To celebrate Mother’s Day, we asked our rad contributors to interview the most influential woman in their life: mom…
Name: Janis Kauffman Occupation: Retired elementary school principal Children: Leah, 28. Jenna, 25. Jake, 21.
Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
I spent the first 6 years of my life in Parkside, a beautiful section in Camden NJ. The houses were semi-detached with nice yards and a shared stoop. The neighbors were friendly and respectful. Everything was walkable including the movies, toy store and beauty parlors. Kids played outside and attended their neighborhood schools. That’s where we met the people we stayed close to the rest of our lives.
We moved to Haddon Township to a house that my father designed and built with his colleagues. It was a split level…very modern in the 60s, with a fireplace that was built on a common wall between the living and dining rooms. My mother was a stay at home mom and my dad worked as an aerospace engineer at General Electric, Westinghouse and RCA. He dedicated himself to our synagogue and took on many roles including President. When all of the kids were older, my mother would take temp jobs as a legal secretary, and would be home by the time we returned from school. She was really lawyer material, but in her day, not many women went to college.
Growing up was very enjoyable. I had the usual arguments with siblings and parents, but I remember all the fun things we did. Family vacations to Beach Haven, automobile trips to Florida, and trips to Boston to visit relatives, as well as Niagara Falls, Watkins Glen and the Finger Lakes and especially day trips to A.C.
My parents expected us to do well in school without ever saying it (I never mastered that!). I played tennis, basketball and field hockey and was manager of the boys’ swim team (raunchy bus rides). At high school graduation I won the award for the most outstanding work by a female in physical education. Growing up in that era was great!
Tell me about your work, and your proudest accomplishment in your career. (Did you face any hurdles in your professional life as a woman?
My work was very important to me. I didn’t look at it as a career, but something I just loved doing every day for forty years.
I started teaching ESL in Camden, then became a member of the Department of Federal and State Grants, then a Vice Principal and finally a Principal. I really enjoyed the folks I worked with as well as the students. I can’t pinpoint any one moment that made me proud, because there were so many small victories along the way. Students who struggled academically, but found success in the school band made me proud. One of my ESL students from Vietnam who was burnt over 30% of his body became a doctor. I always cried during our school assemblies because I was so proud of my students on the stage singing and speaking the lines they worked so hard to memorize. I never wanted to miss a day of work because I felt a responsibility to these children who lived without so many things. I hope Leah, Jenna and Jake realize why I felt so strongly about my students. I thank my husband Rob for pitching in when our kids were ill or had activities during the day that he attended.
I never faced any hurdles in my position as a woman. In the world of education and public service, salaries guides were created for every position. So, whether you were male or female, you received the salary appropriate for your job at the level of years of service. Everyone had the opportunity to apply for any job based on certification. The process during my time was very fair.
How has your life been different than what you’d imagined? How did having kids change your life?
I didn’t imagine myself in any other position in life. I always wanted to be an educator and if I did get married, I always wanted to have kids. In fact, life turned out better than I ever imagined.
Look, raising kids isn’t easy. There is really no “how to” book. But, through trial and error, the kids get raised and if you are as lucky as I am, they turn out great.
Having kids and working full time was a juggling act. Getting dinner on the table and the kids back and forth to activities required organization. It left little time for me, but I always found a way to get some peace. My husband was very involved and helped when I needed it.
What is your favorite memory of your mother?
My special memory of my mother was at my sweet sixteen party. She was ill, but made all the food for the party, which was held in our rec-room. It was my first girl/boy party and my brother’s band was going to play (He was 12!). It wasn’t the kind of party the girls have now for this milestone birthday. And I kept thinking that we were going to have to cancel because I couldn’t imagine her doing all of this work feeling the way she did. But, she came through and we had a wonderful time.
I will always remember that she did this without any complaints just for me.
What woman has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did she teach you?
The woman who influenced me the most was my mother, Jeanette. She was very organized and managed the kids, the house and the bills with ease. She had what we call “common sense”. When my Dad died, she knew she had to find a way to stay afloat and became knowledgeable about financial planning. My youngest brother was just starting college and my older brother was still in medical school, but she learned how to manage financially without incurring any debt.
She was a great cook and I am always going to her recipe box, making the specialties that we still love to eat. The family was the center of her life and the five of us formed a tight bond. We all had dinner together every night and fought and talked around the table. She was the disciplinarian, and we accepted her punishment because we knew we did something wrong! Although she was not demonstrative, we all knew she loved us and we felt the same about her.
She taught me how important family is. She taught me that being organized will make your life easier. She taught me that having dinner with your family every night, whether you are talking or fighting, will keep lines of communication open.
However, there are two other women who continue to influence me— they are my daughters, Leah and Jenna. They teach me how it is in today’s world. They help me understand and define our relationships so that I can remain a friend and a mother without crossing the line. They have also become the women I had hoped they would be without my saying it. I am so proud!