By Heather Lyon
Before I ever was a mom, I was a teacher. At that time, I was an English teacher and so teaching poetry was par for the course. One of the poems that I taught was Langston Hughes’ poem, “Mother to Son.” In case you’ve never read it, here it is.
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
With my students, we talked about the imagery and symbolism. We talked about the tone and the metaphor. Mostly, we talked about the message. What was Hughes trying to tell the reader of this poem? Why would he have chosen the persona of a mother as the narrator of the poem? Why is it possible that this poem is autobiographical? Is this message one that Hughes is wanting the reader to follow as well? Why or why not?
I am now an avid audiobook listener (who knew I could read and drive, read and do laundry, or read and make dinner?!). I recently listened to the book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Like “Mother to Son,” Between the World and Me is a message from a parent to a son about navigating the world. Like Hughes, Coates expresses the hardships of the journey from the perspective of the wizened adult to the unblistered child. Though one piece is poetry and the other prose--each piece has one specific person in mind as the intended audience and each knows that the world-at-large is also able to listen in.
It is the listening in that makes each so compelling. There is a sense of intimacy between the parent relaying a message to the child. Juxtaposed with the intimacy is the feeling of intrusion. This message is not directly for me--I am not a son, and I am certainly not one of the sons for whom either of these pieces were written.
I am, however, a mother with sons. I have a ten and fourteen-year-old son. If I followed Hughes and Coates’ lead, I would tell my sons about my challenges, my hardships and my struggles. Though Hughs and Coates are not trying to compete with the reader nor each other, what I know is that my life has been a crystal stair. Though I have had relative challenges, hardships, and struggles, they are nothing compared to what my parents or their parents experienced. My grandparents on my mother’s side were Holocaust survivors. My maternal grandfather lost his mother, father, and only sibling in concentration camps. My grandmother was interned during the war and lost her fair share of family members as well. The deaths of my grandparents’ loved ones were brutal and senseless. For a time, my mother was on welfare when I was a child after she divorced my biological father. My mom has repeatedly been on unemployment while trying to raise her children and keep a roof over the heads of her family. But my life? If my life had rough edges on my crystal stairs, they were worn smooth by the sweat dripping down from my forebearers who paved my way.
Glennon Doyle writes in her book Untamed, “Privilege is being born on third base. Ignorant privilege is thinking you’re there because you hit a triple. Malicious privilege is complaining that those starving outside the ballpark aren’t waiting patiently enough” (p. 181). While those who came before me may have had some real struggles, I am privileged and so are my children. So what do you say to privileged children? How do you raise them (or in a classroom teach them) to understand what they have so that you do not inadvertently raise (teach) them with ignorant or malicious privilege?
Interestingly, Coates addresses this with his son, Samori, who was fifteen at the time he wrote Between the World and Me. Coates acknowledges to Samori that he has a life of ease that Coates did not have at fifteen. While I am sure that Coates would not want his son to have ignorant or malicious privilege, Coates is not wistful for his son to have a childhood like his own.
I think of this as a great difference between us. You have some acquaintance with the old rules, but they are not as essential to you as they were to me. I am sure that you have had to deal with the occasional roughneck on the subway or in the park, but when I was about your age, each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled...I do not long for those days. I have no desire to make you “tough” or “street,” perhaps because any “toughness” I garnered came reluctantly. I think I was always, somehow, aware of the price. I think I somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things. (p. 24)
As a teacher, I may have spent more time talking explicitly about meanings and word choices with my students than I do as a mom with my kids. In the classroom, we dissected and investigated the underlying themes and the authors’ purposes. I think I should do this more as a parent. When I do, I know what the message will be:
I want you to know that it is through the poetry of Hughes and the prose of Coates who may not look like me or lived a life like mine that I am inspired to raise you as men who are not only honorable, but do so through honoring others. My dear boys, I need you to listen to others’ stories and find connections because others have voices that are worth hearing. In this world that appears at this moment to feel so binary, please understand that social justice is not just a passing phase or phrase, but a way of behavior. In this one and only beautiful life that you have, you must find a way to be kind, respectful, and patient, to persevere in your struggles and help others rise. I want you to know that you stand on the shoulders of giants and that it is better to rise through your own achievements rather than to rise through keeping others down. We learn from those who are formal teachers and those who have been put on our path to teach us. In our family, I hope you know that these are lessons for the schoolhouse and for all the places that we call home. I want you to know that your stairs are made of crystal and so you should be grateful to those who polished those stairs for you and give grace to those whose stairs are steeper, rougher, and less stable than yours. What’s more, because your stairs are crystal, you can see through them to those who may be on another path and your responsibility is to not just watch them struggle, but to do something to help their climb. It is my hope that through this message, you will find your voice.
Heather Lyon is the author of the book Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal): Mind-Changing Theory and Strategies that will Create Real Engagement. Heather has a Ph.D. in Educational Administration and an Ed.M. in Reading from the University at Buffalo. She is an Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction, and Technology for Lewiston-Porter Central School District in Western New York. Heather has been a staff developer and held various administrative titles, but the professional title she likes best is learner. She is also a proud wife and mother who values the importance of work/life balance—which is so critical in a profession like ours. Heather lives with her husband and three children, who make her smile and teach her the importance of patience and humor!
Please follow Heather on Twitter @LyonsLetters and visit her website www.LyonsLetters.com.
Coates, T. (2017). Between the world and me (p. 24). New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.
Doyle, G. (2020). Untamed (p. 181). New York, NY: The Dial Press.
Rampersad, A., & Roessel, D. (Eds.). (1995). The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (p. 30). New York, NY: Random House.