades before I learned that my mother harbored some racist views.

Initially, I was shocked. Disappointed.

The child in me was tempted to confront her with the very words she had used herself: “There are good people and bad people of every color..”

And then I was overcome by a sense of awe.

My mother had imparted in me a belief that all people are equal. She had taught me not to be influenced by the bigotry of others.

Most adults cling to their biases like toddlers clutching security blankets for comfort.

They pass them down to their children as a sort of inheritance.

Of all the lessons my mother taught me, out of the thousands of acts of kindness she showed me, none seem as important now as her decision to raise me to think differently than she did.

I never saw my mother say an unkind word to anyone. Never witnessed an overt act that could be interpreted as intolerant or cruel.

Yet, like most people, she just gave in to the idea that “people like us” must be better than “people like them.”

It’s the sort of thinking that finds widespread acceptance in every social class, every church, every country.

In its best form it could be called self-esteem or considered national pride.

But far too often it becomes fertile soil for intolerance and cruelty.

No one is perfect. Everyone has their flaws. There’s something about human nature that drives us to see others as less worthy than ourselves.

It isn’t always about hatred, but more often simply about feeling superior.

My mother shared the knowledge gained from a lifetime of learning to me. But she decided there were some things that I should not be taught.

You could call that courage, or even wisdom. I would simply call it love.

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