Going to Extremes

It may not be readily apparent why I am spending so much time writing about the events in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. But, 50 years later, there is much to be learned, especially since we find ourselves still struggling with some of the fault lines exposed during that conflict. The strike touched on racism, anti-Semitism, and education policy (the role of community in school management, the value of multiculturalism in curriculum, student discipline and the professionalism of teachers). Each of these topics resonates with me and are actively debated today. We need to learn from our history; the strike and its aftermath are rich with lessons.

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Photo credit unknown — reprinted in Jacobin. Police blocked entry to the school building at one point during the conflict. 

One of the tragedies of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike was that it marked a serious deterioration in the relationship between African-Americans and Jewish-Americans in New York City. The two groups, through the early 1960s, were allies in the civil rights movement. The strike either created or revealed a schism.

I grew up feeling a connection to African-Americans. Because of my own people’s history, I identified with their struggle against persecution. My parents were believers in equal rights and opportunities. I never heard a racial or ethnic slur from either my mom or dad. Thinking back on it, I know they weren’t perfect, they were a product of their time and place, so I’m sure they had their prejudices, but that would have been the product of ignorance. They were life-long learners, and as they understood more, their thinking evolved. The strike and the emergence of the Black Power movement tested them.

My mother was teaching in a parochial school at the time of the strike. She was employed by the New York City Board of Education as a Title I teacher, a corrective reading specialist, but assigned to Catholic schools and yeshivas, depending on the year. Since the parochial schools were not affected by the strike, she continued to go to work, she didn’t have to cross a picket line. She remembers the time as being rife with tension, though. She taught in a neighborhood not far from Ocean-Hill Brownsville and took a subway line that travelled through there to get to work. She remembers a change in the air, she felt self-conscious on the subway as one of the few white people and previously she had not. Between the riots in cities around the country, and the friction of the strike, she felt the anxiety of the time.

My father, a social studies teacher in a NYC high school, walked the picket line. I recall him coming home and expressing anger with the leadership of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. I remember some of the names he mentioned, telling my mother of the latest inflammatory rhetoric from Sonny Carson and Rhody McCoy. Listening to the panelists at the Brooklyn Historical Society, it sounded like either the incendiary messages weren’t uttered, were overemphasized or misunderstood. It occurred to me that perhaps my father wasn’t as open-minded as I thought.

Now reading about the events, I see a fuller picture. My research revealed a number of interesting pieces.

One of the flashpoints during the strike was the assertion that the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community was anti-Semitic. As I noted in a previous post, the panelists contended that Al Shanker, the union president, was largely responsible for stoking the issue. Two of the three panelists, Ms. Edwards and Mr. Isaacs, refuted the claim that there was anti-Semitism in the community. Hearing that, I was incredulous; there is anti-Semitism in every community, just as there is racism. The degree of it, how close it is to the surface, may vary, but to deny its existence struck me as disingenuous.

Unless I misunderstood his point, Mr. Isaacs said it was the union that produced and distributed literature that included anti-Semitic language and images. I found that charge hard to believe. I could imagine that Shanker would want to consolidate his position by, as we might say today, riling up his base, but it didn’t ring true that he would go so far as to create the pamphlets.

I read news accounts, journal articles, recent scholarship and books, so much has been written about the strike. I learned that was that there was an anonymous anti-Semitic letter circulated in the junior high school in Ocean Hill-Brownsville at the time. The letter said:

‘If African-American History and Culture is to be taught to our Black Children it Must be done by African-Americans Who Identify With And Understand The Problem. It is Impossible For the Middle East Murderers of Colored People to Possibly Bring to This Important Task the Insight, The Concern, The Exposing of the Truth that is a Must If The Years of Brainwashing and Self-Hatred That Has Been Taught to Our Black Children by These Blood-sucking Exploiters and Murderers Is To Be Overcome.’

McCoy and the local Board denounced the letter. The union reprinted it, 5000 copies, as part of a leaflet which asked if this was acceptable; in effect publicizing it. Some might say Shanker exploited it.

I don’t know how strongly the African-American leadership disavowed the letter and its sentiments. I can only imagine how hurtful those thoughts would be to someone like my father. Was Mr. Isaacs suggesting that Shanker actually composed and planted the original letter, or was he criticizing the tactic of publicizing it?

It was not the only evidence of anti-Semitism. A teacher in the district read a poem by a student on WBAI, an African-American radio station in the city, called “To Albert Shanker: Anti-Seimitism.”

Hey Jew boy with that yarmulke on your head

You pale faced Jew boy I wish you were dead…

            Jew boy you took my religion and adopted it for you

            But you know that black people were the original Hebrews

            When the UN made Israel a free, independent state

            Little four and five-year-old boys threw hand grenades

            They hated the black Arab with all their might

            And you, Jew boy, said it was alright

            And then you came to America the land of the free

            Took over the school system to perpetuate white supremacy

            Cause you know, Jew boy, there’s only one reason you made it

            You had a clean white face colorless and faded.

When interviewed twenty years after the fact, the teacher had no regrets about reading the poem on the air. He said it was “raw,” but otherwise didn’t see a problem with it.

Unfortunately, there are people in the world who would write that letter and that poem today.

I come away from the panel discussion and my subsequent research believing that everyone shared responsibility for stoking racial and ethnic tensions. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville leadership was unwilling to distance itself from the extremists or troublemakers in their midst. Judging by the statements made by the panelists they still don’t acknowledge the damage done by the anti-Semitic communications. It may be true that the letter and poem didn’t represent the majority of the community. But, think of it this way:  if a single noose was to appear in a school locker, it would not be sufficient if school officials disavowed the symbolism, explained that it didn’t represent the opinion of the majority and left it at that. We would expect more, and rightly so.

It is true that the demographic of the replacement teachers was similar to those that were terminated – the majority were white and Jewish. That would support the idea that McCoy and the Board weren’t blindly anti-Semitic. But, that doesn’t address the hurt and fear engendered by the other events. The hiring of the replacements represented other problems from the union perspective (an issue I will discuss in more depth in my next blog post).

The union leadership, on the other hand, focused on those extremists to the exclusion of other legitimate concerns. There were issues with the quality of the teaching, with the atmosphere of the schools that did not welcome parental involvement and that didn’t include African-American and Puerto Rican contributions in the curriculum. And, the main point, the main issue at the heart of everything, was the problem of poor academic performance. By keeping their rhetoric focused on the hateful messages, the union didn’t appear to be willing to engage on the problems that were at the heart of the community’s anger.

There are parallels to how we engage in political discourse today. People are quick to point to the outrageous claims, or the hateful rhetoric, from the ‘other side.’ While I see the merit in bringing attention to discriminatory acts, they should not be swept under the rug, I think we go too far. The extremes get distorted and end up having more influence than they deserve. I don’t know how we reclaim some balance, but we need to give more careful thought to what we emphasize. We need to be more focused on problem-solving and substance.

Consequences of Hate

The panel discussion sparked so many questions and reflections. After some preliminary remarks by the moderator, Monifa Edwards, the valedictorian from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Junior High School, began the session by talking about her journey. Ms. Edwards, who is in her 60s now, held herself like a dancer, lean and elegant. She spoke with assurance. She gave some background, noting that her family, originally from the Caribbean, valued education. Her parents were distressed that the neighborhood schools had such a poor reputation. As a result, they enrolled her in a public elementary school in Sheepshead Bay, across the borough, an opportunity offered by New York City to desegregate the schools.

She described a harrowing experience on one particular trip. The bus was surrounded by angry white parents. The driver and bus monitor vanished, and the parents started rocking the bus and yelling epithets. Monifa recounted that she could still see, in her mind’s eye, the face of one of the mothers – her hair in curlers, her face twisted in hate. Monifa was terrified and traumatized by the experience. She came home and told her parents that she was going to go to a neighborhood school next year, no matter what, even if the education offered was inferior.

I heard Monifa’s story and it broke my heart. I could imagine her fear as the bus threatened to tip over.  Monifa continued, explaining how based on this, and other painful experiences, she was ‘primed to be radicalized’ (her phrase). Radicalized meant adopting the beliefs of the Black Panthers. When she asked adults around her, how could that white mother hate her so much and want to do her harm, she was told that white people were the devil. This made sense to her young self. It explained what she had experienced.  In the context of the time, I could understand how a child would receive and accept that message. She joined the Black Panthers, who became involved in the controversy over the schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Hearing the idea that white people were the devil reminded me of another time I heard that sentiment. As I have written before, I facilitate workshops for school boards across New York State. The goal of the sessions is to educate board members about their roles and responsibilities and to do team building. I had worked for the Anti-Defamation League before coming to NYSSBA and been trained to facilitate workshops on multiculturalism. So, when a school board was experiencing conflict due to charges of racism, I was asked to conduct a retreat to help them through it.

The nine-member Board had only one person of color, an African-American woman. As the session progressed, after opening exercises and a discussion of identity, we got to the heart of the matter: the racism allegation. In the course of the dialogue, the African-American woman expressed her frustration that she was not being heard by her fellow board members. She explained that she grew up in a southern state and shared that her grandmother told her white people were the devil – it was a message she heard repeatedly. She wanted us to understand how hard she worked to let go of that thought; she wanted her colleagues to understand how difficult it was for her to trust them.

It took courage and self-awareness for her to admit that. The other board members at the table had not acknowledged any racist impulses or messages that they had grown up with (or may have still held).

As the discussion at that workshop continued, it emerged that all of the first-and second -year Board members (there were three of them, all of them women), shared the feeling of not being heard. It was possible that the source of the problem was in not effectively orienting new members and not explaining how to get items on the agenda, or it could have been sexism (the Board president was male), rather than racism directed at one member.

I left that Board retreat somewhat optimistic that we had made some progress. Maybe they had a better understanding of each other. Perhaps the Board President, having heard the frustration of three of the female new members, would be more inclusive. I was disappointed that the white board members hadn’t acknowledged any stereotypes or preconceived notions they had about African-Americans, but I was hopeful that they had food for thought. Perhaps as they had time to process the session, in the privacy of their own thoughts, they would examine their beliefs.

Sitting in the audience listening to the panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society, I was reminded that the messages we receive as children are powerful. It takes work and awareness to overcome them. Many people are not introspective, some may not want to make the effort, and others may not be willing to be honest with themselves. But if we are ever going to progress, we need to do the work.

Ms. Edwards said she had long since moved beyond her radical phase, she was able to overcome the hateful message.  Unfortunately, time was limited and there were other issues to discuss so we didn’t learn how that process occurred or how long it took. I wanted to understand more (I plan to return to this subject in my next blog post).

I also wonder how many people in the world, who are currently traumatized by violence and/or abuse, are ‘primed to be radicalized.’

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The largely white teachers’ union thought they were the target of racists. It was a complicated story, with layers of hate and mistrust.

 

Next week: More on the teachers’ strike and the charges of anti-Semitism.

 

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers’ Strike: What is its legacy?

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A notice (see above) came across my Facebook feed that caught my eye. The Brooklyn Historical Society was hosting a panel discussion about the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers’ Strike (a school district in Brooklyn). Memories were sparked of a very controversial place and time. The topic touched on issues that have interested and motivated me my entire life: education and race relations. To add to my curiosity, the strike touched my family. Though I was a child at the time, I knew my father had been involved, he was an early union organizer for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). I remembered that he walked that picket line. I clicked on the link to look at the details.

The program featured three speakers and a moderator. One was a teacher from the junior high school at the center of the controversy who crossed the picket line, the second was a student who was the valedictorian of that junior high school’s graduating class in 1969, and the final presenter was a scholar who wrote a book that took a fresh look at the conflict and its legacy. The moderator was a current resident and activist in that Brooklyn neighborhood who had family that taught in the district at that time. The teacher, Charles Isaacs, was noted as also having written a book (Inside Ocean Hill-Brownsville: A Teacher’s Education 1968-69). Conspicuously absent was anyone representing the union. Though I was a bit concerned that the presentation might be skewed, I wanted to hear what they had to say.

I bought a ticket. I found a parking spot nearby, no mean feat in downtown Brooklyn. I got there early; the room was already filling up.  One might think that events from 50 years ago might be long forgotten, but clearly others were equally interested in revisiting this time and place. There was a palpable energy in the room. The space wasn’t very large, I think the capacity was 200. Every seat was taken, with some folks standing along the perimeter. The audience was very diverse: young, old and in between; white, black, and brown; men and women. I didn’t know a soul.

Before going to the session, I did a little research to remind myself what the issues were that surrounded the strike. I read some New York Times accounts and looked at a summary of the book written by Mr. Isaacs.

The strike was spurred by a decentralization experiment in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district.  In 1967 the New York City Board of Education, with funding from the Ford Foundation, authorized the creation of three experimental school districts; one in Harlem, one on the Lower East Side and one in Brooklyn (Ocean Hill-Brownsville). The idea was to give decision-making power (in hiring, firing, budgeting, curriculum approval, etc.) to the local community, rather than the central bureaucracy.  The hope was that, as a result, the staff in the district would begin to look more like the community around it and that parents would be more invested in their children’s education if they had a say in it. Each of the demonstration districts was poor and student achievement was abysmal.

What happened next is a complicated story and depends on which account of events you read. I can’t do justice to all of the details in this space (whole books have been written about it!). The agreed upon facts are these: A new superintendent, Rody McCoy, who was African-American, was brought into the newly created district, Ocean Hill-Brownsville. A locally elected school board was seated. Changes to curriculum and pedagogical approach were instituted. After a year in charge, McCoy believed that the effort to implement change was being stymied by some administrators and teachers. As a result, during the summer of 1968 a letter was sent to 19 staff members advising them that they were terminated, and they should report to the central Board of Education at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn. All 19 were white, many were Jewish (this becomes relevant as events unfold).

The teachers’ union interpreted this personnel action as a threat to their authority and a breach of the contract that they had with the New York City central Board of Education. According to their agreement, termination could only occur after due process, and this action had been taken without the necessary administrative steps. The union, led by its president Al Shanker, protested and called for a strike.

All of this was occurring in the context of heightened racial tension in the country as a whole. Though the civil rights movement had resulted in new laws, poverty, discrimination, police brutality and the perception that the Vietnam War was exacting more pain from African-Americans were still troubling realities. During the summer of 1967, called the ‘long, hot summer’ for a reason, there were multiple riots in urban areas (159 of them). Detroit and Newark experienced some of the worst violence, resulting in 43 and 26 dead in each city respectively. Hundreds of others were injured, and swaths of city blocks were burned. Mixed into this violence was a call for African-Americans to forcefully claim their rights, rather than taking the path of nonviolence charted by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The decentralization of schools in New York City was seen as part of a response to the call for Black Power. The conflict over the termination (which became a subject of dispute because some said it was a reassignment, not a firing) of the teachers/administrators was taking place against this backdrop. It became impossible to disentangle the contractual issues from the racial and power politics of the time. Though I was a child, I was aware of the tension. I was aware of the strain on my father. He supported the union’s position.

I think the most common interpretation of events would suggest that the union ‘won’ and that the decentralization experiment failed. Hearing the panelists, a different picture emerged. Their interpretation emphasized that the 19 teachers/administrators were racists and weren’t actually fired but were to be reassigned; and that children were being harmed in the union’s quest for power. They blamed Al Shanker for stoking racial tensions (alleging that he fueled charges of Black Anti-Semitism) and for letting the strike stretch to 36 days (the longest in American history). They highlighted the successes of the experiment in improved self-esteem among the students and empowerment of parents and community.

While I have no vested interest in Shanker’s legacy, my father did walk that picket line. I was troubled by the allegations because it could implicate my father, a man I admired (and still admire) for his moral compass. I listened to their presentations and wondered what my father would have thought. If only he was still alive, so I could ask him. I would have to do more research to see if I could come to my own conclusions.

Next week: More on the panel discussion and the legacy of Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Flexible or Adrift?

The room is dark, but I hear Gary rolling out of bed. I open my eyes to see him slowly standing, unplugging his phone, and walking stiffly to the bathroom. “Is it time to get up already?” I ask. I squint at the clock, which reads 6:04 a.m. “Yup, but you don’t have to,” he reminds me. “I know,” I say as I turn over and settle back under the blankets, “it just seems too early. Sorry….” I don’t finish the thought.

Gary will go off to work, I will drift back to sleep. I am lucky. Most mornings I don’t have to be up at a specific time. My schedule is my own, except when it isn’t. I find it to be an odd existence. I retired three and a half years ago and I still don’t have a routine. I have a love/hate relationship with this reality.

My life is made up of:

Home-making – I take care of (almost) all the things that go into supporting Gary and my life together. Maintenance of the house, our two cars, paying the bills, shopping, gift-buying, planning travel, preparing meals, laundry, etc. Full disclosure:  I admit that we have a cleaning person come every other week and we do order food in pretty frequently (but I do cook at least 3 times a week). I take care of our cats. It surprises me how much time this all takes. In fairness to Gary, he takes care of outdoor things, and, importantly, makes the coffee every morning.

Consulting – I facilitate school board workshops for NYSSBA and sometimes I do policy projects for them (which involves reviewing and writing policies for school districts). This work is inconsistent. I can have a number of assignments in a row, particularly in the summer and fall, and then there can be dry periods. It is unpredictable. When I conduct a workshop, it involves several hours of preparation and discussions with the district, and then travel (usually a couple of hours), and the session itself is no less than 3.5 hours. The policy projects are more time consuming, usually taking the equivalent of a week of full time work.

Babysitting – Sometimes I am asked to watch our granddaughter, which is no hardship! I love spending time with that cutie pie, who is now almost 8 months old. Sometimes the request has come at the last minute, other times it is planned well in advance. I want to be flexible so that I can be there when they need me. Occasionally I help out with my cousin’s child who is now three years old.

Writing/Reading/Researching – I try to spend time writing most days, but this is the first thing to get pushed aside when other things get in the way. I participate in three writing groups which each meet once a month. I also spend time doing research on the things I write about in my blog. I’ve spent a lot of time researching Brooklyn in the 1960s and ‘70s, public education and the Holocaust. I can get lost in the rabbit hole of research. I’m also a devoted reader, both for pleasure and in order to develop my writing.

Visiting/overseeing my mother’s health care – My mom now lives in an independent senior community in New Jersey. I don’t visit as often as I’d like (or as often as she would like). Sometimes this involves only making phone calls and reviewing lab results. Other times I accompany her on doctor’s visits. I make it a priority to go to appointments that aren’t strictly routine.

Working out/jogging/biking – I try to maintain some level of physical activity. Three or four days a week, depending on the weather, I go to the Jewish Community Center to use the treadmill or if it isn’t brutally cold or raining/sleeting/snowing, I walk or jog at the nearby SUNY campus or take a ride on my bike.

Other stuff – Occasionally I play tennis or have lunch with a friend. Sometimes there are other family things that need attention. Gary and I aren’t hugely active socially, but we do make plans with friends and family and I make those arrangements. I’ve also been known to go out to protest or march in support of Planned Parenthood or other causes near and dear to my heart.

Looking at this list, it seems simple enough, and not terribly demanding. As long as everyone is healthy, it isn’t stressful. But, it doesn’t lend itself to creating a structure for my day. Some days I love that – the freedom of it, that I don’t have to report to anyone. Other days, though, I feel lost, adrift.  I wonder: is this enough? Am I being productive?

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day. I spent some time reading a speech he gave in 1965 at Oberlin College’s commencement. [I vicariously take pride in crediting Oberlin as the site of the speech because our daughter went there.] It was so inspiring! I also finished John Kerry’s memoir, Every Day is Extra. They lived big lives, momentous lives. I’m not comparing the two, just pointing out that each, in their own way, tried to accomplish so much. They participated in large movements working for change. Not everyone leads such a big life. I wonder, though, if I have done enough. Have I tried hard enough to make a difference?

As I think about it, maybe these are two separate issues. Am I doing enough? vs. Do I need more structure in my life? But they feel related. When I’m feeling lost or stuck, I can’t sort out the source.

How would I go about adding more structure? If I take on more responsibilities, let’s say a commitment to volunteer certain hours each week, then I lose the flexibility I wanted when I retired. I want to be available to help my kids, family or friends when they need it. I want to be a writer, which doesn’t require structure (unless you’re getting paid for it, which I am not, though there is always hope!). Of course, I could create my own structure. But that requires a discipline I don’t seem to have. Argghhh!

As far as the question, am I doing enough? I struggle with that. When I was a child I imagined a bigger life. My dreams, and I’ve written about this before, were to be Barbara Walters (at the time a prominent broadcast journalist) or someone who solves world problems. I was even voted ‘most likely to succeed’ in high school which gave credence to those dreams. Things haven’t played out that way, though, I have more success than I could have hoped for. I’ve been married to the same great guy for over 35 years. I am blessed with healthy, happy children. I have a wonderful extended family and good friends. We have a standard of living that I didn’t think was a possibility. I think my work has contributed positively. But have I done enough? Can I make peace with the size of my life? Anyone else out there think about that? Or, maybe it’s hubris on my part.

I can go round and round on this, so I’ll just stop now. If you have any insights or suggestions, feel free to share! Meanwhile, I’ll keep muddling through.

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One of the places I like to go when I feel adrift – Central Park.

Graduation

The end of our time in Pittsburgh was filled with emotion. I looked forward to being closer to family, but I dreaded having to start anew in another unfamiliar city. I wasn’t sure what I was going to be doing when I got to Albany. I hadn’t found a job yet, doing a search long distance proved fruitless.  As a result, like my move to Pittsburgh four years earlier, I was relocating without anything certain. Gary, on the other hand, knew exactly what he would be doing, but it was daunting. Internship and residency, more tests of his knowledge, skills and endurance awaited. We were also saying good-bye to close friends who were scattering far and wide, each going to different programs.  It was bittersweet.

It was into this emotional stew that our families arrived for graduation. My parents flew in and were staying in dorm rooms on the University of Pittsburgh campus, just a few blocks from our apartment. Gary’s parents, sisters and brother drove from Queens in his Dad’s Cadillac. They stayed at a hotel. Planning for our families to be together was stressful. Everyone got along fine, but we were still new at this. Our families’ styles were so different. Gary’s family would enjoy a tour of the medical school, with extended stops in the pathology and anatomy labs to look at specimens. Not so much for my parents – a tour of the med school would be fine, but they’d prefer to skip the labs (or maybe it was just me that didn’t want to go to the labs!). They would be more inclined to visit a museum or take a walk in Schenley Park.

Meals were another thing. Gary’s parents didn’t require kosher food, but there were limited options. It was important to have fish (not shellfish) available. My parents liked fish, so that wasn’t a problem. The question was where to go to get it, Pittsburgh wasn’t famous for seafood. Gary and I, living on a tight budget, didn’t go to the fancier restaurants either. My perception was that the Baksts liked finer things (note the aforementioned Cadillac). Gary had told me years before that his folks didn’t go out to eat often and that his mom liked a restaurant that had white tablecloths. Celebrating Gary’s graduation was a big deal. I wanted the dinner to be perfect. Not too much pressure!

After asking around, I made a reservation at the Fox Chapel Yacht Club. After all my worry, it went fine. At least I think it did. I have no memories of the meal itself. So, I am assuming if something horrible happened, I would remember! I do have some photos, showing us smiling, which may, or may not, support my assumption.

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Gary and his sibs in their traditional pose – youngest to oldest (L-R) in front of the yacht club
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Gary and his dad.

We did a mix of things over the two days they were there, showing them around and leaving time to relax. We always loved showing visitors the Cathedral of Learning, a gothic tower at the center of a green space on Pitt’s campus. On the ground floor of the cathedral there were model traditional classrooms from other countries, including Sweden, Israel, Poland, among others. I never got tired of looking at them.

We successfully made it to the morning of graduation. Everyone gathered at our apartment. Gary put on his gown. I asked him to put on the cap so I could take some pictures. He was none too pleased. I think his nerves were a little frayed, he was impatient to leave and he was taking his stress out on me. Rochelle interjected, asking him to cooperate, after all he would want pictures. He did, but he wasn’t happy.

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See? The photo he begrudgingly posed for.

Then he left. We would meet up with him after the graduation.

I led our group to the Carnegie Music Hall, so many things in Pittsburgh bear the Carnegie name, where the graduation ceremony was held. It was a gray, rainy day, but the Hall was only a few blocks from our apartment.

We entered the grand foyer of the hall, with its marble floors and ornate columns, looking appropriately majestic for the occasion. We saw all the graduates gathered on one side, in their black robes and green hoods, arranged for a group photo. We stood for a minute, scanning the group, finally spotting Gary in the first row. I waved and smiled. He looked happier, more relaxed.

We went up to the balcony to take our seats. My parents were on my right, David sat to my left. I looked through the program. In front of Gary’s name there were two symbols; an asterisk indicating that he was Cum Laude, and a small cross which meant that he was admitted to the medical honor society (Alpha Omega Alpha). I proudly pointed out the honors to everyone. Not many of his classmates had achieved either honor, much less both.

During the ceremony, each time I turned to look at David, he had tears in his eyes. At one point, as he dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief, he whispered, “Who would have thought I would get to see this?” He shook his head in disbelief. “I had nothing when I came here.”

It had been quite a journey for the entire Bakst family.

A Surprise Recognition

Though I didn’t set out to tell the story of Gary’s graduation from medical school, it has been the thread that has pulled me along. His graduation was momentous, for Gary, of course, but for all of us. It was a culmination and a beginning.

I had stopped work at the Finance Department to prepare for our move and enjoy all the festivities leading up to the graduation ceremony. And there were festivities! Other than packing, both of us were without responsibilities for the first time in years, as were our friends, and that led to some serious celebrating. Gary and I were never major party-ers, but we gave it our best shot that week.

The graduation ceremony was held on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, May 29, 1986. In addition, the senior awards ceremony was conducted separately, before the weekend. The schedule clearly was not made with out of town guests in mind. Our families weren’t able to come to Pittsburgh for that long of a stretch. They came into town on Sunday. This was quite unfortunate because our families missed what may have been the highlight of graduation.

We knew Gary was getting an award, but we didn’t know what it would be. We got to the room where the ceremony was held, eager with anticipation, and most of the seats were already taken. We nodded hellos to his classmates as we made our way to two open chairs toward the back. The room wasn’t an auditorium, as I recall, it was more like a mid-size ballroom, set up with a podium at one end and rows of chairs. Awards in different categories were given, for different specialties. The Heard Senior Prize, honorable mention, for excellence in Medicine, went to Gary. First prize went to Monica Parise. Gary was not surprised, he believed Monica was very deserving. I was a bit disappointed, tremendously proud, but a little let down on Gary’s behalf. We didn’t know there was more to come.

More awards were given. We were coming to the end of the ceremony. The announcer presented the Jamie Sheehan Memorial award, voted on by the students, given to the “individual who is most aware that the role of the physician is to serve and honor the patient and who is most sensitive to the healing power of the doctor-patient relationship” to Gary Bakst. This was completely unexpected. Gary had said nothing to me about the vote. Later he told me that he had no thought that anyone would vote for him. He voted for a classmate who was instrumental in setting up a clinic for unemployed steelworkers. But, his classmates saw something, a quality that I knew well.

Gary got up to receive the award and the audience rose, as well. He got a standing ovation! I was smiling ear-to-ear, clapping, trying to take it all in. I did have one stray thought: I never realized how short Gary is! I couldn’t see him. I stood on my tiptoes, straining, trying to follow him as he made his way down the aisle to the front – to no avail. That was a ridiculous observation, of course, in the midst of the pride and pleasure in his recognition.

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I was only sorry that his family wasn’t there to see it. Damn the planners!!! But I would be sure to tell them all about it.  Meanwhile, we celebrated. It had been a long, hard four years for both of us. We earned that celebration. We weren’t our best selves by the time our families arrived on Sunday, but we managed to rally.

Next week: Graduation 

A Look Back at 2018

This is my 52nd blog post of the year. I took a look back at 2018. It is New Year’s Eve day, a good time to reflect. Since, unlike our president, I want to be accurate, I will be honest and report that among those 52 posts there were 5 ‘placeholder’ entries, where I didn’t write a full piece. There were also 3 guest essays; thank you, Gary and Laura.

Reviewing the blog posts reminded me of the journey of the year. I wrote 13 pieces that traced the story of my in-law’s, Paula and David, survival through the Holocaust. The visits with them, the viewing of their Shoah testimonies the research that informed those pieces were enriching, challenging and, ultimately, life-affirming. There may be more to tell. I continue to research and think about their experiences and what they mean to me and my family. I will continue to share on the blog as it develops.

I shared personal concerns – about mental health, relationships and politics. Hopefully readers were moved or enlightened or entertained – maybe even all three (if that isn’t too ambitious)!

I posted photos of some of my travels. I am so fortunate to have been able to see some magnificent places, whether it was the Amalfi Coast or Central Park or my own backyard. Here are some photos I haven’t previously shared, of Boston, NYC, Central Park, and Five Rivers (an area not far from my house).

In prior years I have written more about growing up in Canarsie, though I did write some essays this year that explored that territory.  In three entries I wrote about the trials and tribulations of navigating friendships while growing up.

I started the journey of this blog in May of 2016. Time flies. It is unbelievable to me that I have been doing this for 2 and 1/2 years! That’s a lot of words! And, I’m still finding my way. I’m still figuring out what I’m doing with this. Maybe 2019 will be the year that I have my ‘aha!’ moment and I will know where I am going with this project. Maybe I will find out that I have known all along – it is what it is. A series of essays:  memoir, family history, exploration of relationships, travelogue, political commentary, observations and, once in a while, a poem. Maybe that will feel like enough, but I’m not there yet. I am still searching. I hope you, my friends, family and all readers are enjoying it so far. And, if you are, please consider sharing it with others you think would be interested. I so appreciate those of you who have done that by sharing links on your social media platforms. I also welcome your comments, they enrich the blog and add to the conversation. Keep them coming!

As we close out 2018, I wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year, filled with meaningful connections, love and laughter with friends and family, learning, and, most of all, peace. Thank you for taking the journey with me.