Charlotte’s Hour

This was shaping up to be Charlotte’s year: She knew it. It was with this assertive optimism and a pair of designer heels that she started every day, scanning the room to see how she could make it better. Was there a pillow out-of-place? An unhappy face? A seemingly insurmountable ask? She was there. When she started in a small kindergarten class eight years earlier, she had two daughters entering elementary school and needed a way to afford the expensive art Montessori School in their small Nashville suburb. Her daughters weren’t exactly traditional learners. Lyanna couldn’t focus on anything that wasn’t bursting with color, brimming with imagination. Elise needed to have her little hands in everything– I have to feel it, Mama, to know it’s really there.

She was so proud of her girls when they got into the exclusive program, but it’s not like she didn’t feel the tugging hesitancy of enrolling in a program that cost nearly as much as an average Tennessee family’s annual salary. She easily could have been the type of mom to attend public school board meetings with her husband’s borrowed clipboard, arguing and striving to fix what was broken and make it work for her children– all children– but instead she became a wife and mother who stretched to live beyond their means to appease a public perception. Each was its own act of non-conformity, but her way of setting herself apart had more to do with the effort she put into impressing those around her. Often that meant buying casserole dishes from Williams-Sonoma and bedroom sets from Pottery Barn. Today, it would be about giving her children more than piano lessons and soccer all-star teams. Today it was about holding her head that much higher: She had the jawline for it, after all.

At the time, well even now, her husband was working late nights and long hours in time zones that didn’t sync up with her own. They would make it, she knew it–they had a love that was strong and unwavering–but it was going to take a lot of effort, something she would never shy away from. When she wants something, she believed, the whole universe conspires in helping her to achieve it. But how do you know?, the students would ask, wide-eyed and full of wonder. She loved them at that age. The adults asked her, too, and the stories she used were interchangeable between the two audiences, differing only in the level of detail. To the children with swinging feet and fidgeting hands, she spoke of the time she wanted a pet so badly that she cried herself to sleep. It was the Christmas of 1980 in Iran, when uncertain times and failed negotiations had everyone, including her stoic father, on edge. Her family was considering a move to the United States so getting a dog or a cat was out of the question. Her expat father was a gentle man whose greatest fault was giving in to the demands of her mother, who was more beautiful and aggressive than the other women of her time. His generous spirit brought her back a falcon when an evening came that he couldn’t take the crying anymore. You will train it, nooreh cheshmam, and it will become your own. She nurtured the bird with clipped wings until the day came when she didn’t need to keep it from flying away–it wanted only to stay. And then they left for the Americas. Just like that, she wanted, she loved, and she had all in the same breath.

And the change! It was with that fiery passion that she saw the talent she had for impacting the kind of change she wanted to see in her world and in the lives of the people around her. Just like the bird, she had a certain way of manipulating the realities of her banal suburban dream. She clipped people and interests in and out of her life until the ones that suited her stayed. But something changed shortly after she became a mom. Instead of removing barriers when Lyanna took her first steps, she let her climb. And fall. Adapting was easier than tinkering, and this became her way of overcoming her own obstacles. She stopped weighing in on the monthly pick at book club; instead, she bought and read the books she wanted and stopped going altogether. When the money flowed at home, it was even easier to cherrypick her battles and ignore the waging wars. So when her local school became heavy and slow under the weight of students who didn’t perform well, she didn’t oil its squeaky wheels. She broke them. “Borrowed” them, she liked to think of it that way instead. She built something better for her children, all along telling the story of the bird with the clipped wings. Were they clipped in the first place? She pondered after class one day. With a manicured nail pressed to her temple and upgraded diamond ring sparkling in the corner of her eye, she remembers the brass cage. No matter, she thinks. The bird –nonetheless–stayed. 

Eight years ago–with that same stubborn resolve–she took the kindergarten position. She began as a mere aid to the classroom teacher and worked–or rather, dressed–her way up to the position she had today, the year 2017. She saw the title on the placard of her desk: United States Secretary of Education.

photo by John C. Lewis
photo by John C. Lewis

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