The Need for Nurture: "Do the Good in Front of You"

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In light of our nation’s current political/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 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 psych 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. 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 time period we were in school, during the early 1960’s, 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 Nov 1968.  At that time, one of my 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 talked all night.  He had become a special Ed teacher in Newark; I had been working as a social worker in an anti-poverty program also in Newark.  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. Shortly after this heartbreak, my kindhearted grandfather Abe, was killed in a robbery in his store; it was two days before my 5th birthday. Mama was grief-stricken! Yet, everyone needs a purpose, a reason to go on.  While I was growing up mama would always say her “job” would be done when I got married. Although sadly, she did not get to see Joe and me 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 Jan.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 also 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 was 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 went    to the first follow up “I Have a Dream” Rally, in Trenton, N.J.  There I walked (and also sang), to get equal rights for all.  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!  Joe had a quest for knowledge, a thirst for knowledge, and a willingness to share what he had learned; Joe was a scholar.  Living with him was like getting an advanced college education; it was enlightening.  Joe inspired me!
I did not plan to be a teacher.  In fact, to ensure I would not be a teacher I never took any Ed classes in undergraduate school, but Joe encouraged me; he said that he saw a teacher in me.  Shortly after we got married we started taking math classes at night (better than going to a bar).  My first certification is in math.
Conditions in some schools in Newark were horrible! In February, 1970, The Newark Teachers’ Union went on strike. During that strike, nearly 200 teachers were arrested; Joe was arrested, merely for attending a peaceful rally. (I was not yet a teacher).  After mass trials, Joe and the other arrested teachers were sentenced to 10 days in the Essex County Penitentiary, in Verona.  (Female teachers were strip searched!)  Union leadership was sentenced to months in jail.  It was Outrageous!
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!  (Neighborhoods in big cities really do count!).
Broken windows were boarded up, instead of being replaced.  Nearly every day there was an average of five false fire alarms, and/or fires; you never knew if it was a false alarm or a real fire. (Ex: 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 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. At times, this caused serious injuries.  It was total chaos!  This went on day after day. (At one point, the principal was so overwhelmed, he turned off the school’s fire 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! The principal turned back 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 work sheets 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).  At that same 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 School Board; they were using it for their own personal advantage and self-aggrandizement.  It was an absolute, total 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). 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, without guidance or without love or support at home.  Those children who wanted to learn were hindered by those who didn’t.  The families in this neighborhood were economically poor; many lived in high rise “projects.” In this school and some others in the city, there was no support for the children, for the teachers, or even for the school’s administrators. Nothing!  Life for many of the people living in this neighborhood, was a matter of just being able to survive. The community seemed to be forsaken!  It was horrible!
On Feb 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 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.)  In some of the city’s schools, things had become so terrible that 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 very 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 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 from N.J., 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!”  Somethings 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 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 own 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, autisim; 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 IEP’s that addressed each student’s individual needs.  Staff members worked together, collaboratively 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 ED, 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 difficult.
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 thru 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 didn’t 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.  No one would listen. Joe won a Worker’s Comp case, but it was overturned on a made up “technicality.” I wrote a 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; 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 violation 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 more important. 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 same 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 one!
1) 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.  I and others; are working to ensure that everyone in the United States who needs palliative care gets it.
I’m also involved in trying to get equal healthcare for everyone in the US (by a single payer); I call it Healthcare Equality for All. I wrote both Palliative Care and Single Payer resolutions, which with the support of my retirement council RC 12, was passed by my union, NYSUT; the palliative care resolution was also passed by the AFT.  Both the Single Payer and Palliative Care Resolutions were also passed by NYSARA (NY State Alliance of Retired Americans, AFL-CIO).
2) Recently, I was elected to The Greater Johnstown School Board.  I’m delighted to be part of a school board that seems to really care about the children it serves and that is also striving to strengthen our community.