In light of our nation’s current political and social environment, and because I’m now in the latter decade(s) of my life, I would like to share some of the experiences and insights that my late husband Joe and I encountered, that would/could hopefully create a better society, and a sense of more personal fulfillment for our people and for people anywhere. I believe if we want to create healthy human beings and a healthy society it all begins (and ends) with nurture and support!
My husband Joe and I met at Rutgers, at the Newark “campus,” in the early winter of 1962. I was 18, a sophomore, Joe was 21; he was beginning his first year after being in the service. We were both psychology majors and went to many of the same classes; we also hung out with the same crowd. It always puzzled me that at that time some of the other students called our group “The Decadents.” I could never understand why? We weren’t doing anything “worse” than any of the other groups on campus; in fact, most of the people in our group seemed to be kinder, and more intellectually inquisitive than many of the students in some of the other groups. Perhaps, at times, some of us might have been a bit more intense, but generally, we were nice. Of course, being young people, we wore the label “Decadents” with pride!
Throughout the years, from time to time however, I would wonder why some of the other students had labeled our social network “decadent.” Recently, I realized why! During the period we were in school, the early 1960s, most ethnic and cultural groups didn’t “mix.” At that time, for the most part, people stayed with people who were like themselves, their “Own Kind.” Our social group however, included people who were different from each other. Our group was comprised of white kids and black kids, gentiles and Jews, males and females, heterosexuals, homosexuals and those in between. It didn’t matter to the people in our group, as long as you were basically “nice.”
Joe and I liked each other, but we never dated in college. I graduated in June 1964, and we didn’t see each other again until November 1968. At that time, one of my close friends had a house party; he invited some friends from college. I heard Joe would be there and decided to go. After not seeing each other for more than four years, Joe and I spoke all night. He had become a special-ed teacher in Newark; I had been working as a social worker in an anti-poverty program in the same city. We seemed to have a lot in common. The next weekend, Joe came over to my place; less than three weeks later he proposed, and a month later we got married. (Introducing him to my cat probably was a deciding factor; both of us loved cats!)
We would have gotten married even sooner, but my wonderful, blessed grandmother, Anna Tepper (Mama), unexpectedly passed away. She had raised me since I was a baby, after my mom, her daughter-in-law Gertie, became ill and then died. In addition, my kindhearted grandfather Abe, was killed in a robbery in his store, two days before my fifth birthday. Mama was devastated; they had been married 30 years! Everyone needs a purpose, a reason to go on, so while I was growing up, Mama always said her “job” would be done when I got married. Although sadly, she did not get to see Joe and I get married, she at least got to meet Joe and know he was the one for me; we were the ones for each other. Respectfully, we waited 30 days. Joe and I were married January 10, 1969.
Mama, and my aunt, Sylvia Marx, nurtured me throughout the years. They instilled in me the desire to “Treat all people with respect and kindness.” Mama had these reminders about how to be a good person, a righteous person. She would tell me “Don’t judge anyone because you don’t know what you would do if you were in their place.” She would frequently say, “There’s good and bad in every race and every religion; always look for the good!” Another of her “mantra-like statements” was “Don’t do anything to anyone that you wouldn’t want them to do to you… Treat others the way you would want to be treated.” Her kindness and generosity of spirit were inspirational! She practiced the tenets of our wonderful Jewish faith.
Sylvia too was very kind, and she was a “warrior.” She stood up for what she believed in. I had been a passive child; she encouraged me to speak out. For example, in high school, I wanted to take mechanical drawing instead of sewing. School rules at that time said that in order for a girl to graduate she had to take sewing! I had four years of math (at school I was always told, “You do great in math,” with the added comment, “for a girl!”) But that still didn’t give me entry into mechanical drawing. Sylvia went to the school; she said, “Show me the law!” There wasn’t any! It was just a cultural norm of those times, an outdated tradition! I got to take mechanical drawing, which I loved! I never did learn how to sew (I can sew a button on if necessary), but I had fun drawing house plans for more than 20 years, eventually designing the floor plan for Joe’s and my own home. Sylvia taught me to stand up and speak out (politely of course)!
We were a blended family; financial considerations made it necessary for Mama and me, Sylvia, her husband Harold, and their son Gary, who I consider a younger brother, to live together. Times were tough! My own dad Stanley, who I loved dearly, was unable to raise me. In later years, my Uncle Harold became like a second father to me.
I know my life would have been much more difficult if it was not for the love and support of Mama and Sylvia. Their passion for kindness and justice inspired me! I knew I had to help others as they had helped me. On October 26, 1963, I rode on a bus to Trenton, N.J., where I walked (and sang) in the second wave of Freedom Marches. It was one of the best days of my life!
Joe, my super brilliant Joe, became a special-ed teacher after he graduated from Rutgers; he kind of fell into it, and loved it! Conditions in some schools in Newark were horrible! In February 1970, The Newark Teachers’ Union went on strike. Joe, along with nearly 200 other teachers, was arrested merely for attending a peaceful rally. (I was not yet a teacher.) After mass trials, Joe and other arrested teachers were sentenced to 10 days in the Essex County Penitentiary, in Verona, N.J. The female teachers were strip searched! Union leadership was sentenced to months in jail. It was outrageous!
I did not plan to be a teacher; in fact, to ensure I wouldn’t be a teacher I never took any ed-classes in undergraduate school. After we got married, Joe and I started taking math classes at night (better than going to a bar), and Joe saw a teacher in me. My first certification is in math.
I grew up in Newark, in a middle-class neighborhood on the last block in the city; I went to wonderful schools there! I graduated from Weequahic High School, which at the time, was considered to be one of the best, perhaps even the best, high school in the United States. Ten years later, in September 1970, I became a math teacher at Newark’s Webster Jr. High. However, conditions at this school were horrendous; the school was not fit to house students! (In big cities neighborhoods really count!)
Broken windows were boarded up, instead of being replaced. Nearly every day there were between three to seven false fire alarms, and/or fires; these drills averaged about five daily. You never knew if it was a false alarm or a fire. (E.g., one student in my own class thought it was funny to fill his locker with paper and throw in a match; sometimes, children don’t see or understand the consequences of their actions.) All the exit doors except one were chained to prevent intruders from entering the building; during fire drills and/or fires, everyone had to exit the building from one door. Sometimes, this caused injuries. It was total chaos! This went on day after day after day. (At one point, the principal was so overwhelmed, he turned off the school’s alarm connection to the fire department; our union rep and I, an assistant union rep, strongly complained! This was not the way to solve the problem! He turned on the alarm’s connection.)
There was little or no support from the School Board. Often, even basic supplies and materials were deficient or completely missing. The custodians said there were boxes and boxes of yellowing paper stored at the central Board of Ed building, but they were never delivered to the schools. (Joe and I bought our own mimeograph machine and duplicated worksheets and teaching materials at home.) Sometimes, when my school’s office staff had a pack of paper, they hid it for me (I think it was their reward for doing a good job with the kids). At that time however, the appointed Newark Board of Ed members were being driven around in chauffeured driven limousines. Some Board members and others outside the Board, had gained control of the Board; they were using it for their own personal advantage and self-aggrandizement. It was an absolute disgrace!
Webster Jr High had about 700+ students. About 200 kids roamed the halls at all times. The 13 “guards,” (monitors) stationed in the halls were not allowed to touch or even restrain students (no one understood why they were even there; perhaps to make sure no one got seriously injured?). A police car was stationed in front of the school. During the three years I taught at this school, there were three different principals. The atmosphere in the school, and at times, outside, was sheer chaos!
Most of the kids at the school were not “bad” kids; many were just kids without structure, guidance and/or love and support at home. Those who wanted to learn were hindered by those who didn’t. Most of the kids were economically poor; many lived in high rise “projects.” In this school and some others in the city, there was little or no support for the kids, for the teachers, or even for the administrators. The community seemed to be forsaken! It was horrible!
On February 1, 1971, the Newark Teachers’ Union went on strike again. This strike lasted 77 days; it was the longest teacher’s strike in U.S. history. Although the teachers were offered a significant pay raise before the strike began, we struck to provide better learning conditions for our students (I remember that one of our “asks” was to provide sickle cell anemia tests for “at-risk students”), and better working conditions for staff. (One classroom in which I taught didn’t even have a teacher’s desk in it. I had to carry all school supplies for the kids and me in a tote bag.) Things had become so terrible in some of the city’s schools, members of the Newark Police and Firefighters Unions, and the Black Panthers joined our picket lines.
Those of us who were able to stay on strike managed to keep enough schools closed until the city of Newark was threatened with losing both state and federal school aid. We had won, but sadly, during the two and a half years that Joe and I remained teaching in Newark, I can’t say that I saw conditions in my school significantly improve. It was sad! Perhaps things improved after we left.
Joe had grown up in West Orange, when it was still rural; he loved living in the country. I had spent a few summers in the country as a child and my family had made day trips throughout the years. I too loved the country. The summer after the strike, Joe and I went looking for country land.
The price of land in New Jersey was prohibitive! We had a goal: to find a piece of land we could afford that was no closer than 10 miles to the nearest small town/city, and no closer than 50 miles to any big city. During the summer of 1971, we found our spot; we found beautiful forested acreage on the edge of The Adirondack State Park in upstate NY. (I believe the Adirondack Park is the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi. Our land is about 50 miles northwest of Albany and 50 miles northeast of Utica.)
We continued to work in Newark for the next couple of years in order to pay for the land. On Labor Day 1973, Joe and I began our “great adventure;” we bought a mobile home and moved to Fulton County, NY. We didn’t have the money for a well or septic system, so it took us two more years to move onto our land.
In preparation for our move, we applied in advance to different school districts in the area. Joe was able to secure a job teaching special-ed before we even moved. However, even though I had good references, I couldn’t get a job teaching math; as one superintendent said to me, “These are country kids; they’re going to work on the farm or in the mills. They don’t need a teacher like you!” Some things you never forget! Poverty is an equal opportunity destroyer!
Out of necessity, I too became a special-ed teacher; I said I’d do it for a year, the year turned into more than thirty. Herkimer County BOCES, where I worked for 26 years, is a rural Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which provides educational programs to all the schools in Herkimer County, and some outside the county, for those children with special needs who cannot be accommodated in their own local district. There are BOCES all over the state. Usually, a special needs child is sent to a BOCES program because their disability is too difficult for their home school to handle, or because there are too few students with an intense level of needs in a particular district for them to start their own program.
Many of my students and I were together for 5+ years, some as many as 7- 8 years; I was able to get a better picture of each student, their family structure, and their needs. Some of my students had serious emotional and/or mental disorders, such as childhood schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism; some had seizure disorders or traumatic brain injuries. Many had cognitive difficulties. We lovingly called the program the SWAN program (Students with Assorted Needs).
I met with families and made home visits. Even those students with complicated conditions coped better if they had a nurturing environment at home and at least one person who loved them and cared about them. In school, I tried to create and provide a supportive, non-threatening, and structured environment. I developed IEPs that addressed each student’s individual needs. Staff members worked together as a team, and it worked! Children flourished!
Herkimer Co. BOCES was a progressive ray of light in the middle of rural upstate NY. Sadly, however, the first BOCES Joe and I worked at when we moved to upstate NY, Hamilton/Fulton/Montgomery Co. BOCES, the BOCES that served our own county, was a nightmare! At that time, they were “warehousing” the special-ed kids. I worked with 10 emotionally disturbed children in an underground room they called “The Pit.” There were no services or any support, for the kids or for me. Nothing! In Newark, I had been a math teacher, working with 150-180 kids a day, sometimes in bedlam like conditions. Working with ten emotionally disturbed children, without support, was as difficult, or at times perhaps more difficult, than working with 150 in Newark. Joe’s situation was equally bad.
At that time, some of the educational leaders in our county were totally oblivious! For example, the Cayadutta Creek runs from the now-closed tanneries in Fulton County through Montgomery County, into the Mohawk River. At one time, I think the creek was deemed “the most polluted stream’’ in the US. As you drove along it, you could actually see “the foamy effluent that turned the water into a chemical cesspool.” Yet, when I asked why there weren’t any classes for LD children, I was told, “We don’t have any learning-disabled children here.” It was a miracle!
When we first started working at Hamilton/Fulton/Montgomery BOCES, we had a wonderful immediate supervisor who did his best to provide what little support he could, but he left. After PL 94-142—the first Education for All Handicapped Children Act—was passed, Joe and I went to a class to learn about the new law. After attending class, we politely told the school’s new (uncertified) special-ed director that our BOCES was not in compliance with the new law. It cost us a lot! Joe who had just gotten tenure under our former special-ed director, was severely and repeatedly harassed until he developed an anxiety disorder which affected him for the remainder of his life. Since I did not yet have tenure, I got fired; I was the lucky one!
I wrote to anyone and everyone in NY State with any authority; I had documented evidence, and besides, this BOCES was not in compliance with state or federal law, but no one would listen. Joe won a Worker’s Comp case, but it was overturned on a made up “technicality.” I wrote an NY State Court of Appeals brief (with legal guidance). The brief was more than 300 pages with more than 100 pieces of evidence showing that Joe had been harassed, and that school administrators had perjured themselves, but the Court of Appeals just ignored it all. The fix was in!
Since no one in NY State would listen to us, I wrote to the Federal Education Dept. Within a few weeks, they had an investigation; their 44-page report indicated that this BOCES was in numerous violations of PL 94-142. Finally, the special needs kids would get the services and supplies they needed and to which they were entitled by law. HFM BOCES administrators did not get fired or jailed, however, because they did not take the money earmarked for special-ed for themselves; they put it into programs which they deemed were worthier. In their limited views, special-ed kids just didn’t count!
During the next several years I also wrote a pro se US Supreme Court brief about what had happened to Joe, but The Court only hears about 200 cases a year and ours was not one of them. We didn’t have an easy life, but we tried to do what was right. As Joe would say, you need to “Do the good in front of you!” We tried!
Speaking with other professionals about the “Extreme Right” (or “Any Extreme” that hates), I am absolutely convinced, if we want a society without hate, a society where each individual is able to achieve his/her fullest potential and a measure of happiness, we need to nurture and provide support for our children, and also for each other. We all want to be treated with kindness; we all want to be treated with respect, and we all want support when we need it. It’s essential that we treat others with the kindness, respect, and support that we want for ourselves! The key to more productive and happier people and a more stable society is: Compassion, Nurture, and Support!
Every person needs to know that they are important; they need to know that someone cares about them. Each child must have an equal opportunity to achieve their full potential; they need a safe environment and reliable, dependable role models.
The annual cost of crime in our nation is enormous. “The aggregate cost of crime to society exceeds $1 trillion/year” (Anderson, 1999). The cost of pain and suffering caused by crime is incalculable! If we were to use just a small percentage of what we now spend on the cost of crime, to uplift our people and create social support systems that work, we could rebuild our society from the bottom up. We the people have a choice! We can ignore the truth and fail, or we can “Do the good in front of us,” and flourish. The choice is ours! The wellbeing of our society and our nation depends on us making the right choice!
Shortly after Joe developed and passed from pancreatic cancer nearly 11 years ago, I became an advocate for palliative care (coordinated support from the beginning of a serious illness or medical condition). I accept that Joe’s life could not be saved, but he/we needed greater support from the medical community to deal with his catastrophic illness. In my quest to get better healthcare for everyone, one of the people I contacted was Dr. Diane Meier, Director of Palliative Care at Mt. Sinai (www.capc.org). Dr. Meier and I corresponded for several years; two years ago, Diane invited me to speak at the National Academy of Medicine in Washington. It’s all about support (from the beginning or anywhere along the way of a serious illness or diagnosis). Please see link: Health Literacy and Palliative Care.
World Health says that palliative care is so important “it should be integrated into all the healthcare systems of the world.” One of my goals is to hopefully also bring attention to the need for this support system to those suffering with mental and/or emotional health.