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Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
Biography of mother waxes romantic

Jean Young an inspiration despite understated style

By Leigh E. Rich


Life Lessons My Mother Taught Me
By Andrea Young
Tarcher/Putnam Books
February 2000
272 pages

Martha Gellhorn, most commonly known as “Ernest Hemingway’s third wife” though most notably known as an award-winning novelist and wartime journalist in her own right, loathed the fact that, until her death merely two years ago, people were apt to mention her marriage, not her merits.

This is often the case for women married to famous men even today (despite the fact that the renowned husbands are rarely asked in interviews about their distinguished spouses). The old cliché, “Behind every good man is a woman,” ignores the fact that oft times these women are too busy changing the world to wait in the shadows of their partners’ glory.

Such was the case with Jean Childs Young, an educator, civil rights activist and international advocate for children, who also happened to be married to Andrew Young (former Mayor of Atlanta, colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr., and United Nations ambassador under Jimmy Carter). Finally, Jean’s accomplishments as well as vital moments of her life story have come to the fore in Life Lessons My Mother Taught Me, a book written by her daughter, Andrea Young, as a tribute to this inspirational woman.

A not-so-flashy figure, Jean Young’s personal and public life made up in substance what it lacked in stardom: She often appeared quiet and gracious and never donned those ostentatious gowns often associated with the limelight. Young never aroused fashion movements like Jackie Onassis or Nancy Reagan, and always “maintained an amused detachment about clothes and makeup even as she changed to suit current styles. Clothes were not her issue. Her goal was to dress in a manner that was appropriate and get to her real work.”

In Life Lessons, this determined and energetic attitude weaves through every commitment, program and relationship Young fostered during her life, and Andrea Young highlights these endeavors with sentiment and admiration. The most telling stories in the book refer to Jean Young’s position as chairperson to Carter’s Commission on the International Year of the Child (IYC), her role in Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty campaign – the Teacher Corps – and her own lasting creation, Atlanta’s Dream Jamboree, a program that enables high school students of any age to go to college and expand their career options.

“During the [three days of the] Jamboree, Mother would walk the floor of the exhibit hall, encouraging students and recruiters. She prodded the recruiters to be more aggressive, urging them to reach out to the students. ‘Don’t wait for them to come over the booth,’ she would say. Mother was concerned for the shy student, the student who would be intimidated, the student who was insecure.”

Although many pages of the book are dedicated to Young’s commitment to children, Life Lessons is, at heart, about hope and the idea that people can change the world. Even as a little girl in Marion, Alabama, Young opposed racial segregation and prejudice and believed that neither would last forever as long as she was around. “[Young] engaged in a personal guerilla war against segregation. … [In Marion at this time] any white customer of any age would be served before a black customer, no matter how long the black customer had been waiting. From time to time, my mother would express her displeasure at these customs by going to the counter [at the local ice cream store], waiting until the clerk finally turned to her to ask, ‘What do you want?’ Then she would stick out her hand, show her empty palm and say, “Nothing,” and walk out the door.

While moving and motivating, Life Lessons is not a biography. Readers only get a sense of the real Young through the eyes of her family; Andrea Young seems to omit any story that placed real hardship on her mother. Even Jean Young’s battle with cancer and her death at fifty-nine are glossed over as if she never experienced pain, regret or loss.

The book’s written construction, moreover, waxes toward nostalgic and is not necessarily sophisticated. At times, it borders on anecdotal though always comes across as honest and pure.

Life Lessons’ take-home message is mainly a reminder to women to cultivate their lives both within and beyond their spouses and children. Young never saw a tension between being a career woman and a wife/mother and proves, apparently, that you can have it all.

Many today do not know or remember Jean Childs Young, even though her lifelong efforts have shaped our society. While Andrea Young’s memoir of her mother strays close to the romantic, the book clearly proves that the world can be changed one person at a time. As Jean Young would likely agree, the heroes of a community are not the people who make the most noise, but those who make the most difference.

Rich, L. E. (2000). Biography of mother waxes romantic. [Review of the book Life Lessons My Mother Taught Me: Universal Values From Extraordinary Times by Andrea Young.] Rocky Mountain News, March 12.

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