Phillips: Want to see American exceptionalism? Look to our moms

When Gov. Greg Abbott picked Donna Bahorich to chair the fractious State Board of Education two years ago, red flags were raised. The newcomer to elective politics lacked public education experience and was a home-schooler.

Consider that the state board’s experience with home-schoolers and social conservatives had been disastrous, with some pushing to water down science standards, such as evolution, and others advancing health textbooks that played up abstinence and downplayed condoms — if mentioned at all.

Such board members delighted in elevating ideology over facts. It’s no wonder teachers’ groups and the media viewed Bahorich with scrutiny. That was true even of several state senators who would have to confirm her appointment as chair.

Against that backdrop, she asked for the editorial board’s endorsement. Struggling to avoid a rush to judgment, I asked about how she would approach the job. “Service,” she said, emphasizing she would serve the public. We went on to talk about the role model who set that example in her life: Thelma Arvella McDaniel, Bahorich’s mother.

That was the ice-breaker.

In several talks with the chairwoman, whose nomination was again unanimously approved last month by the Texas Senate, I learned that despite our differences – race, politics, religion and careers – we both had been raised by strong, independent women who shared common values and purpose. They worked hard, played by the rules, got the best education they could, went to church and practiced the kind of selflessness that put their children’s or neighbor’s needs above their own.

In subsequent interviews, we chatted about our mothers, both of us always noting what a blessing it was to have our moms in their twilight. We shared laughs about how we both grab our mothers on weekends to shop, catch a film or do dinner. They’re not just moms; they’re friends.

Our mothers came from different places: hers reared in the hills of West Virginia in a hardscrabble life of parents who made their way doing farm work and raising children. They lived in rental homes as the family shuffled from West Virginia to Pennsylvania for work.

My mother, Esther Phillips, was born in a Harlem tenement also to laborers, my grandmother, who cleaned homes and other people’s laundry, and grandfather, who chased down ambulances for lawyers and did other odd jobs.

Neither of our mothers graduated from high school, but both earned their GEDs. Bahorich’s mom took on several part-time jobs at various times to help pay the bills while raising three children — one born with heart defects so severe, he had purple skin until age 11.

“Mom had a paper route, delivering the Charleston Daily Mail to the whole region containing several towns,” Bahorich said. “Every day after school, I would join my brother and mother and deliver papers until well after dark.

“She later took on being a Tupperware dealer. Eventually, she worked at a local clothing department store, where she bought material to make some of my clothes.”

My mother, too, had three children. I’m the middle child, as is Bahorich. While working full-time as a secretary for a hospital administrator, mom went to college at night, earning her associates of arts degree from our local community college on Long Island. She raised some grandchildren as her own and helped pay for neighbors’ funerals when they couldn’t afford such expenses.

At nearly 88, she still is independent, living in an apartment less than 10 minutes from my home. She texts me daily, does her banking online and Googles — God knows — too many things. She once ended up on a risqué senior dating site. She ends her texts with “LOL,” which can be very odd when telling the family about a death of someone we know.

She thinks it means “lots of love.” None of us will tell her otherwise.

At nearly 91, Bahorich’s mom isn’t slowing down. She has traveled to Kenya, India, Thailand and Brazil — not to sightsee, but to lay cinder blocks for churches and assist health care workers. At her senior apartment complex in Houston, she runs Caring Friends, which supports neighbors in need.

Both our mothers suffered tragedies, losing children, husbands and siblings. Through it all, they kept their faith and took care of others.

If we want to see American exceptionalism, we need only to look to our moms.

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