Remembering Harold Meltzer

January 9, 2013

Harold Meltzer obituary (via Frank Pandolfo), January 9, 2003. (Westchester Journal News).

Harold Meltzer obituary (via Frank Pandolfo), January 9, 2003. (The Journal News).

Harold Meltzer, my favorite and best teacher of all, died on January 2, 2003 at the age of sixty-six, ten years ago last week. He was all too young and all too bitter about his years as a history teacher at Mount Vernon High School. But then, dealing with entitled parents and unrepentant administrators in Mount Vernon, New York for thirty-five years would do that to most people. Despite that, Meltzer was a rock, the first teacher since my elementary school years that I genuinely trusted with my family secrets and my inner self. He was the first and maybe only teacher I had in my six years of Humanities who actually seemed like he wanted to teach us (see my post “No Good Teaching Deed Goes Unpunished” from May ’11).

I met Meltzer on our last day of tenth grade, after three days of finals and Regents exams, on June 21, ’85. He had summoned fourteen of us to “Room 275 of Mount Vernon High School,” as the invitation read. We had all registered to take Meltzer’s AP American History class in eleventh grade, our first opportunity to earn college credit while in high school.

Meltzer started off talking to us about Morison and Commager — who I now know as the great consensus historians of the ’50s, until the social history revolution made their textbooks irrelevant by the ’80s — as we sat in this classroom of old history books and even older dust and chalk. Meltzer himself looked to be in his late-fifties (he was actually a day away from his forty-ninth birthday), tall and lanky except for the protruding pouch in the tummy section. His hair was a mutt-like mixture of silver, white and dull gray, and his beard was a long, tangled mess.

Met Logo and A full house, seen from rear of stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House (former bldg, 39th Street), for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937. (National Archives via Wikimedia). In public domain.

Met Logo and A full house, seen from rear of stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House (former bldg, 39th Street), for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937. (National Archives via Wikimedia). In public domain.

The way he spoke, and the way his eyes looked when he spoke made me see him as a yarmulke-wearing preteen on his way to temple. The force with which his words would leave his mouth hit me immediately. As much as I noticed how frequently spit would spew out of Meltzer’s mouth, the rhythm of his speech was slow and sing-song, like an elder or grandfather taking you on a long, winding, roller-coaster-ride of a story. Most of all, I knew that he cared — about history, about teaching, about us learning, about each of us as people. Maybe, just maybe, for some of us, he cared too much.

But for at least for me, Meltzer’s eccentric space in which he told Metropolitan Opera House stories and talked about egalitarianism extended beyond the historical. He was the first teacher I had since before Humanities who’d ask me if things at home were all right, and knew intuitively that things weren’t. He was the first to ask me about how poor my family was and about hunger. And he was the first teacher ever to ask if I had a girlfriend. Needless to say, these questions were unexpected. Yet through these questions, Meltzer had begun to crack my thin, hard wall of separation between school and family.

Because Meltzer cared deeply about reaching students — about reaching me — our student-teacher relationship because a friendship after high school and a mentoring one as well. I wasn’t looking for a mentor, and Meltzer was only being Meltzer. Still, his stories about his battles with MVHS administrators, Board of Education folk, and with upper-crust parents who believed their kids were entitled to A’s just for showing up, were filled with lessons of perseverance, patience, and looking beyond everyday headaches in order to reach people. While this wasn’t a factor in my going to graduate school and spending a significant part of my life as a history professor and educator, these stories have helped me over the years.

1972 Dodge Dart Dark Green (similar to '74 Dodge Dart Meltzer owned when I was at MVHS), December 25, 2009. (http://www.fotosdecarros.com).

1972 Dodge Dart Dark Green (similar to ’74 Dodge Dart Meltzer owned when I was at MVHS), December 25, 2009. (http://www.fotosdecarros.com).

But unfortunately, it was a factor in why Meltzer became embittered and took early retirement in June ’93. The end of the Humanities Program, the intolerance of some administrators toward Meltzer as a “confirmed bachelor,” the lack of decency — forget about gratitude — from many of his most successful students. Those changes, these things, all would take a toll on any teacher who’d stay after school day after day to run Mock Trial, to facilitate study groups, to work on letters of recommendation for students. But no, most of my former classmates who had Meltzer between ’85 and ’87, all they could say was that “Meltzer was weird” or that “I didn’t understand” his lessons.

I’m thankful that I did have Meltzer as a teacher, friend and mentor between ’85 and ’02. I’m thankful that I had a chance to interview him for what is now my Boy @ The Window manuscript in August and November ’02, just a couple of months before he passed (see my post “Mr. Meltzer” from June ’09). I’m glad that despite his physical and psychological pain, Meltzer welcomed me with open arms and answered my questions about his life and his career. I just wish that my former classmates and some of Meltzer’s more cut-throat colleagues had taken the time to really know the man.


Post-Mortem Post

November 12, 2012

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) by Rembrandt, November 12, 2012. In public domain.

My idiot ex-stepfather died over the weekend, sometime Saturday evening, November 10. He was three months past his sixty-second birthday. I learned of his death early Sunday morning, as two of my younger siblings (technically half-brothers, I suppose) had posted on Facebook their grief over their father’s death overnight. As I read their posts, I realized that I myself felt no particular emotion over the final physical demise of Maurice Eugene Washington.

For the longest time while I was in my teens and early twenties, the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz (1939) would come to mind when I thought about how I’d feel if the man collapsed from his own obesity and died. As far as I was concerned, my ex-stepfather could die a horrible death every day for eternity, and it still wouldn’t have been enough. A steamroller crushing him one day, a stabbing the next, getting smashed into by a semi-tractor trailer doing eighty miles an hour the day after that. Thoughts like that in the ’80s and early ’90s were a regular part of my mindset on Maurice Washington, not to mention a part of my dreams once every six weeks.

But, as I learned to forgive him — for my sake, certainly not for his — I found myself still frequently angry, but also feeling sorry for such a lost person. Whether in exacting abuse on me or my mother, eating himself into kidney failure and Type 2 diabetes, having affairs and producing kids out of those affairs, or in his bouncing back and forth between a Christian and a Hebrew-Israelite life, he was in search of love and stability. None of which, though, he could find from within. A life with only kids from at least three women and damaged lives to show for it. Not to mention a two-decades-long physical decline, in which the man lost both of his legs.

The Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz (1939), November 12, 2012. (http://time.com).

They say living your life to the fullest is the best revenge for survivors of abuse like myself. I suppose that’s true. But what they don’t say is that eight years’ of living in fear for yourself and your family leaves scars, physical, emotional, psychological, even spiritual. I’ve spent nearly a quarter-century recovering from those years, making sure to make myself a better person, and hoping that I don’t pass my scars on to my nine-year-old son in the process.

Two of my more popular posts over the past year have been “Ex-Stepfather’s Balance Sheet” (August ’10) and “Whipped and Beaten” (July ’12). I don’t think that this is random. There are millions of us who’ve grown up with physical, sexual and psychological abuse, and most of us have no one to talk to about these hellish experiences. And nearly as often as not, there are folks who will say, “It wasn’t really that bad, right?” Or, in the case of the very first comment I received on my blog back in July ’07, “you should be grateful, he was just trying to make you a man. Obviously he didn’t do enough.”

So, though I’m not gleeful that Maurice Washington is dead, I’m not exactly in mourning either. I had to kill him as an abuser in my heart and mind a long time ago in order to move on. I feel for my younger siblings, but they didn’t really know their father either. I did, mostly for the worse. May he — and a part of me — now rest in peace.


Sarai’s Death, One Year Later

July 11, 2011

Sarai Washington, February 9, 1983-July 11, 2010

This was the eulogy I wrote for my sister Sarai’s funeral 360 days ago:

“On Sunday, July 11, 2010, Ms. Sarai Ador Washington passed away at the age of twenty-seven from complications from sickle-cell anemia. It was the battle of Sarai’s life from the moment she was born. Yet Sarai fought that battle with dignity and a sense that her life was worth living. For those of us who knew her, and knew her well, most of the time, Sarai lived as if her disease didn’t exist, or at least, didn’t matter.

Even in those first few months after Sarai was born, she was obviously in trouble. She hardly gained any weight, all of her food had to be fortified with iron, and she only had “three strands of hair,” as our mother put it. It was more like a few dozen in three spots on Sarai’s scalp. She always needed help. Sarai was in and out of the hospital, in need of the occasional blood transfusion, and at times in excruciating pain. Between the disease and the hardships what we were going through as a family during the early years of her life, it’s amazing to know that Sarai managed to survive in the worst of those worst times.

Despite all of this, Sarai managed to grow up and eventually find herself. She almost immediately gained a love of music, whether it was listening to her mother’s singing of hymnals or her older brother Donald’s horrible rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror.” She sang in choirs with her brothers Maurice and Yiscoc while growing up. Sarai attended Mount Vernon’s public schools, where she made friends along the way. Though delayed by her bouts with sickle-cell anemia, she eventually graduated from Mount Vernon High School, in 2003.

Later that year she spent some in Silver Spring, Maryland helping to care for her nephew, Noah Collins before returning to Mount Vernon. In 2005 Sarai moved to Huntsville, Alabama to live on her own for the first time. In addition to working for Western Corporation as a customer care professional, Sarai found her voice, making a whole new group of friends, touching others lives in the process. Sarai’s wonderful sense of humor and sense of kindness were assets that her friends in New York and Alabama truly appreciated.

When her disease became more difficult to manage, Sarai moved back to Mount Vernon in the spring of 2009 to live with our mother. Though her illness had gotten worse, she still had dreams for the future. She was hoping to go back to school to earn a cosmetology license.

Sarai’s sickle-cell anemia complications got worse, so bad that she had no choice but to quit her job. Although Sarai in her final months was not always feeling her best, she still found the time and energy to spend with her nephew, Roshad Washington. Despite it all, Sarai lived her life her way. Along the way, she enriched the lives of her family and her many friends.”

There isn’t much that I’d change about what I wrote last July, other than the two or three minor grammatical errors that I didn’t catch because I was working on less than five consecutive hours of sleep per night. But I do wish that I’d been able to do more for Sarai while she was alive. I think about her almost every day, wishing that she’d stayed with me in Silver Spring long enough to look into Howard University Hospital’s work on sickle cell anemia.

Mostly, I think about how I wish the quality of Sarai’s twenty-seven years, four months and two days had been better, that her parents had been better, that my life could’ve somehow made her’s better. It just wasn’t to be.


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