Category Archives: raising children

When Teaching and Parenting Collide: As Schools Shift Online, Many Educators Manage Two Roles (Matt Barnum)

Matt Barnum is a journalist. This article appeared on Chalkbeat, March 31,2020

School buildings are closed, but it’s still been a busy couple of weeks for Noriko Nakada, a Los Angeles middle school teacher.

She’s been attending virtual faculty meetings, receiving district training for remote instruction, and grading student essays online. On Monday, she held a class via Zoom for about 45 minutes, in which she checked in on her students’ mental health and introduced National Poetry Month. About 100 of her 170 students logged in.

Nearby through it all are her own two children, who are out of school as well. Figuring out how to teach online while making sure they’re occupied has been its own challenge.

“At first we tried to make it clear if mom or dad have headphones and are staring at the computer, it means you can’t bug them,” Nakada said. “The 8-year-old can get that, but the 5-year-old has a hard time.”

“Everyone is doing their best, and none of it’s going to be pretty,” she said.

As many schools across the country transition to remote instruction — in the wake of widespread building closures caused by the new coronavirus — Nakada’s experience is the new normal.

A sizable share of America’s teachers have young children. Most teachers are women, who often bear disproportionate caregiving responsibilities for children and other family members. And although many of the country’s large districts say they’re attempting to be flexible with teachers as they move to remote instruction, few if any have policies that explicitly accommodate those juggling work and full-time caregiving.

That’s making for some complicated daily decisions about whose kids are getting attention at a given moment. It’s a challenge that schools will have to continue helping teachers navigate in order to make remote instruction work, especially as it extends for weeks and months.

“The history of teaching, since we’ve feminized the profession, there’s been this emphasis on teachers [as] ultimately altruistic — they love children,” said Judith Kafka, a professor of education policy at Baruch College. “For the vast majority of teachers, that’s true about them. But they’re not usually asked to sacrifice attention to their own children in the process.”

“If you are home alone with your kids, and you’re also trying to meet your students’ needs, something’s got to give,” she said.

About half — 48% — of all public school teachers have children living at home, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Michael Hansen and Diana Quintero. This includes young children, who need constant supervision, as well as teenagers, who might not.

Among those teachers is Brian Grimes who is now setting up his kids — ages 7, 9, and 13 — to work at the dining room table every morning instead of sending them off to school.

“It’s like the summer, but there’s no fun,” said Grimes, who lives in New Jersey.

Once they’re settled, he starts his own job as a high school history teacher — videotaping lessons, grading assignments, talking to students and their families — a few feet away.

It’s been a dizzying transition. “I put my shirt and tie on and I go to work, it’s ‘teacher Brian,’ and then when I come home, it’s ‘parent Brian,’” he said. “Now everything is merged together.”

Many children, after all, haven’t yet adjusted to the sudden shift. “It’s very difficult,” said Alexis Mann, a Minneapolis teacher. “They don’t understand when mom’s home, that I’m actually working.”

In one respect, though, the fact that teachers are still facing these challenges reflects good news. As millions of workers face layoffs, teachers still have jobs and a steady paycheck.

But the change presents unique challenges for teachers, and few districts appear to have offered specific accommodations for teachers who are also caregivers. “We haven’t seen a lot of policy or explicit guidance on that,” said Sean Gill, a research analyst with the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has been compiling large districts’ coronavirus response policies. (Many districts are still developing, or have not fully instituted, a remote instruction plan.)

Gill said that most districts don’t seem to be requiring teachers to conduct live instruction at specific times. Miami-Dade County schools, for instance, says it expects teachers to be available for at least three hours every day to students, but gives teachers the freedom to decide on those hours themselves.

Philadelphia’s guidance to educators says that “daily work schedules should remain largely unchanged” but that “reasonable flexibility shall also be used to accommodate employees’ individual needs.”

Gill suggested that teachers collaborate to ease each other’s burdens — for instance, a teacher available during the day could focus on connecting with students, while another teacher videotapes lessons at night that students could watch on their own.

Grimes said his school district has told teachers to monitor their emails during the day and to grade student work promptly, but generally been flexible. “They understand that we’re dealing with a lot on our own,” he said.

Nakada said her school district, LAUSD, hasn’t communicated explicit policies for caregivers. A spokesperson for the district said that teachers are expected to work during the day and hold office hours at least three times a week at flexible times.

That sort of flexibility is essential, teachers say. Mercedes Liriano, who teaches fifth grade in the Bronx, says her principal expects teachers to attend two staff meetings a week but otherwise has been accommodating.

“He knows that we have family, he knows that we have other requirements that demand our time,” she said.

A spokesperson for New York City’s Department of Education reiterated this. “We understand that teachers and staff may be caring for others,” said Danielle Filson. “There are no expectations for specific time periods for teachers to be logged in and schools are not expected to replicate a regular school day schedule in a virtual environment.”

But there are challenges. Liriano has two computers at home, meaning she and her two children are one device short at all times. And then she is also trying to help her son, who sometimes struggles in school, get through his lessons.

“I’m having to navigate helping my parents and my students, who are constantly calling, while I’m trying to help my son at the same time,” she said. “But I can’t be on my computer while he’s trying to do his work.”

In any case, trying to get work done while children are at home is complicated — the new reality for millions of parents, teachers among them. For some, the fear and uncertainty associated with the global pandemic that precipitated all the disruption has made it even tougher.

“There’s so much time and mental space that’s being occupied by the coronavirus,” Alex Driver, a New York City teacher who is also the parent of twin six-year-olds. “So much head space is being taken up by that, and then we also have the back and forth of parenting and teaching. And then what’s left?”

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The Unknown Virus: A Personal Story

San Angelo is in West Texas. The county seat between Abilene and the Mexican border. Farms, oil wells, and cattle ranches fenced with barbed wire dot the county. Blessed with a warm climate and reputation as a healthy place to live, in one year San Angelo added to its reputation in ways that city leaders dreaded.*

In mid-spring, the newspaper reported that a local child had come down with a viral disease that had occurred in earlier springs like hailstorms and tornadoes. Previously, when this disease occurred, it had not spread. This one, however, did.

Parents began arriving at Shannon Memorial Hospital with “feverish, aching youngsters in their arms,” the local newspaper reported. Within days these children died: 10 month-old Esperanza Ramirez, seven year-old Billie Doyle Kleghorn, four year-old Susan Barr, and others. The city health officer said that an epidemic was occurring. Because the disease had no known cause or prevention or cure, he recommended that San Angelo children avoid crowds, wash their hands regularly, and get a lot of rest.

A month later, with known cases spiking to over 60, the city council voted to close all indoor meeting places, including theaters and churches. Tourists stopped coming to the city. The economy shrank. One local doctor said, “We got to the point … when people would not even shake hands.”

The year is 1949, not 2020. The disease is polio, not Covid-19.

I got polio in 1944, five years before the epidemic hits San Angelo. But I was lucky. I came out of the disease with only a limp from a destroyed calf muscle. Amid the fears of the coronavirus today, I can now appreciate in a way that I could not as a ten years-old, the dread of the unknown consequences for their son that my parents had after I came down with the “plague” as it was called at the time.

Like polio at that time, the coronavirus has no known cause, testing for the disease continues to be slow and hampered globally. There are no medications or vaccine. Even the death rate from the disease is uncertain because of flaws in testing and tardiness in evaluating large numbers of people in China and other countries as the epidemic becomes a pandemic. Political and medical officials advise Americans to wash their hands often and stay away from crowds. Anxieties and fears are as contagious as the disease’s spread from its origins in China to the rest of the world.

Now as an old man, the fear I have of the coronavirus striking my family, friends, and the nation must be close to what my parents must have felt when I got polio three-quarters of a century ago.

Polio virus

Known for centuries but isolated in the early 1900s, the virus had triggered epidemics across the world. What caused children and adults to sicken, become paralyzed and die–the disease was often called “infantile paralysis”–was unknown. Thus, prevention was useless. Fear of contagion was rampant wherever cases broke out. There were no medications. Treatment was a combination of muscle wrappings and massage of limbs to ease damage to the body that inevitably occurred.

In the U.S. it occurred periodically paralyzing children and adults, rich and poor alike. One epidemic in 1916 claimed 27,000 Americans. In New York alone there were 8400 cases and 2400 deaths. Five years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came down with the disease at the age of 39 and wore leg braces for the rest of his life including the years he served as President of the U.S. (1933-1945). Not until the early 1950s did a vaccine become available for children.**

The polio epidemic of 1944 swept across Pittsburgh. I caught it. I remember well the weeks I was in the hospital and the months that I was at home. I recall the anxiety and fears that my parents and brothers had–I was the youngest in the family–since the paralysis could cause loss of breathing (“iron lungs” were invented to keep children and adults alive) and destroy muscles. Both of my brothers had been drafted–it was the third year of World War II–and were serving in the U.S. Navy and Air Force. My parents worried about them and now I came down with polio. Friends and neighbors steered clear of our home.

Most vivid of all I remember my mother massaging my legs with cocoa butter in the hospital. I could not walk after I returned home. Daily she would rub my legs with it. I missed junior high school for a few months and when I returned I had a noticeable limp. The smell of cocoa butter has remained fixed in my head ever since.

So too have I remembered drinking raw eggs every morning before I went to junior high school. Because my leg muscles and body wasted during confinement for polio in the hospital and at home, doctors had told my parents that I needed proteins to rebuild muscle strength. So my father every morning before he would go to work would crack open two eggs and put them in a small glass, stir them into one yellow blob and watch as I drank it. I shivered at the taste. This went on for months until I regained weight and could walk and run, albeit slowly.

My guess is that the fears my parents had that I would die went away slowly as I began to walk and returned to school in 1945. With the end of World War II, my brothers came home. I was getting strong enough to bowl, play baseball, and basketball. As I think back to that time 75 years ago, I can imagine their fears for me as I and uncounted millions of families now face Covid-19.

Covid-19

Like many Americans of my generation, I stay at home a lot, talk on the phone, text, and stay away from crowds. I do fist bumps with family and friends, wash my hands often, watch as cancellations of schools, conferences, sporting events, and entertainment venues pile up. Am I fearful and anxious? Yes. Do I keep my fingers crossed that the virus runs its course and disappears? You can bet on that.

Just like my mother and father in 1944 and those parents in San Angelo in 1949 who faced the unknown when their children caught the polio virus, mothers and fathers today concerned about their children and elderly parents contracting the coronavirus, the past has become the present right before our eyes.

Today, I can still smell that cocoa butter. And I do not like eggs very much even when they are scrambled.

_____________________________

*For the description of San Angelo, Texas and the 1949 polio epidemic, I used David Oshinsky, Polio: An American Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 1-4.

**Ibid., pp. 19-23.

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“We Are All Reformers” (Part 5)

This five part series ends with my leaving high school and going to a commuter college in Pittsburgh. These five parts are drafts of what may become my next book, part analysis of school reform and part memoir. The working title of that book is “Confessions of a School Reformer.”

In alternating chapters, the book will describe and analyze each of three reform movements during my lifetime and then trace my life in and out of school as a student, teacher, administrator and researcher who experienced directly continual reforms for over three-quarters of a century.

Since 1939 when I entered first grade until 2020, three major reform efforts have swept across American public schools: the Progressive movement (1890s-1940s); Civil Rights movement (1950s-1970s), and business-inspired standards, testing, and accountability movement (1970s-present).

As a student (1939-1951) I was the object of Progressive reforms. As a teacher and administrator (1950s-1980s) I designed and implemented classroom, school, and district reforms during the Civil Rights movement and then as a superintendent the first decades of the standards, testing, and accountability effort, and as a researcher since then I have described and analyzed U.S. school reforms.

The theme that runs through the five parts thus far is that my years as an elementary and secondary school student, while of great importance in awakening parts of me that I had not known, were overshadowed–in my view–by what happened to me and my family outside of the school albeit those same events helped shape my experiences as a student.

I have yet to draft sections on my becoming a teacher and the projects I initiated or was part of. Ditto for my tenure as a district superintendent and what I did as a researcher of school reforms since coming to Stanford University. Much remains to be done.

So for now I end this initial series “We Are All Reformers” with Part 5.

In the late-1940s, my father earned enough as a jobber, that is, selling deli products from a panel truck to Mom-and-Pop grocery stores in the Pittsburgh area, to meet the monthly mortgage payment on our small Squirrel Hill home and have enough food on the table. My mother rented out an attic room to a college student and my brothers, one married and the other unmarried and working at different jobs, also contributed monthly. Still money was short every month. I do not remember getting a weekly allowance so as a 12 year old recovering from a bout with polio and worried about being in a large secondary school with an empty wallet, I looked around for part-time jobs.

There was a nearby bowling alley on Murray Ave.  Not the popular ten-pins with large bowling balls with three holes in them. These were rubber-band duckpins with hole-less balls slightly larger than softballs.

The owner let me bowl free in exchange for setting pins for other bowlers. What that meant was to sit atop a pit at the end of the 60-foot alley and wait for the two balls that a bowler laid down for each of the 10 frames in a game. After both balls were thrown, I would drop down into the pit, step on a pedal and spikes would pop up upon which I set the pins that had been knocked down. When all ten pins were set, I would release the pedal, jump back up on the ledge and wait for the next bowler to send a ball down the highly waxed wooden lane. I became a quick and reliable pin-setter. 

The owner of the alley eventually asked me if I wanted to set pins in the afternoons and early evenings and during weekends. He would pay me one cent for every game (bowlers then paid a dime for every game). He let me set two alleys–one adjacent to the other–at a time so a few hours of work would earn me a half dollar or more.

After school and after dinner, I would bowl and then earn money. In time, I became quite skillful. I was cocky enough to gamble against older bowlers and won more than I lost.  

I also delivered the afternoon newspaper on my street. Sam, the previous newsboy, got a higher paying job and he asked me if I would take the route. I did. Between setting pins, betting on my bowling, and delivering newspapers, I had coins jingling in my pockets.

Although I still walked with a limp, I also played baseball and basketball and became a better-than-average athlete for a 14 year-old.  I sprouted to over six feet and while lean I could hit the ball well and play center in pickup basketball games. Yet I was a slow runner and as a center in basketball, I planted myself in the key.

That connection between Sam and bowling and being an athlete brought me into a boys club that imprinted the rest of my teenage years and whose influence has continued until the present day with the friendships I have maintained.

In the late 1940s, Sam belonged to a local chapter of B’nai Brith youth called Victory AZA. He asked me if I wanted to become a member. Passions for sports, growing interest in girls, driving cars, and being accepted by the “guys” stirred me. For some of us, practicing Judaism was also a crucial part; for others, less so. Victory was a full-service boys club. The boys voted and accepted me.

High school and Victory were intertwined in our daily lives.  While we spent more seat time in classrooms  and corridors of our nearby high school than in Tuesday night meetings in a basement room at a synagogue, few of us were members of the Allderdice popular in-groups. Much of our social and athletic life revolved around the club. As part of Victory’s activities we played each sport in its season, attended weekly meetings, and double-dated while gnawing nails over how to carry off a goodnight kiss. In the four years I belonged to Victory, what we probably did most was talk.

And did we talk! Over hot dogs at the local deli after club meetings or at one our homes after a pick-up football game or in cars late at night after dates were dropped off, we would talk about everything, rarely, however, about school. For some of us, this club served as family; for others it was just another activity in an already rich and busy life; and even for others it eased the stormy passage through difficult years. No matter which purpose Victory served in our lives, the club glued us together.

And we learned from one another. I remember one meeting vividly when Sam was president of Victory. On the agenda—we knew well Roberts’ Rules of Order—was an item to vote on new members. Because you aged out of the club at 18, there was constant turnover in this group of about 25. New members were recruited and sometimes teenagers simply wanted to join because of the full array of sports teams that we fielded over the course of a year, the B’nai Brith sports tournaments we went to in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia and many social activities over the course of a year. So we voted unanimously to accept the handful up for membership because they brought athletic and social skills from which we felt the club would benefit.  Except for one teenager whose nomination for membership triggered a vigorous discussion that I remember to this day.

There was a split in our group over whether Merle should become part of Victory. Those who argued for him saw his speaking skills—we also had a debate team that went to B’nai Brith regional and state tournaments—being useful to the club. Those who argued against him pointed out his argumentative skills went too far and he was constantly talking and trying to make his point. Moreover, he was too talkative and didn’t pick up what others were saying and feeling. There was a deadlock over admitting Merle, a highly unusual situation, one that in my experience had never occurred in my years in Victory.

Presiding over the discussion was Sam. He listened carefully to each point made by advocates and opponents of Merle’s entry into Victory. At one point, one of us—I don’t remember who—asked Sam what was his opinion of Merle. Sam answered by saying that he uses a principle when he considers each nominee for membership. He asks himself not only what the boy can do for Victory but also what Victory can do for him. He felt that Merle would surely help the club given his verbal skills but more important, Sam felt, who we could help Merle become a stronger and better person.

I, for one, had only asked one question whenever I voted on new candidates: how will the nominee contribute to our athletic, social, and religious activities? Sam said he not only asked that question but asked another one as well: what can the club contribute to the candidate? I had never thought about the club culture and activities having significant influence on how I think and what I do. Sam’s response brought the discussion to a close and we voted. Merle became a member of Victory.

Common to many teenagers, such intense club life was put behind after high school graduation.  Most of us went to the University of Pittsburgh, a short trolley ride from our homes in Squirrel Hill, and spent the next four years there. Those in our group who didn’t go to college, eventually drifted away into jobs. About a half-dozen former club members, however, continued to see each other off and on either in part-time jobs, before and after class, and occasional double-dates.  

Even after we graduated college, entered careers, married, had children and even moved away from Pittsburgh, at least four of us (Yus, Dave, Sam, and me) remained close friends for the rest of our lives.

Fast forward: over decades, the four of us stayed in touch with each other calling, writing, and visiting one another. Family vacations, monthly book club meetings, New Year’s Eve parties, phone calls, letters, audiotapes tied all of us and our families together year after year. Beginning in the 1980s, the four Victory buddies gathered in Pittsburgh and San Luis Obispo to play tennis.  As we aged to the point when we could no longer play, we scheduled reunions in Palo Alto and elsewhere. We are now in our mid-to-late 80s and continue to talk to each other weekly and see one another at family events from bar mitzvahs, marriages, and sadly, deaths.

Looking back, then, on those six years at Taylor Allderdice, I remember some of my teachers, subjects that motivated me, and snatches here and there of what occurred between 9:00AM and 3PM. I did pass all of my academic subjects and received a diploma. What I remember best, however, are the events that occurred outside of school and the boys I came to know and love in a club that I joined at the age of 14. 

After graduating Allderdice, I entered the University of Pittsburgh (called locally, Pitt) majored in history with a minor in biology, worked after classes for four years at various odd jobs to pay for tuition while living at home.  In my junior year, I decided to become a teacher, got admitted to the School of Education did my student-teaching, and in 1955 graduated with a major in history and a minor in biology.  I then became a teacher. No longer an object of Progressive era reforms as a student, I entered a career initially as a teacher, then administrator, and finally professor that turned me into a school reformer for the next six decades.

Looking back on my years in three Pittsburgh public schools between 1939-1951 when Progressive school reforms dominated the talk and policies of district educators, I learned that while these schools with their age-graded organization, academic curriculum, teacher-centered instruction, and cultural socializing surely shaped what I came to know and feel, the fact is what I recall most vividly and believe to have touched me more than what I took away from schooling are the events that occurred (e.g., Great Depression, World War II, moving into different racially- and religiously-divided neighborhoods, getting polio) and enduring relationships with family and friends.

Of course, it is possible that what remembrances that stick may not be the most significant in shaping who I am. Elementary and secondary schooling may have played a far larger role than I ascribe to it now as a octogenarian.  After all, as I cautioned readers, memory is fallible and endlessly plays tricks. Yet the inescapable fact remains that over 80 percent of a child and teenager’s waking time is spent outside of school in the family, neighborhood, religious settings, and the workplace. Too often, I believe, formal schooling in those 1100 hours a year, important as they are economically in accumulating diplomas and degrees for jobs and careers, is given far more weight than it deserve in assessing who and what a child and teen becomes as an adult.

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The Dilemma of the Xmas Tree in Mixed Marriages (Hannah Ingber)

Hannah Ingber works at the New York Times. This appeared December 24, 2019.

The first time I had a Christmas tree was 1987, the one year my father was married to Susan. I was 6 and remember my father having to climb a ladder to decorate it.

The second time was last year. This tree was much smaller and looked a bit sad. It tapered off at the end and didn’t stand straight. My husband bought it, loaded it into our Honda CRV and put it in the corner of the dining room when I wasn’t home because he knew I would object to it. I kept the room’s pocket doors closed as much as possible all that December, but he would come downstairs and open them. The smell of the tree would linger outside the room. I won’t lie — it was a really nice smell.

Growing up, I considered not having a Christmas tree (except in the Year of Susan), not wearing red and green in December, and not decorating our front lawn in lights as much a part of my Jewish identity as celebrating Passover and going to Hebrew school on Thursdays.

My husband and I began to fight regularly over having a tree after our children arrived. Though he was raised in California as a Hindu, he said that decorating a tree was among his happiest childhood memories, that it symbolized home and family. I countered that a tree in our living room felt so unsettling, so out of place, so unbearable.

Couldn’t we just have a shrine to Krishna instead?

You would think that such a disagreement would have been settled before we chose each other as life partners. I’m not sure why it wasn’t, or why we didn’t each see it as a big red flag. Perhaps we both thought the other would give in. Clearly neither of us realized how important the presence, or lack, of a tree was to the other.

He claims I once agreed to get a tree. I had no recollection of that. So I suggested a compromise: We could celebrate Christmas each year in California with his family. He said that wasn’t the same — he wanted the tree in our home.

By last December we had decided to divorce but were still living together (it wasn’t just the tree, but more on that another time). Shortly after, my husband sneaked the tree in.

Our boys, ages 2 and 4, were thrilled. They were too young to see any contradiction with being raised by a Jewish mother and Hindu father — and celebrating the birth of Jesus.

They got more than just the tree. They consumed Christmas-themed cartoons on the PBS Kids app with joy. When they spotted a beautifully decorated tree cookie at the local bakery, they chose it without hesitation. I didn’t even try suggesting, “How about that lovely silver star?” They had spent an evening decorating a tree at home. They might as well eat the cookie.

(I grumbled to the cashier, “My Jewish children are getting a Christmas tree cookie.” She didn’t share my unease.)

I moved out last February and now have a charming little home in the next town over. This year, my boys and I spent a weekend decorating it with menorahs and colorful dreidels. We even threw in a Hanukkah snow globe. We, too, can be festive.

I don’t get a ton of information out of my kids, but I’m pretty sure that they helped their father decorate a Christmas tree in his home. I can no longer fight them having a tree; I can only hope they make fond memories with their father. They’re so young that they’re unlikely to remember a winter without a tree.

Sometimes I tell myself that this is all O.K., that maybe it’s a blessing in disguise — my boys don’t need to grow up with the December angst that my sister and I had. When they attend elementary school and the teachers instruct them to write letters to Santa, they won’t feel left out. They won’t feel the need to educate their middle-school teachers the way I did. (Mr. H., if you’re reading, no, not everyone celebrates Christmas.)

My boys will have the dreidels and afikomen hunts and Purim carnivals, but not the December chip on their shoulder. That’s a good thing, right?

Possibly.

To me, being Jewish, not just lox-and-bagels Jewish, is about being different. It’s about being part of a tribe of people whose holidays include tales of ancient Egypt and Pharaoh. It’s about surviving pogroms and cattle cars, and learning that when others are being persecuted we have a moral obligation to speak up and interfere.

Being Jewish is about holding on dearly to one’s sense of self, even if it means secretly lighting Shabbat candles in the basement or having classmates throw pennies at your feet. Or just not getting to sit on Santa’s lap.

I wish I could say that my children will grow up with a Christmas tree (every other weekend) but still identify with being Jewish in the same way I do.

Maybe they can, maybe they can’t. Or maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it.

When our older son, Isaac, was 2 or 3, I wanted him to have a clear understanding of his cultural background and heritage, and I wanted him to be proud of who he is. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and telling him, “Mommy is Jewish, Daddy is Indian, and you and Aarav are both.” Isaac would light up.

And as he got a little older, he’d repeat it. He would stumble over the relatives and their correct identities. “Grandma B. is Indian,” he’d say about my Jewish mother.

But he always got the last part right: “Me and Aarav are both.”

When I chose to marry my husband, I saw bringing together two cultures as a positive. I knew challenges could show up, but I didn’t dwell on them.

It has shaken me to my core to know my boys may not end up being Jewish the way I am. But I also know I have to move on. Frankly, I need to get over the damn tree.

My boys are different from me, and that has a special beauty to it. They are “both.” And while I will do everything I can to instill in them the same love for Judaism that I have, who they are and what “both” looks like will ultimately be up to them.

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Learning Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 5)

June 2017 Reunion

We had planned to have a reunion in October 2015 in Palo Alto but Yus took a bad fall and I had a pinched nerve and could not walk. We canceled. In mid-2016, Yus, Dave, Sam, and I began talking about setting another reunion date. I traveled to Pittsburgh in December and spent five days with Yus and Nancy, had dinner with Sam and Hannah, and attended a Sunday morning book club discussion of a new graphic novel. Yus and I talked a lot about a possible reunion in Palo Alto in the spring.

Those discussions continued after I returned home but became more than talk when Yus’s son Bruce volunteered to go with Yus and Sam on the trip to help his Dad negotiate the walking in airports and around my home. Had Bruce not decided to join his Dad, the reunion would not have occurred.

And that brings me to another AK reunion of octogenarians taking place in Palo Alto in June 2017.  

And what a four days and nights it was! The time we were together consisted of long conversations around meals at home and in restaurants (my daughter Janice joined us one evening), taking walks in the neighborhood and at a nearby park, sitting on the patio sunning ourselves as we conversed and in the living room in one-on-one discussions about family, friends, politics, and life in general as AKers. Bruce, the youngest of all of us, walked with us and joined in these discussions. Once a day, Yus, Sam , and I would use my phone to do FaceTime with Dave in LA to see one another and talk.

Talk about losses from both age and disease in what we can physically do—one of us is on a walker, another has a pacemaker, another uses a cane—and dealing with the emotions accompanying such losses wove in and out of our conversations.  Sometimes the talk veered into the bits of wisdom we had accrued over the decades. And, of course, there were the inevitable health reports. The latter, however, was minimal.

Yes, there were nostalgic moments about our Jewish youth group and that club’s enormous influence on our lives—nicely supplemented by photos and articles that Sam had brought. We looked at photos of Victory members in the late-1950s and saw those who had died, asked about what happened to so-and-so (usually answered by Sam who has an encyclopedic memory of the Pittsburgh Jewish community over the past three generations). The closeness that we felt with one another and the openness in conversing about family, friends, end of life issues, and what is important to each of us in our daily lives is what I mean by intimate friendships.

Intimate friendships, such as ours, are secondary to family ties. While family bonds often trump close pals, the glory of friendship is that it is not chosen for us as blood lines are; we choose who we want to be close to year after year.  And the four of us, two in Pittsburgh and two on the west coast, have remained together out of a group of about a dozen since our early teens. We are grateful to one another for the continuing friendship. I, especially so, for what I learned from my friends about life and living it fully.

This is that story as I remember it. These are the people I have learned from for nearly three-quarters of a century. What an education!*

Larry Cuban

July  2017

_________________________________

*For Joel “Yus” Merenstein.

Biography (2017):

Joel H. Merenstein, MD is Emeritus Fellowship Director for the University of Pittsburgh Faculty Development Fellowship Program. Dr. Merenstein does consults with residents, fellows and faculty on an as needed schedule.

Dr. Merenstein is the founding Chief of the Division of Family Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and is presently Clinical Professor in the School of Medicine and the Graduate School of Public Health. He has published reports on “Educating Residents for the Future” and was recognized by the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine as the recipient of the 1994 Excellence in Education Award and the 2012 Marian Bishop Award honoring individuals who have significantly enhanced the academic credibility of family medicine by a sustained, long-term commitment of family medicine in the academic setting. In addition to over 50 published articles, he has recently co-authored a book, The Human Side of Medicine.

Dr. Merenstein is married, has four children, six grandsons and two granddaughters. He maintained a clinical practice in the same community for over 42 years.

Obituary (2019):

Dr. Joel H. Merenstein, on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. Beloved husband of Nancy (Weintraub) Merenstein. Caring father of Gary Merenstein, Bruce Merenstein (Karen Strand), Danny Merenstein (Traci Reisner) and Beth Merenstein. Brother of Sherree (Marc) Drezner, the late Hershey (late Zelda) Merenstein and the late Dr. Jerry (Bonnie) Merenstein. Brother-in-law of Reva (Stanley) Horn. Loving Zaydie of Alex, Carter, Zachary, Simon, Jordan, Levi, Maya and Caleb. Also survived by many loving nieces and nephews.

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Education Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 4)

Parts 1, 2, and 3 trace the arc of my close friendship with a small group of Pittsburghers beginning in the late-1940s. Far beyond the schooling I have had, my friendship with these “buddies” of mine has educated me and made possible my living a full life.

Turning Points in the Group’s History

Moving from a bunch of teenage boys in high school and college who had learned over years to accept both strengths and flaws in each other to a group of husbands and wives coming together monthly was a huge leap. Most adolescent friendships that survive college, I would guess, founder as couples form and marriages occur.   

In our group, many wives did not know one another well before they married into the group. It was a Pittsburgh Jewish community divided into Oakland, East Liberty, and Squirrel Hill where different B’nai Brith youth groups straddled neighborhoods so some wives had met and knew of one another but not as close friends. Surely, many of us knew the wives when they were dating one of the guys especially as dating evolved into engagements and then marriage. Our annual New Year’s Eve parties brought the women we dated together. For example, I brought Barbara to her first New Year’s Eve party in 1957, a year before we got married.

Wives expand group. Why did the group of close pals accept wives as integral members of the group and make it a joint venture in forming the book club in 1960. Had this move not occurred, I believe, the group of Victory buddies would have slid into the familiar obscurity of teenage friendships remembered in holiday cards, birthdays, and funerals. Once part of the group, women took active roles in nourishing the crew’s identity and pride.

I do not know why this group of young men accepted wives as integral members of the group. It would be self-serving to slip into the cliché about how accepting the men were or how hard the wives worked at overlooking issues that would divide us. At that time in our marriages with kids arriving, I would guess, the idea of the ex-Victory guys getting together for a night out from their wives went against the grain and getting of us together sounded like a worthwhile idea to try out.  Beyond that guess, I simply don’t know. But it did occur.

Of course, tensions surfaced periodically as our group doubled at parties and other annual gatherings.  One wife or husband found another wife or husband in the group awful, i.e., too loud or too quiet; too assertive, too reticent; too picky, too careless, and on and on. Over the years, such differences submerged or were ignored or were accepted as, well, that is who so-so is. And, of course, genuine friendships arose between the wives as they discussed books, shared recipes, and pursued professional jobs.

Why conflicts didn’t split the group, I just don’t know. Perhaps it was because at some level individuals knew that dragging politics or personal peeves into discussions would ultimately destroy the group. Perhaps the terms of the unwritten social compact and the trust at its foundation that we had worked out informally avoided such confrontations. Or perhaps it was because each couple had networks of friends and family and did not solely depend upon the group for closeness. What I do know is that had those differences continued to surface and had they gotten rubbed raw, they would fragmented the group. That did not happen then and has not occurred since. But there were close calls.

Tensions surfaced over the book club, for example. Each discussion over a book was accompanied by a full meal in the early years—venues changed monthly among the group as each couple took its turn at hosting—but in later years the group scaled back to desserts and coffee. Some couples took responsibility to read a book, do background reading, and make sure they were prepared for the monthly discussion. Others felt more relaxed about the obligation; if they could read the book, they did; if they could not finish it in time, they would still come and contribute or keep quiet. Often, for some couples, the social time together over eating became the primary reason for getting together.

This see-sawing between those that valued highly the intellectual side of the monthly get-together and those who prized the social interaction rose and fell in intensity until the mid-1970s when a few couples dropped out of the club. Book discussions stopped for a number of months. The group still gathered for picnics and the annual New Year’s Eve party yet strains, while mild, were just below the surface.

After almost a year, a few couples who had liked the intellectual exchange decided to reconstitute the monthly book discussions. They also decided to invite other couples, a few years younger and not part of the original group. The book discussions again flourished and the new couples began to attend picnics and other parties.

By broadening the original group beyond the men to include wives, constructing a social framework for interactions, and, later, adding new couples, the group demonstrated, I believe, a solid core of inner strength, self-confidence, and mutual trust to continue the strong network they had created over previous decades..

Retreats. In the late -1970s and for the next two decades, the Pittsburgh group started having weekend Fall retreats in West Virginia. Begun with an exchange of phone calls, the plan grew into a search for a moderately priced place, the right dates for as many that wanted to come and detailed plans for who should bring food and wine for meals through Friday evening and Sunday morning, pull together the Shabbat dinner, lead discussions (not about books but built around topics we chose), conduct the Saturday morning service, and plan the entertainment for Saturday evening. 

At the first retreat in a state park, seven couples from Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. (where Barbara and I lived at the time) traveled to a state park to spend a sunny, mild October weekend. Without children, 14 adults gathered Friday evening in one of the four-bedroom cabins for services to welcome the Shabbat. Followed by a dinner punctuated by jokes, spirited conversation, and laughter over a stubborn fire that almost smoked us out. The evening ended with a quiet moonlight walk.

The next day, a morning service was followed by long hikes in woods filled with rich autumn colors. Some couples tramped paths just to search out quiet spots to either talk with a friend or be alone. In the early evening, a service brought the Shabbat to a close and then dinner. In the evening, by a fire that flamed slowly and evenly this time, a group discussion took place. Spirited and intense, the group wrestled with the strengths and weaknesses of Jews as an ethnic group assimilated into a larger Christian culture and the centrality of religion or lack of it in modern American Jewish life. Lasting a few hours, afterwards we took a midnight walk.

The next morning, there was another breakfast with much laughter and camaraderie and then sightseeing elsewhere in the state park. By early afternoon, everyone had departed. The retreat was over.

We found mutually agreeable dates over the years and different couples drove to the hills of West Virginia to be together as Fall colors bloomed. While the California contingent made a few of the retreats, it was the Pittsburghers who did all of the heavy lifting insofar as food and planning. At each retreat, we hiked, talked to one another, shared meals, played board games, and renewed connections.

I have gone on at length about these retreats to convey, if only a fragment, the whirl of activities, the time to be alone with a partner or friend, the warmth that flowed from long friendships and the confidence of a group that springs from self-direction. We needed no Rabbi to lead services. We needed no expert to guide our discussions. We needed no social director to organize the retreat. Pride in many years of friendship spurs these statements, not arrogance.

Yet this brief summary cannot capture the renewal of ties that have bound us together for many years. The easily tapped laughter flowing from recall of old times that prefaced deeper exploration about parenting adolescents, what being a Jew meant in a Christian world, career goals, death and a host of issues that harried middle-aged men and women seldom have a chance to share, much less think about with anyone back home. Within the womb of close friends, things can get said that would, in other company, be swallowed. There is little fear of that cocktail party repartee that jabs or clutches at the jugular. Or fear of revealing something that will return as stinging criticism. The teasing that does occur comes from the acceptance of human flaws and not from probing for weaknesses.

That first of many retreats was refreshing, a moment of renewal in the daily grind of events. It brought to those of us who were there a deeper sense of friendship and intimacy. For the group, self-confidence grew in knowing that we have ties to one another that gained in strength as years pass. Such ties are a gift from each of us to one another.

The retreats lasted into the late 1990s. Growing children, the appearance of grand-children, the large amount of work that it took, mostly by wives who had to do the buying and preparing of food and other reasons diminished the size of group each year and finally it was no more. But oh ,what a run it was for our still unnamed group of ex-Victory “buddies” and there wives.

Continuing, however, were the monthly book club discussions, New Year’s Eve parties (now with septuagenarians making decisions a group decision to shift the party from New Year’s Eve to a New Year’s Day brunch), and picnics, theater and symphony dates, and the like. The group still exists.

This history of Victory when Sam, Yus, Dave, and I joined in the late-1940s and its evolving into a social network of close friends and wives meeting decade after decade is one that I have constructed—others could recall different details and offer other interpretations–give the background for four of us becoming intimate friends over the years with periodic reunions on the east and west coasts.

The final part of this series on friendship’s power to educate me is next.

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Education Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 3)

Parts 1 and 2 of this series describe the origin of a group of teenage friends in Pittsburgh (PA) in the late-1940s. It is also a story of my education outside of schools and how I learned to live a full life with people I loved.

Deciding to Stay Together

The idea of a group of close friends who worked at staying together did not emerge among us until after college when many of us left Pittsburgh to attend graduate school, work in other cities or serve in the U.S. military. While we had already begun annual New Year’s Eve parties in the early ‘50s while in college (much food, little liquor and awfully amateurish but hilarious entertainment staged by ourselves with the obligatory game of charades after midnight), the notion of a cohesive group beyond annual parties had not taken hold.

By the early 1960s, most of have us had been married a few years.* Children arrived. We were building careers. Some of us lived in Cleveland and Youngstown (OH) and Elizabeth (NJ). A few of us in Pittsburgh and Cleveland got together to establish a book discussion group. As to who would join, a core of seven couples who had kept in touch by phone, letter, visits, and being at each other’s weddings became the book club (Yus, Sam, Dave, and I along with our wives were among those founding couples).

We had no name. No president, dues, or business meetings. No rules save those agreed upon by consensus. Intellectual and social interests had merged.

Once the book club formed and met monthly, even traveling to Barbara and Larry’s home in Cleveland on a few occasions, the idea and its existence grabbed our imaginations. We began to pride ourselves in sticking together even though our careers diverged, a few of us lived out of town, and each of us had created other networks of acquaintances and friends at work, in schools our children attended, the synagogues we joined, and neighborhoods in which we lived.

In effect, what we did unselfconsciously over subsequent years was to build a group folklore, enriched initially by common experiences in Victory but extended to include incidents involving wives and children, joint vacations, annual picnics New Year’s Eve parties, and, of course, the book club. We had learned to do for ourselves as a group. In little bits and pieces we taught ourselves how to survive as a group, creating more ties that bind through book discussions and annual events.

We had an identity but no name. We had a history with no written record only an oral tradition. We had learned without teachers. And we had pride in lasting as long as we did without anyone’s guidance or approval.

A wealth of images, some manufactured, some embellished, some remembered through photos and slides were embraced by all of us to define who we were as a group. A common history of experiences meant that recall of a particular New Year’s Eve party, a certain picnic, a slide-sharing evening—often exaggerated for effect–would trigger gales of laughter, knee slapping and elbow pokes of shared warmth. And, yes, we also shared children and career achievements, disappointments, and sadness in family member illnesses, the death of siblings and parents. Without basic trust in one another built up over the years, such sharing would not have occurred.

Who We Were Two Decades Later

Here’s a snapshot of the group in the 1970s. Ten couples made up our group. Jewish, middle aged, married and nearly all with children. No divorces had occurred except for one in the late-1980s. All of us had married within our faith and raised our children with varying degrees of religious observance.

College educated, all of us were in the mid-to-late stages of their careers. Among wives and husbands in these years, there were four social workers, five school teachers, one administrator, two lawyers, a college professor, a family physician, three housewives, a college student, a manufacturer’s representative and a public information specialist in a large organization. The core of the group—now eight couples—lived in Pittsburgh where all of us had grown up. Barbara and I lived in Washington, D.C.  for 16 years and then relocated to northern California in 1981;  Dave moved his family to Los Angeles in 1976.

Of course, these few facts sketch out little more than the bare outline of who we were then. For those who find comfort in categories, I guess we would be classified as Jewish, middle-class business and professional types, indistinguishable from contemporaries in big cities. In religion, families, sports interests (especially Pittsburgh teams), we were probably no different than others with similar backgrounds, families, stable friendships, careers, and quite predictable daily rhythms in our lives. All of us had other friends, of course, but what I believe made us unique was that a core group of individuals strove to stay together in subsequent decades.

Working at Staying Together

Groups such as ours do not jell magically. It takes time, commitment, and trust. Surely a common history and chemistry of sorts must be present for cohesive relationships to initially meld, evolve over time even as membership changes, and cement the group together.

No single leader mobilized and consolidated our group. Leadership was casual and distributed among the couples during these years. Informally, leadership flowed from some couples to others over time when it came to planning book club meetings, New Year’s Eve parties, summer picnics and later, weekend retreats. Everyone somehow did things and leadership, often shared, emerged naturally without prodding. Organizing chores fell to some folks while operating tasks fell to others. Starting and maintaining a book club required different skills and time, for example, than the important work of keeping it on course. Conflicts arose over the years. They ebbed and flowed and only once rose to the level of ending the book club that by the end of the 1970s was nearly twenty years old.

What prevented conflicts from splitting the group irreversibly was that an informal, unsigned social compact had emerged for staying together in the group’s decisions to begin, continue, and expand the book club, maintain annual New Year’s Eve parties, and annual picnics. Politics, for example, seldom was discussed within the group. Nor did simmering divisions in the group over how much work for events some people did (or did not do) or spotty participation by other couples ever get discussed explicitly.  Raw and open conflict was tamped down. Within that social compact, anchored in mutual trust the group would gather more than a dozen times a year. In between those gatherings, individual couples would go out for dinner, get theater and symphony subscriptions, and see one another adding more stitches to the social fabric of the group.

Since in these early decades, almost half of the group was at times away from Pittsburgh, patterns of contact emerged.

Those of us who lived far from the group such as Barbara and me worked at staying in touch. Letters, monthly phone calls, cassette tapes (remember this is before the Internet), exchanges of photos, and, of course, visits kept alive memories while creating new ones. Birthdays, anniversaries, bar and bat mitzvahs, and, yes, funerals, were events that each of us noted and cared about—further enriching our bonds. Thus, Dave, Sam, Yus, and me grew close especially with playing tennis in SLO and having occasional reunions on the west coast.

As Yus once observed about those of our AK group who had moved from Pittsburgh (I at the age of 21 and Dave in his 40s) and had lived in various places since, the close “buddies” of those day became an extended family that I could turn to time and again for solace, sharing fears, and seeking advice.  Knowing that I had such intimate friends made each move to Cleveland, Washington, and then California one in which Barbara and I didn’t worry about making new friends in each new location although we did through our professional work and synagogues we joined. I always had my rock of faith in my long-time Pittsburgh “buddies.”  **  

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*Evidence of our closeness and a footnote to the social norms of the day that we adhered to was a betting pool on getting married. The first to get married would collect five dollars from each of us. While hardly an economic incentive to get married ($50), it does illustrate how we viewed the inevitability of marriage in the 1950s. Not so, today.

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**In our rough-hewn taxonomy of friendship, there are acquaintances, friends, and buddies  (or the phrase “intimate friends” which we did not use then). All of us in the group reminded ourselves occasionally that each of us had acquaintances and friends, but it was “buddies” that encompassed what we had.

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