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Lessons from Kindergarten During the Civil Rights Era

My late wife, Barbara, taught her students Shakespeare, poetry and how to love

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“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Those are famous words from Nelson Mandela.

And they remind me of the blessings of my late wife, Barbara, who taught kindergarten in the California public schools for 26 years, starting in the mid-1960s.  

Barbara passed away last September, but the lessons in love that she gave to her students remain.  Like Barbara’s spirit, those lessons in love are eternal.

Barbara’s birthday is coming up this Sunday, the summer solstice, when she would have turned 81.  

I often told Barbara, who shone with more brightness and warmth than anyone I have ever known, that it was fitting that she was born on the sunniest day of the year, the day that the earth tilts most directly to the sun.

Barbara flowed and still flows with light and truth, love and imagination.

My angel became a public schoolteacher in Anaheim, Calif., during the Civil Rights era.

She taught the first Head Start class, during LBJ’s presidency, and she learned Spanish so that she could communicate with the parents of some of her students, whose native language was not English.

Every year, Barbara, who grew up a Lutheran, taught her students about Chanukah as well as Christmas, even though she said that she did not believe that she ever had a Jewish child in her class in her years as a public school teacher.

She taught her students the dreidel song, brought in a Menorah to the classroom and showed the kids examples of Chanukah gelt.

Near the end of her life, Barbara told me that she thought it had been her “duty as an educator” to teach the kids about Chanukah.  Of course, she did this out of love.

That was just one of the blessings that Barbara gave her students. 

Every Halloween, Barbara taught her kids about Macbeth, as I have described before.  She told the kids the basic plot line, about how Macbeth, in Barbara’s words, “killed his best friend and became king, but he was never happy again.”

The kids would sigh and shake their heads with sadness.

As I have written in the past, Barbara had the kids dress up in dark hats and wield broomsticks, like the three witches, as they would dance around a make-believe cauldron and sing the ditty, “Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble!”

She introduced her students to Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.  And when she was given kids who had behavioral problems, she would promise them that they could play kickball for the last 15 minutes of school if they learned a particular poem.

Due to this additional motivation, the kids would indeed learn the given poem and would then play kickball with gusto.  Barbara said that many of the boys were already familiar with sports strategies and tactics and would play accordingly.

Of all the stories Barbara told me about her kids, though, my favorite one was about Jimmy, an African-American student, and Chris, an Irish-American one.

One day, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, all the kids were seated in a circle or semicircle, with Chris, the toughest boy in the class, seated next to Jimmy, the only African-American student in the room.

Chris, who had pale skin and freckles, stared at his own arm, then he stared at that of Jimmy, whose arm was right next to his.

Barbara was worried that there might be a problem.  That was when Chris said, “Jimmy, you’re the cutest kid in this class!”

Barbara heaved a sigh of relief.  Of course, it is also true that the kids had been learning lessons in love from Barbara all year and every year.

To quote Nelson Mandela again, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin…They can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I don’t expect that there are too many teachers like Barbara out there.  Nor do I expect that there are any Muses as luminous as she.

Barbara saved my life years ago, when I was deeply depressed, psychotic and suicidal, and she inspired me to write our opus, a very, very long set of eight novels.

In the Zohar and in other holy texts, it is said that saving the life of one person is like saving the world.

Barbara saved and enriched the world many, many times.

Happy Birthday, Barbara Bunny, my sun goddess!

You will always shine with light and truth, and you will always bless us with love and imagination.

God bless you, my angel!  I can’t wait to recite poetry with you again!  

As you once said, my love, language is where we meet.

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