‘Love the One You’re With’??

Recently I watched a four-episode series on Netflix called Unorthodox. It told the story of a young woman who left (escaped might be a better word) her Hasidic family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to start a new life in Berlin. Aside from being a compelling story, I found one scene particularly poignant and it resonated with me. It wasn’t my experience, but I could certainly relate to an aspect of it.

In a flashback scene, in preparation for her wedding, Esty is counseled about marital relations. All of the information is totally new to her. The woman guiding her explains how intercourse works. Esty looks at the woman in disbelief, saying that she had only one hole. She was sent into the bathroom with a hand mirror to examine herself. I was not nearly so ignorant, between my mother, books and school, I knew the facts, but I didn’t really know my body. It never occurred to me to look.

I was eleven years old when I got my period for the first time; younger than most of my peers. It didn’t terrify me; I knew what to expect. My mother had informed me, and I had read about the changes that were coming to my body. Despite that preparation, I still wasn’t ready to deal with it.

I understood that by beginning to menstruate I could become pregnant and have a baby. That idea seemed so crazy. I wasn’t even a teenager myself yet. I knew the basic biology of how that could happen, but it still seemed inconceivable, not to mention unappealing. At that age I knew I was interested in boys but not in a sexual way. I knew based on the fact that all of my crushes on stars, for me more likely to be athletes than actors or musicians, were male. I hoped that eventually there would be a boy that was interested in me, but that was the subject of fantasy, not real life and had nothing to do with sex. It seemed incongruous to have a body physically ready for something so momentous but to be so emotionally and mentally immature. I wondered why we were designed that way.

The message I received about sex from my parents was straight forward: wait until you’re married. Sex wasn’t presented as something dirty or shameful, but it was understood to be part of an intimate, committed relationship – which to my mom and dad meant being married. Not much else was said about it. My mother, to this day, describes herself as a prude. I can’t say whether she is or was, I can say that it was not something treated lightly by Mom or Dad. Off-color jokes were not part of our humor. I remember being surprised years later when I sat at my fiancé’s family’s dining room table and his brother made a ‘dirty’ joke. His parents, even his mother, laughed heartily. I wondered if my mother would have gotten the punchline.

While I was receiving my parents’ message about the seriousness and responsibility of having sex, society at large was changing. The moral code my parents offered was challenged by what I was seeing – love-ins, Woodstock, the women’s movement suggested that there were other ways to look at sex. It was confusing.

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Woodstock 1969

I became good friends with a girl in high school who had a different perspective about sex. I remember us having a conversation when we were in college about whether it was more intimate to have sex with someone or to reveal your fears or insecurities to that person. We looked at it differently. I remember saying to her that sleeping with a guy was the ultimate act of intimacy to me. She didn’t feel that way. She could be more casual about sex than she could about being vulnerable about her feelings.

Though I didn’t believe that sex should only happen in the context of marriage or only for procreating, I also didn’t think it should be treated as lightly as our other urges, like eating or drinking. I did internalize the values that my parents communicated:  that it should be part of a loving, committed relationship, it just didn’t need to be officially sanctioned by law or ceremony. I thought about my friend’s perspective, and the freer standards of the 1960s, but it didn’t feel right for me. I couldn’t be casual in that way.

I think my parents were good role models. Maybe I would have benefitted from more humor about it, a more relaxed attitude. But I can’t complain. I got a solid foundation. Dad showed respect for women. I never saw him ogle one when we were out and about. He never flirted with a waitress at a restaurant. I didn’t know men did that until I was an adult. To my knowledge he didn’t view porn, the idea of him doing that was preposterous to me. He didn’t subscribe to Playboy; I never saw him in possession of that kind of magazine. I knew those magazines existed – I knew of guys who were devoted ‘readers,’ but Dad was devoted to my mother, as far as I knew.  I respected that about him and wanted that in my own relationship. I was fortunate to find someone who shared those values and we offered those values to our children.

I still think about the idea of ‘love the one you’re with.’ Not with any sense of regret at having chosen the path I did, but wondering what is the healthiest way to view sex? Likely there is not one answer for everyone. Is it the same for men and women, heterosexuals and LGBTQ? Should it be? Are we free and honest enough to talk about it? Maybe the difficulties arise when the individuals involved are on a different page but don’t communicate their feelings. And, maybe that happens more often than we want to admit. As usual, I have more questions than answers.

What Have I Learned?

NOTE: I want to give a shout out to my brother Steven. Today is his birthday. Happy birthday, Steve! I know your options for celebrating are limited given the pandemic, but I hope it helps to know that we Baksts are celebrating you! Enjoy your day. Now back to the blog….

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, as I frequently do during this time of quarantine. I came across an interesting tweet. Nate Silver, author of The Signal and the Noise and founder of FiveThirtyEight, asked the following poll question: “Okay, which of the following is closest to the mark for you?”

  1. I thought I was an extrovert, and social distancing has made me realize I’m even more of an extrovert than I thought.
  2. I thought I was an extrovert, but social distancing has made me realize I’m more of an introvert than I thought.
  3. I thought I was an introvert, and social distancing has made me realize I’m more of an introvert than I thought.
  4. I thought I was an introvert, but social distancing has made me realize I’m more of an extrovert than I thought.*

*Results are below

One thing about this strange time we are in, many of us have an opportunity to reflect on this kind of question. This one resonated with me. I wasn’t sure how I would answer it.

I considered whether I am an introvert or extrovert. I recall taking a survey once where I was characterized as an introvert, but with some extrovert qualities. I think that sounds about right. I am certainly introspective, as my blog entries probably make clear. But that isn’t the whole story.

If a person observed me at a meeting at work, they might think I am an extrovert. I was never shy about expressing my opinions to management– sometimes to my detriment. On the other hand, depending on the occasion, if you watched me at a social event, you might see someone struggling to connect. And, before that social event, you would see someone dreading the prospect of making small talk and having to be ‘on.’ But, you wouldn’t actually see that, would you? You wouldn’t see what was going on internally. You might look over and see me laughing and think “she looks pretty comfortable.” I’ve been told I have a hearty laugh and that may lead you to conclude I’m an extrovert. That isn’t how it feels to me, though.

When I was in graduate school, I became close friends with a fellow student, Sally. She once commented, “You’re so bubbly,” or something to that effect. I had never thought that was an adjective that would be used to describe me. Sally was quite reserved. When we finished school, coincidentally we took jobs in the same office. We would attend meetings and I marveled at how she kept a perfect poker face. I could not tell what she was thinking. I’m not sure if it was a cultural thing, her personality, a concerted effort on her part or a combination of all of that, but she did not readily show her emotions. I did, I can’t help myself. I’m either nodding along with what the speaker is saying or shaking my head in disagreement. From Sally’s vantage point, I may have been bubbly, but that also may have been relative to her own nature.

Some of what I struggle with in answering Nate Silver’s poll question is the difference between how others might perceive me versus how I see myself.

Another part of the problem in answering the question is defining what it means to be an introvert or extrovert. One way to think of it is to ask whether you prefer solitary pursuits or group activities. I would fall into neither category – my preference would be to do something with one or two people – does that constitute a group? I enjoy alone time, but I need social connection, too. I prefer that to happen in small gatherings, though.

Another way to look at the definition is whether you are a person energized by spending time with people or if that leaves you exhausted. I definitely need solitude to recharge. Again, I can enjoy a party, but only up to a point. Then I want to gracefully exit and be quiet. I am rarely the last to leave, even if it is my own house! I might escape for a walk or go up to my room for a few moments of peace. I am definitely not energized when it is over.

When this shut down first started, I admit feeling relieved. In the beginning it wasn’t dramatically different from my regular life. Since retiring five years ago, I spend a lot of my time reading and writing. One thing I have often struggled with is competing impulses. On the one hand, I like my solitude; on the other, I have a fear of missing out. I wanted to be part of the social whirl, to be part of the in crowd. But, then I didn’t, it exhausted me. When this enforced social distancing began, I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. I wonder when this is over if I will go back to fighting with myself, or if I will have reached peace.

So, what has this quarantine experience taught me about whether I am introvert or extrovert? My answer is not found in the choices Nate Silver offered. Instead, I would submit the following: I thought I was an introvert, and I am. But, I need social connection more than I was willing to admit and I need changes of scenery. For the time being I am satisfied by the social connection provided by technology. Visiting via FaceTime or another of the video platforms works pretty well for me. It doesn’t, however, fulfill my desire to hug my children and grandchild.

My craving for a change in scenery has been a revelation. This may not be exactly relevant to where on the continuum of introversion to extroversion I fall, but it is an understanding I’ve reached since spending so much time in my house. I love my house, but enough already! Even more than seeing people, I crave a day trip to somewhere, anywhere! And not just a ride in the car, or a drive to take a hike along a waterway. I want to go to another town, try a new restaurant, go to a museum or movie, wander the streets of New York or Boston. I took those possibilities for granted before – the freedom to get in the car or hop on Amtrak to go somewhere. The only thing I miss more than that freedom is hanging out with my children and granddaughter.

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The view out my kitchen window. I know I am lucky to have something so lovely, but I still need a change of scenery!

*Here are the results of Nate Silver’s unscientific poll:

Extrovert, extrovert    10.3%

Extrovert, introvert     12.7%

Introvert, introvert     51.1%

Introvert, extrovert     26%

Just under 40% have learned something different about themselves. It is interesting that such a large percentage said they were introverts. This is not a randomized sample. It may reflect that people who follow Silver’s twitter feed are more likely to be nerds (guilty! Sort of). But the results also suggest that a number of folks (26%) are figuring out that they have more of a need to be with people than they previously thought. Maybe that’s a good thing.

How would you have answered the poll question?  Have you had any surprises about yourself as a result of spending so much time home?

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I miss New York City! Hoping we can go back soon!

Contradictions

Note: Some of the material in this blog appeared in a previous post, but I have added content, edited it and, hopefully those who have been reading all along will find it compelling. For newer readers, I hope you enjoy. This is part of a series of pieces I have written about searching for my identity as an adolescent.

Of course, being Jewish was only one part of me. Being a girl presented its own challenges. The Women’s Liberation Movement was just beginning and was quite controversial. On television women were burning their bras outside the Miss America Pageant, at the same time I watched Barbara Eden as Jeannie, in her skimpy harem costume, flirting with Tony the astronaut. She actually called him ‘Master!” Something I didn’t even notice at the time. I wanted to be Barbara Eden. It was confusing.

I wanted to behave like a boy: playing and talking sports. I watched football, basketball, and baseball games with my brothers and uncles. On occasion they let me play touch football with them. I kept the scorecard at their softball games. Title IX was enacted as I was arriving in high school – a bit too late for me.

I wanted to be petite, with long straight hair.  Instead I was built like a peasant; stocky and sturdy, with wiry curly hair. Girls were supposed to be demure and defer to males. I had strong opinions about things. My opinions flew out of my mouth before I could edit them. I wanted to please people which didn’t mesh too well with my headstrong ideas. My impulses were pulling me in opposite directions. It felt like a war inside.

I was full of contradictions. I wasn’t interested in clothes or make-up, but I wanted to look stylish and attractive. I had neither the patience nor the desire to read fashion magazines or talk to other girls about that stuff. I struggled with two competing thoughts: it is important to be attractive (and the only way to get a guy); it is shallow to want to be attractive. In my heart I didn’t believe I could be pretty, and it was easier to dismiss it as uninteresting than to try and fail or be laughed at for the unsuccessful effort.

I knew that girls were supposed to have Barbie-like figures. Even when I was old enough to realize that the Barbie standard was ridiculous, I wasn’t able to make peace with my body.

It didn’t help that I had several experiences being mistaken for a boy. One time was particularly awkward. I was 11 or 12, but well into puberty, and I was in Star Value City, the five and dime in the shopping center near my house. I had been sent by my mom to buy sanitary napkins. I hated being sent on that particular errand. In those days, boxes of sanitary napkins were the size of a large microwave oven. There was no way to disguise the package – they didn’t make a bag big enough to cover it. It was so embarrassing – I thought everyone would see the monster box of Kotex and think they were for me. I don’t know why that possibility was so humiliating, but it was.

I wandered the aisles, gathering the courage to go the feminine products section, when a girl who looked a little older than me approached and smiled. She said, “You’re cute,” in a flirty way. I was attired in my usual uniform: jeans, sneakers and an oversize sweatshirt. I was totally taken aback. I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t bring myself to say, “You know, I’m a girl.” Or anything else for that matter. I was speechless. I just tried to move on. She was persistent and followed me, commenting on my curls and freckles. I was dying. Eventually she got the idea that I wasn’t going to speak, and she left me alone. And, then I had to go buy the sanitary napkins and walk home with them!

I imagine that other girls got mistaken for boys and vice versa, but I couldn’t handle it. For me it played into my worst feelings about myself. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it either, it was just too embarrassing.

This was the source of another deep ambivalence. On the one hand I understood that the substance of a person is far more important than their looks. I knew friendships were based on laughter, shared interests and kindness, not appearances. Yet, I weighed my looks heavily when I took stock of myself.

I would assess myself – I got these qualities from my mom (my smile and large rib cage) and other qualities from my dad (short legs and strong opinions) – both physical characteristics and personality traits. My Mom and Dad were so different from each other but they were each part of me. My Dad was a manly man – decisive, logical, authoritative, short-tempered, athletic, and strong. I thought I was a lot like him. My mom wasn’t exactly a girly-girl, but she certainly put on make-up every day when she was getting ready for work. She appeared to defer to my father on most subjects. Mom was intuitive; she didn’t think in logical steps (at least not a logic I recognized). She was also preoccupied with physical appearances and commented on that all the time– my eyebrows were a regular source of concern.

The mix of personalities worked for them in their marriage, they complemented each other, but those characteristics didn’t coexist easily in me. I wanted to be decisive and passive at the same time! I simultaneously cared deeply about how I looked and thought it was a shallow conceit. Trying to integrate the competing aspects of myself made for a very confusing journey to womanhood.

My journey did include one successful rebellion against stereotypes. As I became more conscious of the Women’s Liberation movement, I brought it home. After years of feeling that there was an uneven distribution of chores in our house, I exercised my decisiveness when I was in sixth grade – I complained….loudly. My brothers didn’t have to do the dishes after dinner, I did them. It seemed to me their only chores were to take out the garbage, sweep the driveway and mow the lawn. Given that our lawn was the size of a postage stamp, it didn’t require much effort. And there were two of them, and only one of me! Their tasks weren’t required on a daily basis. I made my case to Mom and Dad. Lo and behold, much to my brothers’ dismay, I was successful. Mark made a huge deal about putting his hands in the dirty dishwater, but his argument held no sway. Poor boy! I was only sorry I hadn’t thought to make my case sooner!

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Me – at the age I staged my rebellion. Notice the huge lawn that needed attention!

 

An Idea

I participate in a few writing groups. One of the groups is specifically for memoir. Last Thursday I shared a piece with that group which may be the introduction to my book. I say ‘may be’ because the project is still so raw, I can imagine that it might change. That aside, the essay I brought explored my identity as a secular Jew – a person who identifies with the culture (the values, humor, food and history) but not the faith in God. I was gratified to receive positive feedback from the group. One person in particular commented that I got it exactly right – it resonated with his own experience. It was encouraging.

Friday night I went to Sabbath services at a local reform synagogue because a friend was celebrating her bat mitzvah. It is quite an undertaking to achieve one’s bat mitzvah, especially as an adult, since it involves learning to read Hebrew and chanting in front of the congregation. My friend had been studying for a solid year. I was very pleased for her and know it was quite meaningful for her and her family.

Over the years I have flirted with the idea of studying for my bat mitzvah. When I was growing up it was not common for girls to go through the process. The first time I seriously considered it was when my children were getting further along in their Hebrew School education and I wanted to be supportive. I was the only one of the four of us who didn’t read Hebrew. We were going to services regularly at that point and I thought I would get more out of it if I studied. So, I took some classes with our rabbi. The classes had an unfortunate effect of reinforcing my lack of belief. Though I appreciated learning to read Hebrew (which I didn’t keep up so I no longer can), the discussions we had focused on the meaning of rituals and how they related to God. It left me cold. After trying a few different classes, I stopped.

I would not go so far as to claim that I am an atheist. I am in doubt as to the existence of a higher power. I am not in doubt, though, about the emptiness I feel when saying the prayers that are part of the liturgy of synagogue services. The God of those prayers, the God described in the Torah, doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t worship that God. But I like the feeling of gathering in community for common purpose.

Sitting in the sanctuary Friday night, I thought once again about becoming a bat mitzvah. And, once again, I rejected it. I keep running into the same wall – how can I go through the motions of professing a faith I simply don’t have. I do have faith, but it isn’t in that God. My faith is in the potential of humanity. (I can write about how that belief is currently being tested, but that is a subject for another time.)

I feel a kinship with other Jews – we often share a sensibility, as well as all the things I mentioned above that are part of our culture. I would like to nurture that connection.

While sitting through the service on Friday night, on the heels of my experience at Thursday night’s memoir group, I had an idea. Could there be a place for secular Jews? I started imagining a center of study (of our history), a place to explore and develop our shared values, to share food and humor. I could imagine celebrating holidays there, but without all the praying to God.

We are coming up on the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. This period of time doesn’t need God to be meaningful to me. I have always appreciated it as a time of reflection, an opportunity for growth and to make amends with people who I have wronged. I would welcome the opportunity to gather with people to observe the holiday, to discuss the challenges that introspection brings. We could still blow the shofar as the symbolic reawakening that it is intended to be.

Does such a thing exist? One could argue that the Jewish Community Center (JCC) plays some of that role. But, it doesn’t really. Maybe it could, but so much of the emphasis there is on recreation and servicing specific populations (children and seniors) – as it should. Other programming is offered, but not what I am imagining.

The great fear of Jewish organizations is that the religion will die. After surviving centuries of persecution, it may die of neglect. The only areas of growth are among the Hasidic and Modern Orthodox. Conservative and Reform Judaism are shrinking and struggling. My future, as a Jew, will not be with Hasidism or Orthodoxy. I’m pretty sure my children won’t go that route either. Is there a viable alternative? Is it possible to create a movement of secular Jews?

 

Patriotism

All through elementary school we began our day by reciting the pledge of allegiance. I recall standing, facing the flag, hand over my heart, earnestly saying the words with my classmates.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,

And to the Republic for which it stands,

One nation, under God, indivisible,

With liberty and justice for all.”

I said those words with pride. As I got older, it became a rote exercise. By the time I was in high school, in the early 1970s, it was hard to hear the words over the general din in homeroom.

The process of it losing my attention, and apparently my classmates’, too, might have been a function of our age. Or it may have reflected something else – a change in our country as a whole.

Two things made me think about this. First was the controversy over Megan Rapinoe, the women’s soccer player who got called out by President Trump for not singing the national anthem. The second thing is that the 4th of July is upon us, a good time to reflect on patriotism.

Over the years a lot of athletes have stirred controversy by their behavior during the national anthem. The first roiling I recall was when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their gloved fists in Black Power salutes at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. That touched off a firestorm. I was only 8 at the time, but I remember being upset by it. I think what disturbed me most was that it was detracting from the competition. I loved the Olympics, I loved it when Americans won an event, and I felt pride hearing our anthem played in the stadium. It reinforced that we were the good guys – and it was the Cold War, after all. I didn’t want Carlos and Smith to upset the applecart.

But, even at 8 years of age, I stopped to think about why they were doing it. They were making a statement and I felt it was important to try to understand it. They were calling attention to the fact that Black Americans were not being treated equally at home. It was hard to deny that truth. The athletes felt they had to use their platform literally and figuratively. They paid for their actions – they were kicked out of the Olympic Village and banned from the rest of the games. They also received death threats. One can only imagine what might have happened if this occurred in the age of the 24/7 news cycle and social media frenzies.

The idea that our country was falling short of its foundational values became more evident to me as the years rolled on. The Vietnam War and Watergate took their toll on my faith; they were stains on our nation’s history.

I don’t want to suggest that I didn’t feel pride in being an American – I did and do. But it is tempered by an awareness that we haven’t always met our own standards. We need people like Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick to keep us accountable. They raise legitimate issues. We can disagree with them. We can think that they are wrong. But they should be seen and heard.

I came to my own conclusion about the pledge of allegiance. When I became a school board member in 1997, I took an oath of office. It was simple and said the following:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of office of school board member of the Guilderland Central School District according to the best of my ability.”

I recited and signed that statement with honor and seriousness of purpose. I thought about my responsibility to the U.S. and New York State Constitutions, and to the students and members of my school community. I kept that in the forefront of my mind during the nine years I served. But, I stopped saying the pledge of allegiance.

It was our practice, and I believe it is the custom of most school boards, to begin meetings with the pledge. I stood up out of respect for my colleagues and the audience, but I didn’t put my hand over my heart, and I didn’t repeat the words. I had two reasons. First, I felt uncomfortable pledging allegiance to the flag. The flag is a symbol. I wouldn’t desecrate it, but I didn’t want to take an oath to it. I think it is beautiful waving against a clear blue sky, but my allegiance isn’t to the flag itself. If the pledge only said, “I pledge allegiance to the United States of America,” that would be fine. I recognize the value of symbols, but we shouldn’t confuse a representation with the actual thing that we venerate. Sometimes I think the flag itself becomes more important than the values it represents.

My second objection was the phrase “under God,” which was added in 1954. I’m not an atheist exactly, I’ll call myself a doubter. Given that I grew up believing that one of the great pillars of our country was the separation of church and state, I don’t think those words belong. So, I simply stopped reciting it.

Funny thing is that for all the years that I didn’t say the pledge, no one noticed! The meetings were televised locally. We were covered by a local reporter. No one ever asked. I wasn’t interested in calling attention to myself, so I didn’t make a point of it. I made a personal choice. I wonder if it had been noticed, if it would have become a “thing.”

I wish people wouldn’t get so angry when celebrities or regular people make these kinds of gestures. Why can’t they be noted, and then people make their own determination as to whether they agree or not. If you don’t like Megan Rapinoe because of her behavior or her values, that’s fine. But we don’t need the vitriol – how did we get to death threats so quickly? We have enough real problems to deal with, we don’t need to dwell on whether someone didn’t sing or if they knelt during the national anthem.

As we celebrate the 4th of July, I hope we think about the values that are the foundation of this country as expressed in that pledge: liberty and justice for all. These are still aspirational goals that I readily embrace and work towards achieving. We can and should enjoy the symbols: our majestic flag, the fireworks, the patriotic music, the hot dogs and beer. But let’s keep our eyes on the prize.

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A house in my neighborhood – ready to celebrate the Fourth of July

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.