Profile with Mary Cleary Kiely

Mary Cleary Kiely (New Hampshire & Somerville 1981) is a freelance writer, an advocate for children with special needs and a stay-at-home mom. She will return to elementary school teaching this fall. Previously, she worked as a finance executive, a corporate training professional and an assistant to the deputy head of the New York City public schools, among other things. She holds an MA in Educational Supervision and Administration from St. Peter’s College, an MA in Philosophy and Economics from the University of Oxford, and a BA in English from Dartmouth College.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Mary Cleary Kiely: Amherst, Massachusetts. I grew up in eastern Massachusetts and went to college in New Hampshire. After Oxford I lived and worked in New York and New Jersey for almost ten years.  Afterwards, my husband and I moved with our young family to Paris where we spent six years. That was a wonderful experience. Since both my husband’s father and my father had died while we were in France, we wanted to be closer to our mothers and siblings when we came back. We thought it would be interesting to live in a college town, and eventually settled on Amherst. We are very happy here, and have lived here for the past eleven years.

Rhodes Project: What brought you to Paris?

Mary Cleary Kiely: My husband was working for a French company and I was home with the children. We had two little kids and another one was born there, in France. It was challenging in some ways because our middle one was born with Down syndrome and we subsequently found out that she also has autism and serious vision impairment. I really had to manage her care while we were in France: finding speech therapists, physical therapists, preschool teachers and so on, but it was well worth it. We travelled extensively and, as with my time in England, it gave me a whole different lens on the world. I was especially touched by the French people’s love of beauty, and their sense that beauty is something that belongs to everyone.

Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite author?

Mary Cleary Kiely: I continue to read a fair amount of poetry. My all-time favorite poet is Yeats; I wrote about Yeats while I was in college. I also really love Mary Oliver. I keep a copy of one of her poems, “The Buddha’s Last Instruction,” on my desk. The first three lines of that poem -- “Make of yourself a light,”/said the Buddha,/before he died” -- speak to something I think we all can aspire to, no matter how large or small the arena we in which we operate. In terms of fiction, I enjoy Ann Patchett. Bel Canto is a must-read. It’s a beautiful story about love, politics and the unpredictability of human relationships.

Rhodes Project: When did you first become interested in education?

Mary Cleary Kiely: I was always interested in education. I think of myself as an educator, although during my adult life it has taken many different forms. Looking back on the last twenty-five years, I have been an education administrator, an elementary school teacher, a stay-at-home mom, a newspaper columnist (mostly focusing on parenting, education, and special needs) and freelance writer, an advocate for children with special needs, and a school volunteer.  The common strand is education. In fact, in the fall I am returning to teaching elementary school. I left the classroom twenty years ago because I was needed at home, and now I’m really looking forward to returning. Working with children really drives me.

I had an interesting path to becoming a teacher because, when I came back from Oxford, I lacked the courage to follow that dream. I really wanted to work in schools, but there were a lot of people saying to me that it would not be a good use of my education. They were quite patronizing about that choice. Instead of following my own heart, I listened to them. A lot of women were going into finance at that point, and that’s where I went as well. I worked for four years at a Fortune 1000 company in New York City. I learned a great deal and it was excellent training, but it wasn’t where my heart was. It took me those four years to figure out that what I really wanted to do was what I had originally planned. So, I left that job and went to work for the deputy head of New York City Public Schools and then a couple of years later became a teacher.

Rhodes Project: What has been your favorite part about writing your monthly column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette?

Mary Cleary Kiely: I’ve been doing it for about ten years. Over that time, it has become a helpful way for me to work out my own thoughts and feelings about issues that I am grappling with in raising children. Often I find that I don’t really know what I think about something until I try to put it down in writing. A recent example would be a couple of columns I wrote about video games and my 12-year-old son. That clarifying function has been the best part by far. It’s also quite gratifying that other parents will often come up to me and say that they’ve been dealing with the same questions. I definitely don’t think of it as a column with answers, it’s more about struggling in common with my readers. I’ve enjoyed that a lot, and I think I’ve gotten as much out of it as anyone.

Rhodes Project: Who are some of your role models?

Mary Cleary Kiely: My role models are not necessarily people in my own field. People I think of most as my role models are people with great moral courage. One person that I’ve always looked up to is Amelia Earhart. There seemed to be such a gracefulness to the way she lived her life. I think she also understood that sometimes dreams cost a lot. Obviously, she died pursuing her own dream. Talking amongst my friends at times, I notice we often don’t want the things we love and care for to demand too much of us. We wonder if there might be some easy way to make it all less costly, but many times that’s not possible. Often we really do have to give a lot in order to be true to what we believe in and what we love.

Helen Prejean, who wrote Dead Men Walking, is another role model of mine. She’s an amazing person not just because of her advocacy on behalf of death-row prisoners, but because she really understands and is willing to live with the complexities involved. I read that when the film based on her book came out, some of the families of the victims of those men on death row wrote to Prejean saying that she had made them re-live their nightmares. She was willing to sit with that anguish, that culpability even, and not deny it or try to rationalize it away. She fully appreciated the complexity of the situation, and said that she was so sorry she had been a cause of those families’ further pain, while also simultaneously recognizing it as an unavoidable side effect of the work she was doing.

In general, I admire people who are willing to stand up for what they believe in while also being willing to live with the contradictions that arise from it. It’s very uncomfortable for most of us. In my journey with our middle child, Christina, who has Down syndrome and autism, I have felt a tremendous temptation to simplify things, to say it’s either good or it’s bad. But in fact it’s both. Christina is a wonderful person and she’s taught us so many important things in our lives, but there are also very real losses and hardships occasioned by the conditions that she has. Both of these perspectives are true at the same time. I can’t come down on one side or another. Not flinching in the face of that kind of complexity is something that I struggle with and aspire to in my own thinking. I look up to people who can do that or are willing to try to do that.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to your sixteen-year-old self?

Mary Cleary Kiely: I’ve actually thought about this a lot because I have a nineteen-year-old daughter and we were talking about it recently. I think there are a few things. First, I would tell myself (or my daughter) not to stress too much about coming up with a pre-determined course for the future because the winds will blow and your course will change. If you’re steering by the big lights of what you love and what you believe in, it will come out all right.  That’s what I have found in my life.  The second thing I would tell my younger self is to be really mindful of the extent to which the people you love shape your life and your vision. When I was in college, I thought the most important decision I was going to make was about my career, but I’m not so sure that’s true. I think one’s choice in spouse, partner and closest friends is as critical as your career, or even more so. If you love someone, I think you come to look through their eyes. That’s shaping in really powerful ways. I’ve come to feel as though I can always find another job, but it will always be a lot more difficult to find someone who simultaneously brings out my best self and enlarges my vision. That is something that I didn’t understand at all when I was younger. The third thing would be to be mindful of the extent to which all of us are constantly marinating in social assumptions. I had no appreciation to the extent in which those affect us.  One example would be my choice of jobs after I came back from Oxford. I look back and I think I had no sense of how influenced I was by the social currents of the time. Now, I realize that I have a much better sense for how powerful those influences are.

The article Even Artichokes Have Doubts by Marina Keegan, which was written a couple of years ago and which is available online, really touched me. Those pressures are still in place—go to finance, go to consulting, something where you are still going to get validated all the time. It’s very difficult to resist and to go off to do writing or elementary school teaching. It would have been okay if I became a college professor but others think, “Really? An elementary school teacher?”

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Mary Cleary Kiely: I’ve thought about this for a long time, even before I became a teacher. Maybe it’s why I became a teacher. It has always been on my global wish list that every child would have one committed, competent and loving adult in his or her life. As a teacher, you can see so clearly and so distressingly when children don’t have that. This gap opens up in them and there’s a kind of despair that is terribly poignant. How we would remedy this? I don’t know. Certainly it would involve education and community development. In the school environment, we always try to make sure every child has someone in the building who is watching out for that child on a daily basis. Whether it’s a teacher, a lunch person, a bus driver or someone else, there just needs to be someone that that child is connecting with. Those linkages are so important, and when they’re not in place, you can really see the negative effects.

Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?

Mary Cleary Kiely: My two favorite things at the moment are gardening and hiking/walking. I always wanted to have a garden, but I lived in the city or in apartments for many years after college. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I got the chance to have a garden. I just love gardening. I love digging in the dirt. There’s something very primal about it. I love flowers; I couldn’t live without flowers and I’ve always felt that way. I go out in the garden and the world rubs off. It’s a place of solitude and refreshment for me. Also, if I’m in a bad mood, it reminds me of the beauty at the heart of things. You look at a flower and you think, “Wow.”

I still love to hike and walk. A lot of my husband’s and my courtship was around hiking and walking, so it’s very meaningful to me for that reason. We have done a lot with that and continue to do so.  I also have a group of friends here in Amherst, and the way we mostly keep in touch is through walking. There’s one friend I walk with once a week, another friend I see every other week and a couple others I see once per month for a hike. There are a lot of different and beautiful walks around here. We’re at the foot of the Holyoke Range, and we also have an extensive rail trail.  I have found you can do a lot of catching up even in a single hour of walking. That’s something that I really enjoy.

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in life?

Mary Cleary Kiely:  Family and work definitely bring me the greatest joy. When I look back to when I was a younger woman, I was really focused on my career and what kinds of work choices I would make.  I totally underestimated the amount of joy that family could bring you, even with the inevitable hardships that come with it sometimes. As for work, I really love to teach and I love to write. I feel very lucky that I have been able to find work that makes me feel like I’m giving something back, but also helps me grow and makes me want to get up in the morning.

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