OUR TEACHERS ARE AMONG the most significant influences in our lives. Every one of us can point to an individual teacher who has been more important to us than anyone else, with the possible exception of our parents. I remember the good ones and the bad ones. I’m a teacher, myself. I taught college for a long, long time. Over the years, people have reached out to tell me what I meant to them. My wife, Roselle, now retired, taught in elementary school, in high school, in college and in graduate school. We can’t go anywhere without people coming up and thanking her.
Teachers have always had it hard. Now, however, they have it harder than ever. With Covid ravaging the land, they have to walk into a classroom and risk their own health. In the lower grades, before our children can be vaccinated, this is particularly dangerous. Teachers have families. They risk not only getting sick themselves but bringing the disease home. Some teachers just won’t take the risk, but most have done what they have to. Some students have not been vaccinated, maybe because their parents were so stupid that they drank the Kool-Aid and eschewed the shot. They become walking time bombs.
Teachers are not alone in facing risk. Bus drivers, health professionals and pharmacists likewise must face down Covid, but it is teachers who impart knowledge to us and who help mold our values. That’s what I’m thinking about as I write this.
There I was at Joan of Arc Junior High School on the upper West Side of Manhattan. The school had an IGC (Intellectually Gifted Class) that did three years in two. I was in the orchestra class and I had a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Halperin. I loved her. But on the other side of the teaching coin was a real battleaxe. Mrs. X was in charge of the IGC class and also in charge of the student government, the GO. Every year, Mrs. X would encourage two of her very smart kids, and they were, to run for president of the GO. I decided I wanted to run. My twin brother, Lewis, was instrumental in helping to run my campaign, as was a tough kid named Benny. The whole thing was cathartic. For once, a new group was dealing itself in to politics. Mrs. X. tried to disqualify me, saying that I wasn’t smart enough. My teacher, Miss Halperin, was infuriated. She told me to call my mother who was high in the educational establishment on the West Side. Anyway, it was quite a campaign. We did it right. We put up posters, went to classrooms and did it all. Finally, the day came and I remember waiting for the results. We got more votes than Mrs. X’s kids put together. Apparently, Mrs. X was furious because when Eleanor Roosevelt came to get the annual cancer check, Mrs. X appointed one of the failed candidates whom she had named Vice President to give the check to Mrs. Roosevelt. I was furious and went to Mr. Steiker, my wonderful orchestra teacher, who advised me to pull up my socks and understand that the world can be a cruel place.
Anyway, my mother was walking down Broadway when she came face to face with Mrs. X, who stopped to chat and to tell her that I was one of the brightest students she had known. Here I am, so, so, so many years later and that story of teachers who made a profound influence on my life is still in mind. I have told this story many times and I hear from so many others who had similar experiences. Mr. Steiker, Miss Halperin and even Mrs. X—here is one more thank you for helping make me the person I am.