Dear Mr. Rose,
I am writing to you today because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since yesterday when my friend Mimi posted our 6th grade graduation picture from Bustleton Elementary School in Philadelphia in 1964. As I viewed the picture, scanning the images for the faces of friends, trying to remember first names ( only the initials and last names fit beneath the thumbnail images) my eyes came to a stop. There in the center of the picture along with the 7 middle aged women who look like the were hired by central casting to be mid 20th century school teachers is you – a kind faced handsome man with dark brill creamed hair and the kind of glasses worn by Malcolm X. You’re smiling in the picture, just as I remember you smiling in room B-1 in the basement of the newly built George Washington Junior-Senior High School — a building where I spent seven years of my life — the turbulent years of the 1960’s.
My cohort and I came to George Washington Junior-Senior High School for 6th grade because the neighborhood of the far Northeast section of Philadelphia was growing rapidly; schools were not being built as fast as the houses which sprung up along the former dirt roads and farmlands on the edges of the city. My group of students went to 4 different schools between 3rd and 6th grades as the district struggled to find classrooms for the growing number of children of WW II veterans who were moving with their families northward up Roosevelt Blvd during the late 1950’s and 1960s.
It was a semi-terrifying experience to go to a high school as a 6th grader. All of our classrooms were located in basement in the same quadrant of the building, extending from Room B-1 to Room B-29. And in a pattern that only sadists or 1960’s educators could think up, we were placed in these classrooms based on our academic achievement, with the “smartest” kids in Room B-1 and the “dumbest” in Room B-29.
I was in B-1 and you were my teacher. You were the first male teacher I ever had during what was to be one of the most difficult years of my life. You became a life saver for me. My father who had been having an affair for a number of years decided to leave my mother in the beginning of November, 1963. One day he was there, the next day he was gone. He never offered me or my siblings and explanation and my mother reacted to his departure by retreating to her bedroom and crying for months on end. It was a very frightening time for me. To make matters worse, my mother told us children not to tell a soul that our father had left. She was very ashamed of what was happening and did not want anyone to know.
I was under a great deal of pressure during that time. I had to get up every day, go to school, do my homework, worry about my mother and still act as if everything was fine. School became my refuge and the only time I ever felt comfortable and at peace with the world was when I was in your class. Your gentle nature and good will served as an antidote to my father’s anger and betrayal. Your consistent presence in my life and your words of attention and praise for me became a balm for my troubled spirit. In your class, Mr. Rose I was smart, I was special and I was happy.
I have another memory of you that I will never forget. I was in your class on November 22, 1963 when the principal came over the loud speaker at 2:00 at announced that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. We children, of course were very frightened and we all looked to you. You were shaken, and I watched you remove your glasses and put your hands over your eyes. I had never seen you without glasses and it was disconcerting. You stepped out into the hallway for a few minutes and when you returned, you looked very grim.
“Boys and girls,” you said, your voice shaking. “President Kennedy has been shot.” Your voice broke slightly, then you pulled yourself together. You stood up straight and looked out at us, calmly.
“You’re going to be dismissed now. When you get home, you will see that your parents are going to be very upset. Don’t be scared if you see them cry. Everything is going to be all right. It just might take some time.”
It was Ellsworth the bus driver who told us Kennedy had died. When we children got off the bus at the corner, there to greet us were our mothers and just as you had said, they were crying. Even my mother, who hadn’t left the house since my father had left weeks ago, was standing among the other women holding onto one of our neighbors for support. It seemed as if the entire world was falling apart.
To this day, I cannot think about the assassination of JFK without also remembering my parents’ divorce. My personal world was disintegrating at the precise moment the country was shattering. Nothing in my life or in our country’s history was ever the same after that November.
I don’t remember much else specifically about 6th grade. I do remember that it was the year of the British Invasion and my girlfriends and I would sneak Beatles magazines into class. If you saw us read them, you never let on. I know I never wanted to miss a day of school and I always looked forward to coming to your class, the only place where I was truly happy.
Thirty-eight years later in another classroom in Philadelphia, I thought of you once again as I stood before 33 adolescents as their teacher, having to tell them that two airplanes had just crashed into the World Trade Towers. As I stood in front of them as we watched the buildings crumble before our eyes on TV in shock and disbelief, I remembered what you had said to us that day. I remembered that you prepared us for our parents’ fear and grief but that you also told us that things would once again be okay.
I turned to the students and I told them, “Something terrible has happened today. And we’re not even sure exactly what it is. But the one thing I know for sure is that people are going to come together. They are going to help each other. They are going to do heroic things. When you’re home tonight with your families. Remember that. Look for it. It will be there.”
If it weren’t for you, Mr. Rose, and the way you spoke to your students on November 22, 1963, I don’t know if I would have had the faith and courage to know what to say to mine on September 11, 2001.
I never knew your first name. Today, I do not even know if you’re still alive. But your words and gentle spirit inspired me and you live on in me and all of the young people I have had the privilege of teaching.
Marsha Rosenzweig Pincus
Have you had a teacher who had an impact on your life? Is there someone you wish you could thank for what that teacher did for you when you were a student? Is there a teacher who has influenced that kind of person you are today? Share your stories here or take some time to try to find that teacher and tell him/her.