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May 30, 2011

The Difference She Made

Dr. Lynn Hoggard is a university professor of French and humanities, as well as an accomplished translator, writer, and poet. The following essay about her mother's role in her ultimately finding her true calling touches on how our mothers, quietly, courageously and without fanfare, change the world into a better and more sacred place.

My Teaching Roots
by Lynn Hoggard
My teaching career doesn’t begin with me. My mother, Ruth Bishop Taylor, who had married early and reared four children while completing undergraduate and graduate degrees, modeled for me the heroism and drama of education. In 1969, when I was a graduate student at home for several weeks between France and the University of Southern California, she was principal of the largest elementary school in Louisiana during federally mandated integration. Two people were murdered in Ascension Parish, and all schools but hers had closed under the pressure. Crosses were burned on my parents’ lawn, their automobile tires were slashed, and they received arson threats to their home and death threats to themselves and their children.
 They won’t win,” I heard my mother tell my father, and her school—Gonzales Elementary—stayed open, because she personally faced down the picketers who refused to allow entry to the forty black students assigned to her school. Taking these students by the hand, two by two, she walked them into the building each morning for as long as the picketers tried to block the way, enduring their threats and insults, under the watchful eyes of an armed National Guard. Her example showed me how much commitment, grit, and guts it can take to educate others.
         Growing up white and female in a then-segregated South, I had a lot to learn about gender, race, region, and myself. I caught fire intellectually at Centenary College, launched a multi-lingual career as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at the University of Michigan, completed my studies in France and at the University of Southern California, began a teaching career at Texas Tech, then married and eventually continued that career at Midwestern State University. As an educator, I at first tried to embody the revolutionary spirit I saw in my mother. Gradually I came to see that her fieriness was not what fundamentally defined her, that she had become that way to uphold values that lived at the very core of her being. Her example and message to me, I slowly discovered, were quite other—and infinitely more subtle and tender—than I had at first understood. In my relationships with my students I try to mirror that quieter, deeper understanding. Not forced by history to be a pioneer, I am, nevertheless, the beneficiary of a pioneer’s courage, having learned from my mother’s hard-won struggles a life-altering lesson.
I am, in effect, one of those forty black students whose hand she securely held as they walked through the valley of the shadow.

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