A Legacy of Strength


A friend of mine asked his eight-year-old son last night, “what did you learn in school today?” Multiplication is looming large, with it being third grade and all. He told his dad, “We learned about carrying the pig today.” The immediate assumption, of course, was that this was some clever invention of an enterprising teacher who was hoping that a visual reference might help the mathematical concept of carrying numbers stick.

Au contraire. No math lesson here, it was simply a fable. The teacher told a story about a farmer who carried a pig day after day, either up a mountain or across a bridge (we’re sketchy now on those details) into an adjacent field where the pig was growing bigger and bigger with each passing day. A traveler, who’d hung around long enough to observe this daily trek for a while, decided to speak up one day, offering some well-intentioned advice, “You know, that pig is just gonna get heavier and heavier,” said the traveler to the farmer. The bovine burdened farmer replied, “Yeah, but I’m getting stronger and stronger.”

This ended up being a timely message delivered from an eight-year-old who’d remembered his lesson well. You never know who will end up teaching whom.

My daughter recently joined the ranks of Teach for America. If you are not familiar with TFA, it is a remarkable, national program which enlists some of the brightest, most determined, socially-conscious and optimistic young people in our nation to commit to two years of teaching in some of our poorest public schools in our country. Lauren has been assigned to Memphis. It’s a lot like being in the military, except the corps members are armed with NEVER say die, and books, when they can get them, instead of guns.

Lauren was telling me last night what she learned in school that day;  that it may be weeks before she has enough books for her sixth grade social studies students; that if the copy machine runs out of toner, the teachers have to figure out how to fix it themselves so they can run off copies of the materials they need because the school doesn’t have enough books; that the 16-hour days she is putting in just to keep her head above water are not likely to end any time soon;  and she’s gotta have all her grades in right after Labor Day, while she scrambles to find someone who can teach her how to do it; and that there is not one minute during the day, lunch included, that she does not have a student velcroed to her body. 

TFA is also a lot like the military because they drop these fresh recruits right into the grease and tell them to bone up on their survival skills. Some days, I know it probably feels like she’s got the weight of a big ol’ pig around her shoulders. But then, yesterday, she sent me this picture that a little girl in her class drew for her. I was thrilled for her. I told her to keep it someplace handy for those moments when the enormity of the steep learning curve she’s climbing feels insurmountable. I also told her to keep a flask in her top drawer, but that’s probably not prudent. I told her to relish the good moments — to focus on small victories.

Not bad for someone who has been teaching for one month.

This reminded me of my brother Don. Don spent close to forty years of his life working to improve public education. He started out in inner city schools in south Dallas, then moved to barrio schools in Albuquerque. He was the lanky, and beloved, although probably not sufficiently feared, long-haired hippy teacher with a slight Texas accent who was tackling mid-school students whose most common denominator was how much time their mothers, sisters and girlfriends would spend out in the parking lot of the city jail communicating through make-shift sign language to their loved ones inside when it was their turn at the fifth-floor window. I’m not being hateful, just honest. It was an uphill battle. He left classroom teaching to affect positive change at a higher level, becoming the President of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation and for the first time in the state’s history, helped secure the right of collective bargaining for teachers throughout New Mexico. 

Don was one to watch among the ranks of the American Federation of Teachers, the national organization of which the Albuquerque union was a part. He spent a great deal of time in Washington, D.C., helping to build better educational programs and policies, to help elevate public school teachers, hold them accountable through fair measures, and above all else, to continually strive towards improving public education for the millions of students in our country who depend on it. This is social justice by any other name.

After twenty years of union work, he went back to the classroom to teach and to run a program for homeless kids to bring them to school and to keep them there.  He worked with Americorps kids right out of college in a Title XX program to not only help locate students who had no permanent addresses, but to get registered for school, to get them there and sometimes, even put clothes on their backs.

We’re a family of criers — I will never forget him telling the story, and not being able to get through it without choking up,  of trying to find size 13 boots for this gangly kid he was trying to get outfitted for 9th grade. They found the ideal boots! He said that 13-year-old boy was never so proud of anything in his life. Our family had no idea the breadth of the incredible, life-changing work my brother did to change the lives of young people until we heard about it at his funeral. We learned a lot of the details of Don’s day-in, day-out determination, delivered by a fellow union colleague, career educator and public servant, much like my brother.

Don and his son Kevin, Monterey Bay, December 1972

My brother Donald Wayne Whatley died from pancreatic cancer two years ago today. It was fitting that his funeral was on Labor Day, he had devoted his entire life to raising the standard of living for the working class. He was a teacher in more ways than I can begin to describe. He inspired my daughter to pick up her pig and carry it. I am told, although she’s never really wanted me to read it, that it was her essay about her Uncle Don, that separated her from the pack of thousands of college graduates who apply for Teach for America, but don’t make the grade. Every day, her pig is getting heavier and heavier. If you get a sec, say a prayer that she’ll continue to get stronger and stronger.

About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. Hi Jean,

    Thanks for this wonderful tribute to Don. It’s a great reminder of what a great human being he was.
    It brought on the tears to read it. I wish for the best for your daughter.. How great that is.. It looks like she is taking after her uncle. Best of luck to you as well.

  2. Lana Sue Dietrich says:

    I love your writing, I love you and I love that you help us all to remember our Sweet Don and the impact he had on our lives. Thank you from the bottom of my heart and ….. I took a moment to say a little prayer for Lauren. How proud you must be. XO

  3. Jean,
    You make me laugh,you make me cry,and oh so proud to know you! Our precious Don lives on in your beautiful way with words.
    Lauren is doing great work! Much love to you.

  4. Jennie Mauldin says:

    Hi Jean,
    I am a friend of your sister-in-law, Beverly. I too love your writing and this was just beautiful! My niece graduated from El Dorado High School (here in Albuquerque) last year..I went to the Senior awards ceremony and was moved to tears when they presented a student with the Don Whatley scholarship. I listened as the presenter talked about Don and how important it was to him that homeless children be given the opportunity for a good education. I so wish I had known him…I really think I could have learned so much from him! Lovely tribute and I know Lauren will be an awesome teacher.

  5. Rodney Caldwell says:

    This is really neat. Don was my friend for over three decades and when I got married, Don and Beverly were a part of Debbie and my life’s for about the same length of time. We shared camping trips, fished for trout in New Mexico, played golf together and enjoyed each others company. Oh yeah, ate some good green chile. Don encouraged me when I went back to college as not a young man and rejoiced when I got my degree. He and the rest of you Whatleys have always been a blessing in my life:) hey Sue saw your comment love u.

  6. Rodney Caldwell says:

    Oh yeah keep the dog:)

    • Oh yeah, me and Lib, we’re thick, man. Thanks for the kind words about my big brother. Good to hear from you Rod. Tell everybody you know to buy my book, man, Libby’s out of dog biscuits!

  7. Karen Whatley says:

    Hey Jean, Just read your post to JR, and we both cried. We were always so proud of Don and his incredible inner strength and gentle heart. Don has inspired not just Lauren to teach but a whole slew of his family, including myself, his daughter Amy and his other niece Madison. For myself, if I could affect a fraction of positive change in a student’s life that Don did, well then, I would be greatfull. We’re so proud of Lauren and the work that she’s doing, I’ll say a prayer for Lauren and send her our love and our gratitude for affecting a postitive change in all her students lives! I love reading your words Jean. Thank you for saying whats in all our hearts. Love you.

    • Karen,
      You are so right to remind me that our family is flush with teachers, my God you went back to school in your 40s to get an education degree! And of course his own daughter Amy and niece Madison are teachers. I would never slight any of you all. This is the real deal, the work you guys do, to our collective benefit.But we all know sometimes it’s tough. Sometimes when Lauren calls me when she’s leaving school at 6:30 at night and she’s wiped out, I’m tempted to tell her what Mom used to tell me, “you can’t get tired now, baby.” But Lauren might decide to never come home again.