Thursday, May 5, 2016


What I think was similar to our apartment building in Croton-On-Hudson, NY but much smaller than this one.

   I have to admit that I have a love-hate relationship with schools.  You may find that odd since I worked in education nearly my entire work life of forty years.  My personal experience was not singularly brilliant or positive.  I was one of the poorest children in my neighborhood schools and I suffered mightily for it. The teachers just thought I was dull.  Certainly I did not impress many of them.  Certainly one's experience with school has a lot to do with class and ethnicity.  A kind teacher will see beyond those differences and celebrate them.  That, however, was not my experience.

   However, I do have some fond memories of teachers who literally saved my life, or rather, emotionally saved me from complete wreckage.  Yes, I am fond of hyperbole, but I cannot imagine having survived without these few teachers who thought I was a worthy human.

   The first teacher I clearly remember was Virginia Mills, a preschool teacher in Croton-on-the-Hudson, New York who literally picked up the ball when all the students refused to play with me.  Although my mother was the treasurer/fundraiser for the school, my father's reputation and notoriety had hit the small community of Croton in a big way.  A year later, in fact, some teenagers dressed in Catholic school uniforms came all the way from another town to throw stones at me.   Anyway, Virginia Mills loved pickles - as did I.  I was Joanie Pickle Kramer and she was Virginia Pickle Mills.  She once took me for a ride in a jump seat in an old car. I don't know if it was hers or not. She was glorious.   By the way, for a description of RED HILL where I lived briefly, and Croton-on-Hudson as well as Peekskill, please read this piece in American Heritage.

We lived in a small cottage on the property of William Gropper on Mt. Airy Road when we first moved to Croton-on-Hudson. 

   Unfortunately I don't remember kindergarten at all. I think that was one traumatic year when we had to suddenly pack everything up that we could fit in Alan Funt's old Woody Station Wagon and drive across the country to Oregon.  I had to leave behind the beautiful handmade dollhouse I had been given for my sixth birthday.  I was heartbroken and haven't really gotten over that loss.  But the real loss was any sense of childhood I might've had.  It was gone.  Stones thrown, dollhouses lost, I was no longer a child.

   Fortunately we lived in a small town outside of Portland, Oregon in 1953.  We rented a farmhouse with pears, apples, cherries, strawberries, blackberries, and a filbert orchard.  I walked across a huge field of Pickles (for the pickle factory) to catch a school bus to school.  My classmates were berry pickers who had to work alongside their parents. We were allowed to wear whatever we had to school since children were so poor.  In first grade, I had the best teacher I would probably ever have. Her name as I remember was Mrs. Gold, and she was also from the East.  My father later explained to me that OREGON spent more for education that Westchester County in New York, so we had the best schools, the best teachers, the best for even a very poor community.  I loved Mrs. Gold so much that I made my mother go talk to her about it.  My mother probably was sympathetic with Mrs. Gold and tried to help me understand that I didn't need as much attention as the other children did.  After all, I already knew how to read (from age 5 because my mother read to me every single day, took us to the library, etc. etc.) and many of the other children didn't.  Mrs. Gold gave me a solo in the Christmas assembly - I played the xylophone all by myself.  I don't remember her too well, except that she was beautiful, and glowed as gold does.  How could I not be enraptured?

Historical downtown Gresham, Oregon.
My father worked for Jan De Graaff at his lily and tulip bulb farm in Gresham, Oregon.  He told Mr. De Graaff not to worry, that when the FBI came, he would leave and not cause any trouble. Mr. De Graaff was very kind.

   So in 1954 we got back in our woody station wagon and drove all the way to Los Angeles, California, not before visiting a fellow "spy" in Sequim, Washington.  We also stopped in San Francisco where my father would have preferred to live but my mother fell in love with the dry sunny climate of Los Angeles.  Suddenly she was free of all those allergies that had plagued her her whole life, even causing her to faint and often hit her head on the bathroom sink.  Los Angeles became my mother's haven.  But not mine.  I hated it. I loved the green and wet Oregon climate, the endless fruits, and vegetables, and nuts and flowers.  I loved the freedom of a rural setting.  Los Angeles was hell to me -- concrete hell.
   I remember little about Grant Elementary school here in Los Angeles. Perhaps because I didn't really want to remember those ten years I lived in Los Angeles.   However I did have very kind teachers in 2nd and 4th grade, and one in 6th.  In those years we were half a year with one teacher and half with another.  I think it wasn't that great an idea, but not sure.  My 2nd grade teacher, Mr. Krich [not sure] was a fabulous but overly strict teacher. Once he allowed my best friend to pee in his pants rather than allow him to go to the bathroom.  I never forgot that.  That was also the year that I began to hate teachers.  Grant had an art teacher who set us all to painting with water colors.  I tried, I really did.  But she came over to me, grabbed the brush from my hand, and proceeded to paint the painting for me.  That was the end of anything artistic I ever did again. THIS IS THE WAY A TEACHER SHOULD NEVER BE -- THIS IS THE SUCCESS ACADEMY APPROACH -- HUMILIATE AND PUNISH A CHILD. This was the end of my trust in teachers generally, or in school in particular.  I took the painting home, by the way, and my mother put it on our wallpaper peeling walls and it stayed there for ten years.  A curse I suppose to my lack of creativity.

In fourth grade I had one of two beautiful sisters - the single one I think.  Ms. Robicheaux perhaps, who owned a standard poodle.  Our landlords in Oregon had raised tiny frantic poodles and I was thrilled to find out what a poodle should be.  Once Mr. Krich and Ms. Robicheaux took me out to dinner at the Brown Derby on Vine Street.  I don't remember why they did this.  It seemed strange.  Many years later it occurred to me that they were having an affair, and used my presence to mask some of their relationship?  But that might have been too cynical.  They were lovely and young, they had both dyed their hair blond, and they were excellent teachers.  A coincidence perhaps.  Another teacher I don't remember liking but who did me a favor was a third grade teacher. She chose me to go on the ART LINKLETTER SHOW!! with my best friend Steve Adler, the one Mr. Krich had caused to pee in his pants.  I still have two of the gifts -- a record of the show and a globe that I received all those years ago (60 perhaps).  I was disappointed when I found out they asked us the questions before the show, then told us to answer exactly as we had, so that Art could pick the best questions.  I was rather spontaneous however, and told Mr. Linkletter that I wanted to marry Steve and go around the world.  He asked Steve how much money he had and Steve said $25.  So Mr. L said, "that'll get you as far as Pasadena."
   Grant elementary allowed me to skip a year.  My reading scores were 11th grade while in the 5th -- so I guess they thought I needed the challenge.  I regret to this day that I was ever skipped as I missed critical emotional and social development, which was already sorely lacking.

   Moving on to Junior High, the dreaded misery of most pre and teens, I find that I lost track of my absolute favorite teachers.  I can remember the name of one and not the other. These two teachers accepted me for who I was, perhaps recognized a troubled insecure child, and tried to give me the attention and confidence that I craved.  Mrs. Ethel Parrish was the light of my life, only I didn't realize it at the time. She taught Science and I believe was the advisor for the Girls League, of which I was Vice President (my best friend Heidi was President).  Mrs. Parrish I think had me chosen by the Home Economics department to be one of two girls to get their hair cut and styled in front of a girls' assembly.  I wasn't too fond of the cut, but it certainly was an honor.  Mrs. Parrish however did the most amazing thing I can ever recall a teacher doing for me.  She allowed me to meet her after school at the bowling alley near my house where she helped me finish the hem of a dress I had made in home economics, in time to wear to a school dance.  What was so extraordinary was that she was on the school bowling team and this meant they allowed a student to invade the teachers' private time and leisure after school. I don't think I would have wanted to do this.
   My seventh grade English and Social Studies teacher (ninth grade too) did not like me. Mrs. Ring? - a published author and a snob.  But my 8th grade teacher did.  She encouraged me to write. I did the best writing I have ever done in school for this teacher (whose name I cannot recall). I regret that I lost two pieces --  A SHORT MYSTERY STORY, and a poem about the Lemon Tree in my back yard.  Mrs. W or S was considered old in my mind, but she was gentle, and kind, and encouraging. All that I needed to take off and think that I actually had a mind! 

Le Conte Middle School library today with my colleague Janet Larson holding a pajama party.  The shelving is still the same as it was in the early early 60s.  And they don't know the song we all had to learn back then.  

   Off to Hollywood High when my nightmares began.  I was only 14 and very shy, overweight, and lacking any confidence. The smartest kids in my middle school of course were the tops of the school. I was never accepted in any of their clubs.  My "best friend" Heidi was top scholar, top artist, top social clubs (approved by the horrid Bertha Standfast who actually allowed SORORITIES on our campus).  Hollywood was all white, and I hated it.   I also was outspoken about my beliefs.  In 9th grade at Le Conte one teacher, Mr. Goldblum,  had used me to enliven discussions. But when it came down to it, he always chose the other kids ahead of me for any responsibility. I realized I had been used.      By high school I reveled in my radicalness.  I wore black. and tried to be a BEATNIK.  I refused to sit down for a DROP DRILL and had my name entombed on my cumulative sheet with a RED MARK.  And the last year the principal held an assembly to call me and my two friends Communists because we handed out leaflets protesting the DEFACT SEGREGATION OF THE LOS ANGELES CITY SCHOOLS, and encouraged fellow students to sit in a the LAUSD BOARD OF EDUCATION [where my mother was working coincidentally. She didn't believe it was the schools' fault.  She was right of course, but it was the only target we had. The HOUSING COVENANTS were harder to fight.)

Hollywood High School - the home of the Sheikhs.  How disgusting is that?  Not even pronounced properly.  

   I cannot name one teacher that I liked in high school.  That is a sad story.  I wasn't encouraged by any of them.  Perhaps the one I can name is Ruth Kopf, Biology teacher, who was tolerant and kind.  I helped her one period a day and enjoyed that.  But otherwise, all teachers were anathema to me.  They disapproved of my left wing views, they told me I wasn't smart enough to go to Jr. College as my other friends were doing, they discouraged my applying to Berkeley (where I ended up in Sophomore year).  How much more negative could it have been?  Well, now I know it could have been much worse.  I could have had NO FRIENDS, or no identity as a Beatnik and a Leftist.  I had a purpose at least.
   But I had no adult support. And my home life was chaos, as Mrs. Parrish had guessed.  I have long decided that no one will like all their students. But at the very least, teachers must not show such obvious favoritism that students feel bereft at best, suicidal at worst.  Teachers have to know that home lives are not easy.  Did I say I was one of the poorest in my High School?  I bought two outfits at Sears, that was it.  I hated my clothes, my body, my hair.  But I did at least have my leftist views that helped me see a larger picture.    And the day I graduated from Hollywood High -- no one in my family came -- at the Hollywood Bowl no less -- my sister sent me a congratulatory TELEGRAM FROM CUBA, where she was visiting with the Socialist Workers Party and met her future husband.  

   So teachers - yes I can love them.  They come in many forms.  They can be the person who teaches you how to crochet, to the neighbor who taught you the piano.  There are as many teachers as there are subjects to teach, in my opinion.   Sometimes the best teachers are just ordinary people you meet once on the street, in a store, or taking the bus.   BUT PROFESSIONAL TEACHERS MUST BE HONORED THIS WEEK OF TEACHER APPRECIATION.  STOP ALL THE NEGATIVITY AND BLAMING OF TEACHERS.   Find a teacher and bring them flowers, an apple, any sign that you appreciate their good works.  You won't be sorry and you will make the hardest working people on the planet happy!!

Mt. Airy Road and the left -- 
Jan De Graaff Lily -
Allen Funt episode -

1 comment:

  1. I have totally thanked my teacher. It has turned out these blog of yours and other teachers I follow have been really helpful to me over the years. And this comment is destined to be a yet another grateful confessions to you. It hasn’t been easy to correct my essay online but with your helpful advice I was able to rise above my prejudice and became a talented advisor myself. It was great to read your story and appreciate the experience you have had over the years.