My friend and former colleague Martha Mata passed away this morning after a long battle with cancer. Nothing I could say would do justice to her. I don’t have words right now so instead I want to share her own words about her life from an interview two years ago:
“My parents are from Suchitoto, El Salvador. By the time I was born, though, they moved to San Salvador because of the civil war, and when I was three, we all came here to Orange County, so that’s where I mainly grew up. When the time came for college, I didn’t really ask if I could go away, I just told my mom I was going to Notre Dame. Being Latina, my mom had that overprotective thing going on, so I told her, no worries, the dorms are single sex and there’s a nun in the dorm! That seemed to make her feel better.
I loved Notre Dame, but after I graduated I came home. I was a computer programmer for three years, but I really didn’t like the corporate world, so I became a teacher. Even after ten years as a teacher, I still don’t make as much money as I made in the corporate world, but you know what? Money isn’t everything. Working in corporate America was sometimes boring. Teaching is never boring. It was always my dream to own my own house, and when I finally bought my house this year, my mom moved in with me—it seemed silly for her to keep paying rent, and it’s pretty great because she makes me dinner every night.
It was really hard on her when I was diagnosed with cancer, but she never shows it. And she’s still overprotective. When I was out for surgery she wanted to do my laundry, and I was like: I’m doing my own laundry! She’d be ironing my clothes if I let her. She loves to decorate, which is mostly nice but it can get a little out of control. I was like: Mom! You are not decorating the bathroom! I found Christmas towels in there!
You get cancer and you re-evaluate everything. I wanted to see Stephen Colbert and I did. I wanted to rock climb and I did–I went to Colorado for a week and learned how. But mainly, one of my first thoughts when I got diagnosed was how is going to affect my classroom? I realized I want to be here every single day that I can be. Teaching is one of my core values. You see kids get better, solve problems they weren’t able to solve before. It’s not so much changing them on an emotional level, but changing how they see themselves. They see that they can learn. They see that they can be successful. When kids do something nerdy about math, it gives me such joy, because the kids are really smart and they don’t know it, and it makes me so happy when they realize it. Like on pi day when the kids tell math jokes. Want to hear my favorite? What did the 0 say to the 8? Nice belt.
I want to tell my parents that they did a good job. From my mom’s side of the family I learned that poor doesn’t necessarily mean uneducated. We were poor. But that wasn’t an excuse not to be proper, not to be respectful. The kids will complain to me that they don’t feel good or they have a headache, and I’m like: so what? You have to work hard and you have to make time for the things you love. You have to decide for yourself that there are no excuses.”
That was two years ago. Martha was true to her vow: she was in the classroom every day she could be, no matter how sick she was, right to the very end. Last year, despite her chemo and hospitalizations, she was there for the kids every day she could stand up and her students scored highest in math in all of Green Dot’s system. She taught her students they were smart, that they should never give up, that they should fight for every inch of life and live it full-out. She taught me what it meant to be a teacher. I am honored to have known her.