I don’t know how old Joe Biden was when our new president was mocked by his schoolteacher, a nun, because he had a stutter.
I do know that I had just turned 5 years old in October 1970 when Mrs. Crawley, my public school kindergarten teacher in Hamden, Conn., a suburb of New Haven, sent me to the “dunce corner” because I missed school for Yom Kippur.
I have written about this subject before in a piece titled, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from Kindergarten.”
But I thought that I would revisit some of its themes, as President Biden begins his administration in the midst of a number of crises, including COVID-19, in which so many children of all ages have been traumatized or have been otherwise adversely affected.
In recent years, the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church have been exposed for the abuse that scout leaders and clerics committed against young children.
But abuse occurs in schools, too, though in my case it was not sexual in nature. Rather, it was a sustained spiritual, psychological, and, to an extent, physical assault against me over a six-to-seven month period that began a few days after I turned 5 years old.
In its Jan. 3 print edition, The New York Times pointed out in an editorial, “The Education Department Wreckage,” that Joe Biden’s choice for education secretary, Dr. Miguel Cardona, “needs to revoke a series of department communiques that had the effect of letting school districts off the hook for discriminatory disciplinary practices and other potential violations of civil rights law.”
The editorial went on to say that, during the Obama years, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights “released data showing that excessively punitive policies were being used at every level of the public school system — and that even minority 4-year-olds were being disproportionately suspended and expelled.”
I was never suspended or expelled. And I am not a member of a minority group, but I was dragged to the principal’s office by Mrs. Crawley, who tried to hold me back, primarily because I was the only Jewish kid, or the only practicing Jewish child, in my public school kindergarten class in 1970.
And I was sent to the “dunce corner” repeatedly for months even though, and, in all likelihood, because I was the only kid in the class, who could already read. As it turns out, I had been reading since the age of three, when my mother, a former public schoolteacher in Hamden, introduced me to flash cards.
As the Times’ editorial made clear, data from the Obama years revealed that teachers in public schools have disproportionately punished minority children. But some teachers do not limit their prejudice and hatred to children of color. There are teachers, who are anti-Semitic or bigoted in other ways.
If confirmed to his new post, Dr. Cardona, who also hails from Connecticut, would reportedly be the first Latino to serve as Secretary of Education.
He attended the public schools in Meriden, Conn., fewer than 20 miles from Hamden, before he became a public schoolteacher, principal, superintendent and, most recently, chief of Connecticut’s school system.
Dr. Cardona, who is of Puerto Rican descent, has undoubtedly experienced bigotry in his life, bigotry that he has overcome.
He is already a pioneer, who was the youngest principal in the state of Connecticut, and who, after being appointed by Governor Ned Lamont as the state’s Commissioner of Education, became the first Latino to serve in that capacity.
Dr. Cardona knows better than I that studies have shown how vital it is that children, particularly young children, stay in school, where they can forge social as well as academic and practical skills.
And other writers have pointed out, during the COVID crisis, how research has also shown that kids, who lose a year of schooling, when their brains are still growing, are more likely to drop out of high school.
It has been further noted that kids, who drop out of high school, live shorter lives and often do not reach their potential as wage earners or by many other criteria.
Fortunately, I did graduate from high school, but the repercussions of my trauma in kindergarten have lasted 51 years to the present day.
While I completed kindergarten, Mrs. Crawley, after beginning her abuse in Oct. 1970, continued to damage me for the rest of the school year by singling me out for trips to the “dunce corner” and by mocking me in front of the whole class, when I started to talk to myself in that dark space in the back of the room, where I was not allowed to sit.
As I have pointed out previously, I can still remember my mother speaking on the phone with the principal of our school in the spring of 1971, when the principal told my mother that Mrs. Crawley was saying that I should be held back.
My mother told the principal that made no sense because I could already read and had been reading for several years.
So, my mother and I again went over the flash cards, which she had hung up on the wall in our kitchen since I was a toddler.
The next day, the principal showed up in our class, and, for the first time in months, Mrs. Crawley did not mock or ignore me when I raised my hand.
I correctly identified the letters to which Mrs. Crawley pointed with her yardstick or ruler.
As I have written before, the principal then smiled and nodded at me. Then she smiled and nodded at Mrs. Crawley and left the room.
When I was leaving school later in the day, and as I assembled with my classmates in the hall, Mrs. Crawley bent down and whispered in my ear sadistically, “We’re going to just let you go to first grade.”
While I never forgot what Mrs. Crawley did to me, I dissociated for decades whenever I encountered evil, and I have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, psychosis and schizophrenia, with which I was diagnosed in my early thirties.
Readers know that I was hospitalized at the USC and UCLA psychiatric wards in 1997 and 1999.
There is no one reason why I have suffered from mental illness, nor is there any one reason why I was suicidal in the late 1990s.
It is true that I come from a family with a history of depression, psychosis and suicide.
It is also true that Mrs. Crawley was a sadist, who preyed upon me at least partly because I was such a sweet and innocent kid, and she sensed that I was vulnerable to her evil.
If there is any positive news to all of this, it is that love can overpower hatred.
My late wife, Barbara, herself a former public school kindergarten teacher, nurtured me for 23 years and saved my life with her love and wisdom.
Barbara was an extraordinarily loving and innovative teacher in Anaheim, Calif., for 26 years, beginning in the Civil Rights era in the mid-1960s.
As I have written before, my angel taught the first Head Start class. She introduced her students to Macbeth and Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry. She learned Spanish, so that she could communicate better with the parents of some of her students. And she taught her kindergartners about Chanukah, as well as Christmas, even though she did not believe that she ever had a Jewish child in her class in all her years as a teacher.
I often said to Barbara that it was a case of perfect, poetic justice that, after I had the worst kindergarten teacher ever in Mrs. Crawley, I ended up with the best kindergarten teacher ever in my Barbara.
Barbara passed away in Sept. 2019, and the past 16 months have been very difficult for me, as they have been for everyone.
I am grateful that I got to be with Barbara for 23 years, and I remind myself that “God works in mysterious ways,” as we know from the Book of Job.
If I have found a purpose over the decades, it may be to tell my story and to help de-stigmatize mental illness.
I have observed in recent years that the perception of those like me, who have a psychiatric diagnosis, has improved. For instance, there are now many TV commercials that advertise medication for people diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. And there are also more public service announcements with Michael Phelps and other spokesmen and women, who openly discuss the benefits of therapy for their mental health.
I would hope that my articles, speeches and PSA’s on this subject, going back to my 2005 op-ed in the L.A. Times, “Shedding Stigma of the ‘Psycho’ Straitjacket,” have helped to remove the stigma over the years.
It is a painful irony that the coronavirus pandemic, which has tragically taken the lives of more than 400,000 Americans, has illuminated the prevalence of mental illness in our society. In this regard, COVID-19 may also be helping to reduce the stigma associated with mental health disorders.
It is much clearer now to all of us that, when people are living under stressful conditions, such as those brought on by the pandemic, we can all become more susceptible to depression, anxiety, loneliness and even suicidal ideation.
There has been much reporting, during COVID-19, about how many of our medical professionals have experienced and continue to experience higher levels of mental illness than in the past.
Schoolchildren and teachers have also experienced higher levels of anxiety, depression, trauma and suicidal thoughts, due to numerous stressors, including some that relate to remote or hybrid learning.
As numerous reporters have pointed out, many children, particularly minority kids, have struggled to get proper Internet connections and WIFI access, and teachers have had to learn new skills, including playing more of a role as social workers for their young students, who are struggling.
Editorial boards and policymakers alike have suggested that now is a time to reimagine our public schools and education in general.
I agree that now is a good time for all of us to think more innovatively about teaching and learning.
For instance, given the overwhelming amount of student debt, President Biden has already announced that he will issue an executive order to suspend payments and interest on that debt.
While student debt affects people in all professions, public schoolteachers carry a particularly large burden because they do not have the salaries to pay off such debt as readily as some people in other fields.
Under Dr. Miguel Cardona’s leadership, the Biden administration should consider a loan-forgiveness plan along the lines of Senator Chuck Schumer’s proposal to eradicate up to $50,000 in debt per borrower, as Lauren Quinn, an English teacher in the L.A. Unified School District, wrote in a recent L.A. Times op-ed.
Of course, as others have noted, Dr. Cardona will be addressing many complicated issues, including the role of teachers’ unions, the future of charter schools, teacher pay, as well as the critical importance of re-opening our schools and doing so safely, given the learning loss suffered by kids this past year due to COVID-19.
But we might all begin by acknowledging that, besides our public health crisis and the issues that I just mentioned, our country has long had other problems that have festered for centuries, such as systemic racism and anti-Semitism.
Hate crimes have risen in recent years in this country as well as overseas.
And sometimes prejudice begins its insidious evil in our public schools.
All of which gets me back to my experience in kindergarten in the 1970-71 school year, just a few years after Vatican II, in which, among other policy changes, the Catholic Church stopped teaching its parishioners that Jews killed Christ.
As I have noted before, in a sign of progress and of apparent, religious tolerance, my public school, Spring Glen in Hamden, Conn., held its classes in the 1970-71 school year at Mishkan Israel, a Reform synagogue, while Spring Glen’s regular building a half-mile away was being renovated.
My family did not belong to any synagogue when I was in kindergarten, though we would later join Mishkan Israel in 1973.
It was probably because I was doing well in school that my parents felt that they could take me to Providence, R.I., where my grandparents lived, for the Jewish High Holy Days in October 1970.
I missed two days of school for Yom Kippur, and I celebrated my 5th birthday with my relatives.
My parents then drove me back to school on the Monday following Yom Kippur, and I arrived a bit late due to the fact that it was roughly a 100-mile drive from Providence.
That was when my teacher, Mrs. Crawley, stalked me to my seat and barked, “Why couldn’t you have gone here?”
“We don’t belong to this synagogue,” I told her.
Shortly thereafter, she yanked me by the arm and dragged me to the “dunce corner.”
She announced to the class that I was a dunce, the first dunce, and she forced me to hunch against the wall in the back of the classroom.
As I have written previously, that may be when I started talking to myself. And as I have also noted, because of Mrs. Crawley’s sadism, I began to dissociate and to lose myself in a Walter Mitty world, where I was not so threatened, like the victims in the Milgram experiments, which had taken place a few years before.
In spite of the torture from Mrs. Crawley, I was still able to read, but, as I have indicated in other articles, I was so damaged that I actually stopped reading for five and one-half years due to her spiritual, physical and psychological abuse.
I also grew up thinking that I was right-handed. For years, I almost forgot that Mrs. Crawley smacked my left hand, my dominant side, and prevented me from using it.
My penmanship and fine motor skills remain atrocious to this day. And it took me decades to regain the love that I had once had for reading.
While I have healed, a process that has taken me 40 to 50 years, a biblical amount of time, there have been other physical, psychological and spiritual repercussions to the sustained trauma that I endured in kindergarten.
One of the most hideous consequences of this trauma was that, for decades, I stopped understanding whom to trust.
I have never been violent as an adult or as an adolescent, but when I was in 5th grade, I got into a couple of scrapes.
I got into a fight with a boy named Brian, a freckle-faced classmate, who was a friend of mine from kindergarten.
My mind had been poisoned against Brian by another boy from my kindergarten class, call him Dick.
A sadist with the pretty boy looks of Errol Flynn, Dick had told me that he and I were best friends in kindergarten, and he seemed to have a happy, wonderful home, which appeared to be so different from my own.
Dick needed me as a friend in kindergarten because he was insecure about his standing.
Unbeknownst to me, he had stayed back the year before. He was more than a year older than I.
As we entered 1st grade, Dick became jealous of me because I was put in the advanced classes, and he was not.
A frenemy right out of the Book of Job, Dick started to call me, “Parrot Nose,” while we were in elementary school.
He also told our classmates that I was gay and made up other cruel lies about me, which he told everyone behind my back.
Then he tried to egg me on, so that I would fight Brian.
My mind was so warped from what had happened to me in kindergarten that I ended up hitting Brian when I was 10 years old.
I take full responsibility for that fight, as I do for fighting another boy named Bob, whom Dick had also denigrated behind his back.
Bob’s sister, Karen, had been a playmate of mine in nursery school, and Bob wanted to be my friend, but Dick, due to his feelings of inadequacy and jealousy, as well as his anti-Semitism, plotted to ruin my relationships with other people, especially those who knew that he had stayed back in kindergarten.
There was also a boy, named Bernie, who was a very good athlete and a friend of mine.
Like Dr. Cardona, Bernie was of Puerto Rican descent, and because Bernie stood up for me, he ended up being mercilessly taunted over his last name and ethnicity.
Years later, I remember Dick gleefully telling me that Bernie had changed his last name.
“I’m surprised you didn’t change yours,” Dick said with a snicker, then he admitted to me that he had told everyone that I was gay.
He gulped as he said this, and he glanced around to make sure that he could run away if I decided to chase after him and hit him.
I did not do so because I am not a violent person. I also thought that he was kidding, and I still had a distorted understanding about who my friends were.
Thankfully, as I have already written, I have healed over the decades from my kindergarten trauma and other traumas after it, due to the love of Barbara, my angel.
But when I think about my childhood, it really does seem as if God made a cosmic bet with the devil, right out of the Book of Job, except that Job was an adult, while I was a 5-year-old boy, whose brain was still growing when I was assaulted by my teacher.
“Hast thou considered little Bobby Jaffee?” God might have said to Satan.
I feel very badly that I punched Brian and Bob, both of whom wanted to help me years ago. And I feel equally badly that Bernie suffered so much because he stood up for me.
I certainly want to apologize to them and to others, who were hurt because they spoke up on my behalf.
The origin of all of this evil was not only anti-Semitism or racism. It was sadism. And it was sadism that derived from jealousy.
Mrs. Crawley tried to commit against me what the late psychiatrist, Dr. Leonard Shengold, called “soul murder.”
I have read that, when young children are abused, some of them lose the ability to speak.
I am very fortunate that I did not lose that ability. And I believe the reason is love.
It goes without saying that, more than anyone else, Barbara, my wife and the best kindergarten teacher ever, restored and enhanced that love in me. And love, as Barbara often said, is the most powerful thing of all.
Last year, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and other acts of police brutality, Van Jones, a CNN commentator, said that we need to screen our police officers to weed out racists and sociopaths.
He is absolutely right. I would add that we also need to screen our elementary school teachers to do our best to ensure that they are not anti-Semites or sadists, racists or sociopaths.
If it is possible, we need to have, in every classroom, a teacher’s aide, who is not dependent on a letter of reference from the primary teacher. We also need the principals of public schools to monitor teachers more carefully with surprise visits.
At a time when many kids have been traumatized and are still stressed out over remote learning and the coronavirus pandemic, I hope that we can do a better job as a nation not only in reopening our public schools safely; we also need to do a much better job of eliminating prejudice and hatred of all forms in the schools and elsewhere.
Shalom and amen!