I have to thank everyone who made my birthday so special today with their kind wishes. I tried to answer every one of them, and apologize if I missed anyone. I truly am blown-away by all of your kindness.
Sixty seven years ago, two young Polish Jews, having lost their families and most of their friends, having miraculously survived Auschwitz, wandered to Germany in their desire to leave Europe for Israel. Unfortunately, Mom became ill at my birth and the only safe haven was the United States. We came here, two young non-English speaking immigrants and a baby and by hard work and determination, my parents became successful.
I am truly grateful that this is where we ended up. As I look back on my life, I feel very blessed I was not born a few years earlier in a land torn by the madness of hate. I thank God for America every day. And I thank God for the public education that allowed me to have the best career I could have ever wanted so that I could try to make a difference in the lives of children. I am proud so many of my students, now my friends, put me in their thoughts and prayers today. It was awesome!
I am about to turn to chapter 67 in my life book and some people tell me they hate birthdays. I get it. Nobody likes getting old once they reach a certain age, but I have wonderful memories of surprise birthday parties my students threw for me every year and the lesson those kids taught me that influenced my teaching and life.
Yes, I ended up cleaning the classroom for an hour after they left, but it always amazed me how these fifth and sixth graders somehow managed to work together and pull off these 'surprises', mostly without adult help. I began to understand that these parties were almost like a test of their ability to put aside individual differences, even dislikes of each other, and organize and work together. It sounds simple, but for many, those surprise parties were a real test of problem-solving and team-work. Some of the ways they got me out of the classroom were devilish and highly organized. I remember many a time suddenly being summoned to the Principal's office and wondering what I'd done wrong only to return to my room and find dozens of balloons, desks rearranged, and my students hurling confetti at me. "SURPRISE!" What a mess! But what an accomplishment!
Was I surprised? That didn't matter. What did count was whether or not these kids could succeed, and why they were in most cases able to do so. What I learned was that they could succeed if they had a specific goal and viewed that goal as doable. I learned that if I could help children set specific goals and help them see learning is doable, they would have a better chance of succeeding so goal-setting with them became a first lesson every year, and was repeated with each new unit. In my own lesson-planning, the goals became more specific and doable.
I'm sure there were arguments and battles for leadership, but even adults have those. But somehow, every year, the cupcakes appeared, the confetti was acquired, the room got decorated or rearranged, and all without me. And every year, that 'surprise' birthday party was a special highlight of my wonderful career and even if the room was a mess, and I had to stay after to pick up thousands of pieces of stray confetti, it was worth it to see those kids working together and reaching their goal. That was the best present of all.
I was a student at Queens College when they announced that a black minister by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King would be speaking at Colden Auditorium. Having lived in Whitestone, Queens, an all-white middle class and affluent neighborhood, I am ashamed to admit I had almost no knowledge of Dr. King and attended mainly because I was a political science major with a break in my schedule and friends told me I had to hear him.
At first, he appeared as just another 'human' wanting to make his voice heard about some cause I had no personal interest in. He spoke like the minister he was and there were some in the audience who shouted out "Halleleujah" at each of his fiery statements, while I tried to listen to what he was really trying to say without being swayed by the crowd. Being the son of Holocaust survivors I have always been suspicious of mob behavior and so I was mostly silent, trying to analyze the true significance of his words and ideas objectively while others were being swayed by his fire. It soon became clear to me that his path was righteous and peaceful, but his cause and words would lead him, and his followers, into untold danger, perhaps even his death.
This was before his "Dream" speech, before the march on Washington, but others were already taking note of the threat this 'minister', this human, represented to their old ideas, the unfair status quo, and were terrified this one man could become the new Moses who could lead, not only his people, but all right-thinking people, into the kinds of peaceful actions that would eventually produce the justice they were so set against.
After his speech, I was not one of those who were swayed by his fire, but I was changed forever, and when I shook his hand as he left the stage, I did not know I was shaking the hand of a man who would someday be an icon of peaceful change and courage. I was never a blind folllower, but you had to be blind to not see the justice in Dr. King's dream.
My advice: don't just take a day off from work or school, but really listen to that wonderful speech and let's make his dream a reality for all people, no matter what race, sexual orientation, economic status, religion or nation. Would we want any less for ourselves?