Maya Soetoro-Ng's Learning Story


Our mama taught us how to be simultaneously brave and pliant, and we found ourselves in this winning combination.
Mama Annie was my only teacher for much of my childhood. She home-schooled me through several formative years spent in Central Java, my father’s birthplace. There I made note of the traditional preference that a woman not laugh too hard or be too assertive. There my peers were taught to wait, be patient, and to duck and look down when passing adult men.
When I started high school in Hawaii at the age of fourteen, I noticed that American girls were generous, supportive, and cute, and sought academic excellence in the form of pretty handwriting, decorated notebooks, and a strong work ethic. In contrast, teachers had a rapport with the boys, a loose banter that implied, on some level, that the boys were more amusing and were more their equals. Teachers said nothing when sexual remarks were addressed to girls in class, or when girls were objectified when passing by boy-littered benches on campus, by being rated with signs held high bearing the numbers 1-10. I think it was then that I questioned my mother’s judgment when she said that there were innumerable ways to be a woman. She took my chin in her hand and, with woven words, good-naturedly upheld my right to be precisely the person I was meant to be.
By her account, Mom was precisely the woman she was meant to be. Working in highly patriarchal and socially conservative communities, she never seemed to feel silenced or pessimistic. Her optimism was brave.
Mama Annie also encouraged us to embrace the world entire. She had us study many global works of philosophy, religion, and literature. She took me with her across the longest stretches of ocean and along the dustiest of roads. She said that while we all may have some local place in the order of things, that we best serve social justice goals by being concerned about the lives of people both faraway and near. She taught me that when we accept gracefully the gorgeous challenge of living in more than one world, we free ourselves to search for fruitful shared spaces between all people. Together in those shared spaces, we can fight insularity while retaining pride in where and who we have been.
It seems that Mama Annie found great reward and respect by tearing down walls between her Self and innumerable others in the world. Mama’s lessons about being intellectually and emotionally flexible are so important for those of us struggling with our place in ever-changing nations, and with our identities at a time when naming one’s loyalties and priorities has grown more challenging.Too often we still teach as though there is one truth or singular point of view. Through the language we use and the details we choose to share, absolutist and one-dimensional perspectives too frequently emerge. Mom would have counseled that such perspectives are impoverished and that we can find richness in negotiated understandings as long as we learn how to become comfortable with ambiguity and multiplicity.
As my teacher, my mother gave me opportunities to reflect upon and discuss the tensions that were common to both the stories we read and the world around us. In helping me to explore heroism and villainy, good and evil, the beautiful and ugly, the spiritual and intellectual, Mama Annie showed me the importance of having both moral courage and deep empathy. We must be strong about choosing our paths, naming ourselves, and working towards greater justice, but we must be flexible and soft about understanding and cooperating with others.
Perhaps if more teachers felt okay about bringing in the wisdom of mothers, fewer students would take on simplistic assumptions about gender or other categories of culture. We can use history’s storytelling and the lives of literature to show our students that neither the labels we use nor the norms we assign are inevitable. Our kids will know that have choices as long as they can see far into the distance and begin to step bravely in every direction.