Sixth Grade Was a Nightmare

From my sixth grade report card, my teacher’s comment: Actually I was unhappy and she contributed mightily to it.

Sixth grade was a nightmare. Maybe sixth grade is a nightmare for most – especially for girls since we’re all in different stages of puberty and it wreaks havoc on our bodies and emotions. Compounding that reality was the fact that I had a truly terrible teacher that year.

Mrs. Garner was the kind of teacher who seemed to take pleasure in humiliating students. She would call a student up to the board to do a math problem when she knew the student likely couldn’t solve it. I wasn’t particularly good at math, so I was one of her victims. She would also give back test papers from lowest to highest score so everyone knew how you did. This was especially embarrassing for me since my math test scores were dismal. It took me years, and better math teachers, to get over the damage done and realize that, in fact, I wasn’t actually that bad at math.

If that was her only flaw, maybe it wouldn’t have been that bad. But as that teaching strategy revealed, she was mean. I guess in a perverse way it was a good thing because, as a result, I bonded with some of my classmates. We had a siege mentality. It became an ‘us versus her’ situation. Cindy, my best friend, and I were united in our rebellion. We plotted various schemes, and shared lots of laughs in thinking of ways to get back at her. We thought we were pretty creative when we ordered a pizza to her house. We sent an insulting letter to her home, as well. I’m embarrassed to think of it now, but we didn’t know what else to do with our hurt and anger.

For the first and only time, I played hooky that year. Cindy and I hatched a grand plot. We, and another friend, were going to meet at Cindy’s apartment. Her mother must not have been home that day. I left for school that morning, as I usually did, but took a detour to the Bayview Projects where Cindy lived, which was conveniently located right next to our school. I went to Cindy’s building and, terrified that I would be seen by another classmate, I went up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Our other friend chickened out and went to school. Cindy and I spent the day baking (we had a food fight!), watching television and laughing.

Cindy’s older sister came home and threatened to tell. We cleaned up and vacuumed. I don’t recall if Cindy got into trouble, but since her sister knew I was afraid word would get to my parents, I fessed up before that could happen. I told my mom and she had a very unexpected reaction. She told me she should have given me a mental health day off, and that I should talk to her first if I was feeling that desperate. I never played hooky again.

Mrs. Garner did another student more harm. This past August I went to my 40 year (holy shit! I’m that old!) high school reunion and was reminded of an incident that is illustrative of her character. I went to the reunion specifically to seek out classmates who had also been in my elementary school class. As part of writing this blog, I wanted to compare notes.

Clayton was one of two African-American boys in that class. Clayton and I had been in the same class three years running. He was the smartest kid every year. He could be talkative, more talkative than the teachers appreciated, but there was no denying his smarts. In sixth grade, toward the end of the year, the class was asked to vote to have a student representative who would speak at graduation. Our class voted for Clayton. Mrs. Garner gave the honor to a white boy, telling Clayton, that he didn’t enunciate clearly enough to deliver the speech. I don’t recall the class being offered any explanation. I can say that Clayton spoke perfectly clearly (as good (sic) as any Brooklynite, if not better).

When I went to the reunion, I asked Clayton about a different incident I remembered from fourth grade. He didn’t recall it, but he shared three other experiences that reeked of racism. When he told of the election described above, parts of it came back to me. Interestingly, I didn’t remember which student had been denied the honor, I only remembered my feelings of righteous indignation that the class choice had been overridden. I wouldn’t have remembered that it was Clayton who had been wronged if he hadn’t told me. It is so interesting what we remember, what makes a mark on us.

One of the things Clayton and I discussed at the reunion was that Mrs. Garner was the wife of the District Superintendent. In addition to having tenure since she was a veteran teacher, Mrs. Garner likely had no concerns about being rebuked by the administration for her teaching methods or actions.

Hearing Clayton’s story validated the intense dislike I harbored for Mrs. Garner. She may be long gone from this earth and I may have acted out inappropriately, but my 11-year old self knew she wasn’t a righteous person.

Note: In writing this blog piece I reached out to Cindy and Clayton. Both were helpful and generously shared their memories. To further illustrate the damage done, Clayton shared the following in an email:  …in addition to this slight, she then had me placed me in Class 773 in John Wilson (the lowest-ranked of the three “SP” classes in the upcoming 7th grade). Now, how you go from Valedictorian-elect to the lowest class of the SP program is beyond me, but it added to my frustration with school in general. I never again got inspired to do well in school–it just seemed not to be worth it. It wasn’t a meritorious system, it was one of politics and preferences–preferences I seemed destined to never receive. So, I have to say that in many ways, I never recovered from 6th grade.


Nature vs. Nurture and Other Ruminations

This is exactly what I’m afraid of!

When I was in college I remember having long conversations with my friends who were all psychology majors (I was the lone poli sci major in our group). We talked about all sorts of things, from our favorite Beatle to the meaning of life and everything in between. We discussed whether nature or nurture was more important. This was back in late ‘70s when it was still commonly thought that homosexuality was caused by overprotective mothering and autism was due to mothers who were cold and withheld affection. Fortunately we have come a long way in our understanding of those issues (at least most of us have).

We spent many a night in our dorm rooms puzzling over how we came to be who we were. I am still puzzling over that question, though, hopefully in a more informed way. At that time, I subscribed to the nurture side of the equation. I thought family life and surroundings were much more determinative of personality and the path that a person’s life took. I was preoccupied with how my parents shaped me. I saw myself as an uneasy combination of my mother and father – with less emphasis on the genetic aspect of that and more on their personalities and behaviors. Today I see them, genetics and behavior, as inextricably linked.

While we have a more nuanced view of the question of nurture vs. nature, I still think it is relevant to consider it. As a parent and as a society making policy choices, what we believe about this is important.

Data shows that if you are born into poverty, it is much more likely that you will remain there. So many factors play into that, but I certainly can’t accept that it is a genetic predisposition. Therefore, it behooves us to make public policy choices that can help change that cycle. If we look at a person’s health, nature may hold sway. After all obesity, addiction and all sorts of chronic illnesses have been shown to have a genetic component. Being born female or male also has a huge impact on the path a life takes.

Where does that leave us as parents and as a society?

Years ago when Gary and I were faced with some parenting challenges, we consulted with a child psychologist. He shared his belief that children were born with a certain temperament and that temperament could be thought of as a continuum – from easy going to extremely difficult. Children at either end of the spectrum faced challenges. Parenting strategies could help the child move a bit on the continuum, and help them cope, but we couldn’t change their temperament. I found that comforting (unlike the t-shirt pictured above!). Otherwise, it was scary to think we held so much power; better to understand that there were limits to our influence. While Gary and I provided the genetic material for Leah and Daniel, we certainly couldn’t control which ones! His view was consistent with what I was observing in my two children.

Leah and Daniel came into this world with very distinct preferences and personalities. Many of those characteristics were also consistent with general ideas about gender. Prior to having children, I thought most of what was considered ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’ was learned. Again, it is nearly impossible to disentangle the various influences, and my children aren’t a representative sample! But, I was amazed how some of their behaviors seemed to be classic sex-linked attributes from the get-go. Of course, from the get-go babies are learning, absorbing their surroundings – the colors on the walls in their rooms, the toys we offer, the tone of voice we use – all of which likely play a part in forming gender identity.

With that said, it seemed to me that Leah and Dan arrived defined to a larger extent than I anticipated. Leah was fascinated by people; Dan by objects. He was absorbed by the mobile over his crib, leaves shaking in the wind, cars and trucks barreling down the street. Leah was much more interested in faces. She craved interaction: singing, storytelling, cuddling. Dan liked to be read to, also, but would rarely sit still for it. Early on we wondered about his hearing because he often didn’t do the typical things that let you know he was attending to what was being said. He would appear distracted or tuned out. Over time we realized that in fact he was taking it all in. There are some amusing stories about that actually. Leah, on the other hand, made eye contact, she wanted you to know she was listening. She needed the feedback – she gave it and wanted it in return.

It is possible, of course, that these behaviors weren’t hard wired. Gary and I may have taught them to behave stereotypically, but it certainly wasn’t conscious on our part.

We didn’t offer toy guns to either Leah or Dan. When one of his uncles gave Dan a large plastic tank as a birthday present, Dan took to it immediately. He knew exactly what to do. He proceeded to use it to rumble around the house and blow things up. Dan also had his beanie babies wrestling! All of these activities were accompanied by the appropriate sound effects. Vroom! POW! In contrast, Leah would take her clothes out of her drawers, take the fabrics and rub them on her face. She loved soft textures against her cheek. Leah’s Bobbe, her paternal grandmother, had a shoebox full of fabric scraps, zippers, thread and other sewing paraphernalia (no pins, needles or scissors) that was a treasure trove to Leah. Dan showed no interest in that assortment of playthings.

We tried to baby-proof the kitchen cabinets (emphasis on the word tried). Gary installed latches that required that you insert your finger to release the mechanism. Leah pulled the door as far open as the latch would allow and studied it. After a while she put her finger in and released it. Dan took a different approach. He kept pulling on the door, harder and harder, with as much force as he could muster, until it popped open. So much for relying on the latch to keep them safe!

This isn’t to say that there weren’t exceptions. Leah and Daniel didn’t conform to all of the stereotypes associated with girls and boys. Leah enjoyed roughhousing. When she played soccer or basketball she didn’t shy away from physical play. Dan, on the other hand, didn’t relish that part of sport. While he loved basketball, he didn’t enjoy mixing it up under the boards.

I have tried to figure out if there is something inherently female or male, aside from the obvious biological traits, mostly to understand myself. How do we put ourselves together harmoniously – the feminine and the masculine? Growing up I sometimes felt I was waging an internal war (as I wrote about in another blog post – here).

Is there utility to the concepts of feminine and masculine? Do we need to categorize ourselves and others in those terms?

I admit to feeling some discomfort with abandoning those ideas. Categories help us understand and make sense of things. It seems to be a human instinct to order things by defining and categorizing them. Can we do that without putting each other or ourselves in boxes? Can we leave room to embrace the exceptions?

When I meet someone I want to understand who they are. But maybe I don’t need the categories we have always fallen back on. Is it important to know if the person is male or female? Black or white? After all when we make assumptions based on what we see, it can create problems. But it’s hard not to do it. I think, too, we are searching for common ground and those categories can help find it.

When Leah and Dan were in elementary school I stopped trying to assign their characteristics to one side of the family or the other. I accepted that they were each a unique constellation of attributes. I wish I understood that about myself all those years ago. While I have moved beyond the nature vs. nurture question, understanding that the two are inextricably linked, I am still left pondering identity and how we form it.

The Tooth Fairy and Other Dental Adventures

Note: Today is Daniel Aaron Bakst’s birthday. In celebration, I dedicate this blog entry to him. I love and treasure him and wish him many, many more happy and healthy birthdays.

You could never get anything over on Daniel. He was always very observant. He noticed everything. One time we were pulling into the parking lot to pick up Leah from dance lessons, he was probably 4 at the time, and he looked up at the building and noted, “The curtains in that window are a different color than they were last week.” “Really?” I asked in wonderment. The window he was pointing to was several stories up from the main floor entrance where we went in. I’m quite sure I had never looked up, much less noted the color of the curtains.

Maybe it was related to his being so observant, or maybe it was part of his innate skepticism, but when he lost his first tooth and found money under his pillow, he wasn’t fooled. “It was you or Dad, right?” he asked, a knowing look in his eye. “You don’t think it was the tooth fairy, bud?” I asked. He looked at me, considering the possibilities.

I wasn’t quite sure what the value of the charade was, but I didn’t want to ruin the fun either. “I think you or Dad put it under my pillow,” he concluded. I countered with, “I’m not so sure.” I winked. He smiled.

Each time Dan lost a tooth, he just smiled in a satisfied kind of way as he pocketed the money the tooth fairy left; he knew what he knew.

Some of the Mom’s in my social circle saved their children’s baby teeth – I think there was even a specially made keepsake that you could store them in. The idea was creepy to me. Maybe Dan would’ve preferred that I saved them, based on what happened with his wisdom teeth.

After my experience getting wisdom teeth pulled as a mature adult, I was determined that my children wouldn’t go through that pain. If the dentist recommended their removal, we would get it done sooner rather than later.

When Dan was 18 the dentist said he should have them removed. I took him to the same oral surgeon that we used for Leah, whose procedure went uneventfully several years earlier. We finished the initial visit and scheduled a time for the surgery. As we left the office and walked across the parking lot, a car started to pull out. It almost hit me. Dan, who was walking on my right, instinctively crossed in front of me and hit the trunk of the car hard with the palm of his hand. The guy, it was a male driver, slammed on his brake and yelled an apology. Daniel was not satisfied. “Look where you’re going!” he screamed. The guy replied, “I said I was sorry for Christ’s sake!” Dan’s anger escalated. “You were being an asshole!” “Dan, Dan,” I said, quietly, soothingly, “It’s okay. Let’s just go to our car.” Dan had stopped walking and stood glaring at the guy. “What’s your problem?” the guy wanted to know. “That’s my mother walking here! You be careful!”

I took Dan’s arm and nudged him along. He took a breath and came with me. While I appreciated his protective instincts, I didn’t want him getting into a needless fight. I have to admit, though the incident happened about ten years ago, I still smile when I think of it. I knew then and still know now Dan has my back – literally and figuratively.

That wasn’t the end of our adventure with his wisdom teeth.

We returned for the surgery. I sat in the waiting room, anxious to have it done and have Dan get through it without complication. They finally called me in and told me all went well and Dan could go home. They gave me the aftercare instructions, and we started to leave. The dental assistant called after us, “Wait up a minute!” We stopped and she handed me an envelope. “He wanted his teeth,” she explained. “Really?” “Yes, it seemed important to him.” I took the envelope and put it in my purse. “Okay, thank you.”

Dan and I left. He was pleasantly loopy from the drugs but he could walk okay, which was fortunate. Dan was was over six feet tall and lanky; well beyond the point where I could carry him. We made it across the parking lot without incident this time and got home.

I tucked him in for a nap. He awoke a couple of hours later, less groggy. I checked in with him to see how he was feeling. I gave him the envelope with the teeth. “What’s this?” he asked. “Apparently you wanted your teeth,” I explained. “What?” he was genuinely perplexed. “They told me you kind of made a thing about wanting them.” “I have no recollection of that at all,” he said, laughing. “I don’t want them. Yuck.” I started laughing, too “I thought it was a little unusual, but are you sure?” I wanted to be certain before I disposed of them. “I’m quite sure,” he reassured me. The only explanation we could come up with were the drugs they gave him for the procedure. We were amused by the surprising side effects.

I took the envelope back and dropped it in the wastebasket. To my knowledge he never regretted his decision and he never asked about his baby teeth either, so I think I am in the clear. One less parenting decision to worry about.

Culture Clashes Real and Imagined


I admit it: I was a New York snob (maybe I still am). My worldview was like the famous New Yorker magazine cover (above) that shows New York City looking west from Ninth and Tenth Avenue, where the city is a bustling metropolis and then the rest of the United States is a vast empty space, devoid of anything interesting. It was with that mindset that I moved to Pittsburgh in 1982. I was 23 years old, engaged to Gary.

The late December morning dawned gray and cold. Good weather for driving. We, my parents and Gary, were standing in front of the house in Canarsie, getting ready to say our goodbyes. My Dad pulled me aside. “How bout you go to a justice of the peace when you get out there? You can still have the wedding, as planned, in July. But this way you’d be married.” Dad looked at me with his big blue/gray eyes, questioning, hopeful. I was sorry to disappoint him, but said, “Dad, we aren’t going to do that. There’s no reason to. It will be fine.” I turned to put the last few things in the back seat of my cobalt blue ’72 Toyota Celica.

He didn’t want his baby girl ‘living in sin,’ even if it was only for six months. It was six months too long for him. Fortunately, he didn’t pursue it further. We all hugged, and Gary and I got on our way.

We drove to Pittsburgh with high hopes and some anxiety. Gary had successfully completed his first semester of medical school. Now I was going to join him. I needed to find a job. I had some savings as a cushion, but I was hoping I wouldn’t have to drain it.

Pittsburgh was slowly on the rebound from the collapse of the steel industry. The landscape bore the scars of it. Buildings were soot stained. The Carnegie Library, down the block from our apartment, was gray sandstone heavily streaked with black, but the inscription, Free to the People, was still quite clearly etched over the main doors. Hulking mills, some vacant, some producing steel at reduced capacity, lined the river. The city remained the headquarters for a number of large companies that inhabited gleaming skyscrapers downtown.

Pittsburgh had the feel of the Midwest to me. I didn’t know geographically how it was characterized, but culturally it didn’t feel like an eastern city. The influence of its immigrant history, largely Polish, Germanic and Italian, was imprinted on the stores, restaurants and, most importantly, churches that dominated. Unlike New York City, which certainly had ethnic pockets but the sum of which was a hodge-podge; Pittsburgh felt more homogenous. It felt like there was a dominant culture and it was defined by the Catholic Church. While there was a Jewish community, it was quite small, and it felt small. This took some getting used to. After all, other than Israel, New York City is home to the largest Jewish population in the world.

After five months of pounding the pavement, I was about to register for secretarial work with a temp agency when a solid job opportunity came through. I had nearly exhausted my financial resources when I got a job with the city’s Finance Department.

There were some noticeable differences between the New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Operations, where I worked before I left, and the Finance Department. The first was the air quality. I worked with several men who chain-smoked through the day. Offices and conference rooms didn’t usually include windows and there was nothing I could do to disperse the fog that permeated the air. Somehow there weren’t nearly as many smokers in New York City’s Mayor’s Office.

Another difference: when we went out for a drink after work, I could not keep up with my new colleagues (not that it was a contest)! People would take turns buying rounds. I almost never got a chance to buy (and it wasn’t a strategy to avoid it). My drinks would be lined up on the bar.

Aside from air quality and drinking habits, there were actually more important differences. I worked with very few women, and there was only one at the management level. Many of the employees were only high school graduates. I was an outsider by virtue of my age, gender, education, religion and, of course, as a New Yorker. Sometimes it felt quite lonely, but there were some interesting conversations, too, especially about religion and faith.

Some of the cultural differences were more imagined than real. Gary and I invited one of his classmates, and his fiancé, to dinner at our apartment. Budgets being what they were, we didn’t eat out often and most of our socializing entailed going to each other’s apartments, eating, watching football or basketball and playing games like charades. Alcohol may have been involved.

As I recall, Ron and Ann were the first people we invited over. They were both Pittsburgh born and raised. I planned a menu after considering various possibilities. I worried that Ron and Ann would think the food I prepared was weird.

Gary and I kept kosher in our apartment (we didn’t when we ate out), so we didn’t mix meat and dairy. I was worried if I prepared a meat dish they might ask for parmesan cheese. I was worried if I made a vegetarian dish they wouldn’t be satisfied. I thought they wouldn’t know what it meant to keep kosher. I settled on making a ratatouille with ground beef (no cheese) and then worried that they wouldn’t know what it was.

Turned out Ron and Ann were more worldly than Gary and I, which in retrospect wasn’t saying much. Ron had gone to Dartmouth as an undergraduate and, if I remember correctly, majored in art history! Ann had been an English major and worked as an editor. I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of Gary’s classmates weren’t science majors as undergrads. Turned out Ron and Ann were quite comfortable eating my ratatouille. We had a great time, it was the first of many meals and laughs shared.

I realized I shouldn’t make assumptions about people based on where they came from, or any other single characteristic, for that matter. Of course I should have known better. When I stop and think about it, my Zada, who appeared on the surface to be a common laborer, was a self-taught Shakespearean scholar with the heart of a poet. Why would I buy into the stereotype implied by that New Yorker cover? But I did, and to this day, I need to check myself.