In the wake of the devastating massacre in Newtown Elementary School and the heroic actions of the adults in the school, I am sharing with you my childhood experience with my hero, my 6th grade teacher Mrs Black. This is a letter I wrote to her 15 years ago.
Dear Mrs. Black,
It was January 1967 when this 11-year-old frightened little Israeli girl walked into your classroom for the first time. I had only arrived in the country two weeks before. Not knowing a word of English, I was placed in your class with other non-English speaking students.
I cannot describe the terror and confusion I was feeling that day. These feelings had been with me throughout the past few weeks. They began when the reality that I was leaving my country, my home, my extended family, my school, my friends, and all that was familiar to me. My father had told us that we were leaving Israel and moving to America. But I didn’t quite understand what that meant. I had no idea what America was, other than a far away place. As we began to pack and shop for new clothes (it was going to be cold in America), and people started to say goodbye, the reality began to sink in. I was going away. The fact that I was leaving with my parents, brother and sister did not ease the pain or the fear. I did not want to go.
Flying on an airplane was not exciting or joyous, even though it was my first time on a plane. I cried throughout the flight, almost 12 hours, and when the plane landed I proceeded to vomit all over my mom. I remember feeling good about throwing up on her. It was a small gesture of vengeance that gave me real satisfaction.
When we arrived in our new “home,” in Corona Queens, I quickly became acquainted with the closet in the hallway. That closet became my hiding place, the place I would go to everyday for the first three months, where I would sit on the floor and cry. You were a major reason why I finally came out of the closet and embraced my new home.
Like your name, you were black. This was a rare and special experience for me since in Israel the only black people I ever encountered were Poco and Quami. Poco was the ambassador to Ghana and Quami was his security man. For some reason, my parents befriended them and I would see them every so often at my house. I liked them very much and was captivated by the color of their skin, their hair, their beautiful smile and the way they spoke. They spoke English, a language I always enjoyed hearing, even though I did not understand.
Seeing you in front of the class was comforting to me. You reminded me of them in many ways. Your smile was as inviting and warm as theirs. Your beautiful skin, like theirs, was soft and smooth as velvet. Your colorful dresses and your English language were somehow familiar to me. Although very frightened, as soon as I saw you, a sense of safety and well being came over me. The class, however, was not at all friendly or welcoming. I was the only Jewish girl in the class. It wasn’t long before the kids in the class identified me as an outsider. I was bullied and made fun of on a regular basis. As long as you were present, I was safe. But as soon as you left the room, or we went to lunch, my classmates were mean and cruel, calling me names, shoving me, and in general making my life miserable. Being of Yemenite decent, i.e. dark skinned, I was not unfamiliar with racist remarks and ostracizing. I had experienced it in my own country. But I had never been exposed to anti-Semitism. It had a whole new, more dangerous feeling to it. Perhaps it was because of what I had learned about the Holocaust. Or may be it was because I was in a foreign country. Whatever it was, I was terrified most of the time.
You quickly realized the predicament I was in. You also recognized my love for learning and my willingness to do the extra work. Shortly after I arrived, you began to give me extra work and attention. Your warmth and encouraging words inspired me to study hard and learn fast. I began to thrive in your class in spite of the tormenting that was going on around me. You helped me to feel positive about myself and you protected me whenever you could. The more attention and support I received from you, the more motivated I became to meet your high standards for me. After a couple of months, I was able to speak English pretty fluently.
At that point, you decided to focus our work on my reading and writing skills. You asked me to stay after school and work with you one on one. Everyday, you stayed with me, sometimes up to two hours a day, teaching me to read and write. Your patience, your enthusiasm and your commitment to my learning continued to nurture and support me through the difficult times with my classmates, and my overall adjustment to my new surroundings. My primary goal was to learn what I needed to learn as quickly as I could so that I can move to a regular class and away from my tormentors. Three months to the day I entered your class, I was transferred into a regular class.
Something important happened to me when I moved to the new class. My classmates greeted me warmly, and immediately embraced me as one of them. For the first time since leaving Israel, I suddenly felt like I belonged. I received many compliments, and at times, my classmates treated me with awe when they found out that I had only been in America three months. They could not get over how well I spoke English. With pride I told them about you and your devotion to my learning. It was two days after I was transferred to the new class that I came out of the closet, never to return again.
Mrs. Black, every individual can remember a teacher from our past that touched us in some profound manner. You are that teacher for me. The compassion you showed me, your dedication to teach me, your sensitivity to this foreign little girl’s fears, confusion, and love for learning, instilled in me faith in others and faith in myself. With your support, I did not only learn how to speak English, I learned that I can face any challenges the future holds for me. In some way, you reinforce what I had learned while living in Israel, I am strong, I am capable, and nothing can stand in my way.
I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart and soul for understanding the important role you, a teacher, played in the lives of the children that came through your classroom. This was no job for you. This was your service to the community, to the society, and you provided it with honor, class, and love.
You are my hero!