Mama Goes to School

Benjamin B. Ferencz

Ever since she arrived in the States in 1936, Gertrude worked by day and studied by night. She finally managed to gain admittance to Hunter College, but had to interrupt her education again when we left in 1946 for our brief honeymoon abroad that lasted another ten years. Gertie was quite a determined and persistent lady. Once back in the States in 1956, she was eager to go back to night school. As soon as the children were old enough to be left in the care of a babysitter or their Papa, Mama took to the books. It was a slow grind and it wasn’t easy to cope with all the responsibilities of being a mother, wife, and college student. On June 6, 1964, when our oldest child was 15 and the youngest was 10, I assembled our brood to take them to witness a happy event. We were all proud to see their shy 45-year old mother being initiated to the Phi Beta Kappa fraternity for her excellence as a student. Her report cards were always better than those of her children. Bravo, Mama!

In 1964, Gertrude received a Bachelors degree from Hunter College, although she certainly was not a bachelor and was not likely to become one. Her goal was to become a social worker. Her first composition in college was on the need for universalism. She had majored in human psychology and was also very interested in human health. These interests could best be realized if she became a teacher. She needed a Master’s Degree to qualify for an appointment. She went back to taking advanced education courses at night. On January 31, 1972, Herbert Lehman College awarded her the degree of Master of Science in Health Education. In September of that year, the University of the State of New York certified that she was qualified to teach. It didn’t take her long to acquire a new job in academia. She had come a long way from her days as a persecuted Jewish girl in Satu-Mara, Romania. God bless America!

There is no rose without a thorn. Gertrude’s first teaching job would be her last. She was employed by the City of Yonkers to teach “Health and Human Sexuality,” a new course mandated by the State of New York. Of course, many parents objected to the course that so many students were eager to attend. Anything related to sex will bring out a crowd. The illegitimate birth rate among the graduating classes of girls between 16 and 18 years of age was noticeable. Even those in the lower grades could have benefited from the knowledge that babies don’t get delivered by storks. The new teacher of the new subject was required to teach about 300 students about things misguided parents were relieved to let someone else handle. Gertrude loved the students and they loved her, but the circumstances were such that it would soon become unbearable.

Yonkers is an old and run-down city about 15 miles from New York. Its High School had a mixed racial population at a time when racial tensions ran high. Graffiti on the walls urged students to “Kill Whitey!” Classroom doors occasionally had to be kept locked. It was quite impossible for one teacher to handle unruly students. Gertrude’s requests, that class sizes be cut in half, were rejected by bureaucrats more concerned with budget than people. It was only after she resigned in protest that the Principal changed the rules and cut the classes. It was too little and too late. I didn’t want my wife to go back to the grueling and frightening assignment. She often stayed late in school to help kids with special problems. I was concerned about her safety when she drove home at night. We agreed that she should find some less demanding and less hazardous occupation. “There’s no place like home.”

Household chores were not enough to occupy Gertrude’s active mind and social impulses. She volunteered to work for Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization that had offices in Yonkers and in White Plains, that could make good use of her training and interests. Young girls, some of them rape victims, would come for needed counseling regarding pregnancy and related social problems. It was often heart-wrenching when a teenager would plead for help because she was afraid to talk to her own parents, doctor, or minister. During the several years that my highly qualified spouse worked as an unpaid volunteer for Planned Parenthood, she never tried to dictate what any person should do. She merely explained the problems and options, carefully and honestly, and explored the consequences. There is no doubt that she affected, and probably saved lives. There is more to sex than just doing it. The world is slowly moving toward a more rational approach to human sexuality but a great deal of teaching and learning is still required for a more comprehensive appreciation of this very complex subject.