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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Looking to the past can help us forge our future

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 11 2012 5:02 p.m. MST

My parents did an amazing job instilling the importance of education in each of us, and they did it all while being supportive and encouraging. I've always wanted to follow their role with my own children — but I always thought, I want to do that with my children someday.

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My kindergarten teacher's name was Mrs. Henley.

She was an older woman with short, permed hair that was dyed light brown, although in certain light, her hair looked like it was plated gold. It matched her gold-painted fingernails that were flawlessly manicured to the perfect length and her gold sweater dress with the thick elastic belt that hit just below the knee.

I vaguely recall that she even wore gold lipstick, to round out her outfit, but that seems a little unreasonable now.

My memories of her are faint, even though I mostly remember what she looked like, and how it felt to sit in her class in those first days at school at a short desk with a hard wooden top and a rounded metal bottom.

How is it that I can still remember my own kindergarten experience, but my daughter is almost old enough to start creating her own first memories of school? It doesn't seem possible.

Education has always been a big deal in my family. All of my siblings and I skipped a grade or two and were the youngest students in our classes. Two of my siblings earned Ivy League educations and Ph.Ds. Another sibling had a full scholarship to college. We spent our summers completing workbooks of school curriculum, and I spent hours with my father, one on one, studying biology and calculus and algebra II. My parents always went to parent-teacher conference, and they always made us do our homework before we could go play.

My parents did an amazing job instilling the importance of education in each of us, and they did it all while being supportive and encouraging. I've always wanted to follow their role with my own children — but I always thought, I want to do that with my children someday.

Now that someday is here, I'm not sure how to begin.

My parents' dedication to education started with their own parents. My father did for us what his mother did for him, so I look to her — her legacy, that is — for answers.

My grandma, Fleeta Choate, died before I was born, but so much of who she was has indirectly shaped my life in ways I never considered before I made a concerted effort to learn about her. To me, she is a key to the mysteries of the lost art of motherhood. Not only am I fascinated to hear stories about her, but thinking of her unlocks my mind to the value and treasure of the rest of my relatives who died before I met them. Fleeta shaped my dad, who shaped me; but Fleeta's mom, Arizona Lewis, shaped her first, and so on. There is a whole world of mysteries to discover.

Today, however, I'll start with Fleeta's approach to education.

As my dad tells it, Fleeta was so invested in her children's education she hosted a dinner and reception for all of the teachers at the nearby elementary school. She wore a gown for the event, and they used their best furniture to welcome their honored guests.

She was part of the PTA, of course, and she studied out special programs for my dad that taught advanced math. She drove him across the state to Latin contests, insisted he learn how to play piano, enrolled him in speech classes, and by the time he was in seventh grade, she was back in college, working on her own bachelor's degree.

She constantly told my dad to "push on through" when she, herself, probably felt discouraged with her own goals to earn a college degree. She worked and went to school and raised a family — and she never gave up. She set her own example of educational excellence that has the power to reach all the way down to her great-granddaughter, and beyond.

I wonder if, once upon a time in a little depression-era house in Oklahoma, she thought to herself, "Someday, I'm going to go to college."

And maybe, like me, she realized that someday is already here.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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