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Pillars of heritage

A co-worker and close friend, Matt, recently said to me, “We are all educators.”

I would expect this statement, considering we work in higher education, but he and I are not faculty. His point is that we all contribute to the education of those our lives touch.

This is a different twist to traditional education. Education is truly a lifelong endeavor, not to accumulate degrees or certificates awarded by man-made institutions, but to continually be transforming into the fullest “you” that you can be.

Another friend, Steve, shared with me that, for generations at his extended family reunions, the patriarch of the family makes an intentional effort to remind everyone what it means to carry their heritage. He stands before the large gathering and states that to be a part of this clan is to stand on the pillars of faith, family, education and service.

Too many people in our society are just letting life happen, surviving rather than thriving. We either never consider our core identity or we have lost it somehow. Recognizing the core values we want to define us, and then intentionally living out those values, gives our lives meaning and purpose.

At my very roots I believe I stand on the same pillars as Steve. My mother instilled this in me and my siblings by the words she used, but more effectively by the way she lived. I remember her reading her red leather Bible every night, often going to the Psalms to seek comfort in her struggles (Sisters Linda and Amy won this Bible from our elementary school by selling the most garden seeds).

My mom has always been a praying woman. Life was extremely desperate as she struggled to raise eight children on her own in a broken-down log house with no money. Mom often made us kids stay at the house while she climbed the hill to be alone with God. God worked through her prayers in mighty ways, caring for our family and leaving me with holy memories.

I heard the sermon of education preached by my mom from my earliest days. Mom not only wanted the gift of education for her children, she was hungry for it herself. When we were on welfare, mom expressed to her case manager that she wanted to go to school to better our lives. The case manager was a pitiful excuse for a people helper. She told mom this was a ridiculous dream. How in the world could she be successful in school with so many children to care for?

Mom took this fatalistic pronouncement as a challenge. We have strong wills in my family. As though the case worker double-dog-dared mom to succeed, she investigated every means possible and took on the challenge. Mom enrolled at Ohio University and attended the “branch,” as we called it, in Ironton. She quit welfare and took on a job in the laundry department of the Ironton General Hospital.

Exhaustion didn’t stop her from attending classes. She always took at least one of us girls with her when she went to school. If the weather was extra cold, the instructor allowed us to sit in the classroom behind Mom. I remember watching her head bob as she struggled to stay awake and taking notes for her, just in case she missed something in the lecture.

When her car wasn’t working, we’d hitchhike to town for her classes. She had an arrangement with the county sheriff that if she walked from Ironton High School after classes to their station, a deputy would drive us home as part of their patrolling of the county.

Years later, Mom graduated with a Bachelor of Education degree and taught special education for many years before retiring.

But the college degree was only a slight portion of what Mom taught us. From her example, we learned the power of education was worth the pain, worry and sacrifices.

Service is a pillar of my family as well. Along the path of overcoming those despairing years, Mom instilled in us the gifts of generosity and compassion.

When she crossed paths with others striving to reach dreams that appeared unreachable, we watched and learned as she shared with them whatever she had. It usually wasn’t something material, but it always included encouragement and faith. Mom taught us how to serve in a way that elevates dignity and believe in the value of every person.

The statements made by my friends at the beginning of this article are realized in my life. I want to say to my siblings, children, nieces, nephews and the generations to come, “To be a part of our clan means we stand on faith, family, education and service.”

With this instilled to the core of their souls, even during dark days when they feel lost in the weeds of life, they can still know who they are. Their identity is still true and sure.

Nora Swango Stanger, a Lawrence County native and Appalachian outreach coordinator for Sinclair Community College, can be reached at norastanger@gmail.com