For me, an excessively shy and quiet high school student, I most likely turned a few shades of red. But Gladys Stein, the one teacher in my life who made me realize that there was someone – something – caged up inside of me, didn’t worry about how uncomfortable I was feeling that afternoon. She just cared.
Mrs. Stein told me later that school year that there was just something in my eyes that gave her the impression I really wasn’t that quiet, shy, afraid of my own shadow student I was showing the world. In the journals she would have me and all her students keep, she would write in purple ink about this “monster” lurking somewhere inside of me and that I should “let it free to roam the wild.” And over time, I did. My personality opened up a bit while in high school, but in college and beyond, that “monster” Mrs. Stein so lovingly urged me to free eventually crafted me into the person that I am today.
But even deeper, Mrs. Stein made me find my voice — whether I was reporting or writing for politicians or even now preaching in the pulpit, she drove my heart to tap into that “monster” and to show it because she always reminded me that what was inside was too exciting and caring to let it remain hidden. She pleaded with me to read more, whether it was the classics or even the daily newspaper, and seek out those writers who poured their soul into their craft, who, on paper at least, would cause me to think about life. Mrs. Stein said great writers weren’t showmen and women; they just showed the world their inner soul. And that, I did. Whether it was Bill Falk in the Herald Statesman (now the Westchester Journal News newspaper; Falk now runs The Week Magazine), Jimmy Breslin in the New York Daily News, or even writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Arthur Conan Doyle, I saw the “it” that Mrs. Stein urged me to find.
More importantly, this seeking helped me find that “it” that became me.
As I would leave her classroom in the early summer of 1989 and enter college and real life, the lessons I learned in high school about ‘me’ at the feet of Gladys Stein became the lessons of life.
After high school I stayed in touch with Mrs. Stein, wondering if she continued her version of the “swear jar” – a jar students with poor grammar would deposit a quarter every time they would goof up, especially if they used the word “ain’t.” When I was in college and returned to my high school for a visit, I walked into her classroom with a dollar bill unfolded in my hand, ready to deposit it into the jar “just in case.” But as the years went by, and her aborted retirement in the mid-90s, we lost touch. Late in the 1990s when the Yonkers Public School teachers were on strike, I ran into Mrs. Stein on the picket line. Covering the story for the Westchester County Weekly and my own local political website, I was kind of surprised to see her walking with an “On Strike” placard around her neck since this time I knew she really was retired. Laughing, she said she needed the exercise.
When I was in seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, one day the telephone rang and, of all the people in the world, on the other end was Mrs. Stein. She had stumbled across the news I had left my “reporting gig” and entered seminary. Once again laughing, she said God was in trouble if I was becoming one of this spokespeople.
Last night reading through The Record, I stumbled across the sad news that after a hard-fought battle with lung cancer, Mrs. Stein had died. She lived nearby in Fort Lee and a memorial service will be held for her tomorrow at Eden Funeral Home at 11:30am. I will be there to remember this fine, outstanding teacher, but most importantly, to remember this profound woman, mother, grandmother, and wife.
I think, first, I will go out to find a purple pen.
UPDATE: A classmate and friend, Michael Hayes, wrote his remembrance of Mrs. Stein and the impact she had on him and proving once again, just what a wonderful person Gladys Stein was … and at least to me, will always be.