Wednesday, February 4, 2015

This One is Personal - For Mom

My mom, Hedda Denburg, died on Sunday at age 90 after a period of declining health. But this is not intended as an obituary. It is a celebration of excellence and teaching, both of which were hallmarks of my mother's life.

She was a terrific mom to me and my late sister; a devoted wife to my dad, who predeceased her by 13 years; and a loving aunt and great-aunt. She deeply loved my husband Paul, although she never stopped giving him a him a hard time. She was the last survivor of four siblings and she deeply missed her sister and brothers. She had many friends and, as I have spoken to some of them over the last couple of days, they have all told me how much she will be missed. But nothing meant more to her than her three grandsons--my sons--each of whom spoke about her at her funeral yesterday.

Mom spent 34 years as an elementary school teacher in the New York City public schools, at a time when most women of her generation did not work. She was a proud graduate of Hunter College, which she always explained was further from her home than Brooklyn College but gave you free books, which her family could not afford to buy. Of the eloquent and loving tributes of her grandsons, it is an excerpt from the eulogy of my middle son, Matt, who is a New York City high school teacher, that I want to share:

My grandma was born to be a teacher. She taught in New York City public schools from 1946 to 1983 (with a few years off for maternity leave) and, as someone who followed in her footsteps, even down to teaching in the same Queens neighborhoods, I want to tell you a little about my grandma the teacher. About two years ago, we came across a file of her teacher evaluations. These letters from her supervisors, so similar to the ones I get today, painted an incredible portrait of my grandma. In each one, she is described as the teacher who goes above and beyond. Who passionately finds ways to reach students that other teachers gave up on. Who remembers that the little things--giving out cupcakes at the end of a science fair, singing a song with second graders to help remember a lesson, letting a student have the chance to explain an answer even if it seems wrong at first--are the things that really matter.

The letters are a treasure trove of little stories in which my grandma plays the hero--my hero. One letter, from 1960, describes a class that the principal refers to as “slow learners.” A lot of the letters include these types of descriptors; it sounds like they gave my grandma the kids other teachers didn’t want to deal with. In this letter, the principal tells her that she has learned how to encourage the egos of children who have experienced failure after failure.” Another tells about a group for whom she has “launched their career as readers. They are finally, truly, reading.” Each ends with some of the most effusive praise you can imagine. I never got to know my grandma as a teacher, but the sharp wit and incredible selflessness that I did know matches so well with the content of these descriptions that I can imagine who she was in the classroom.

Goodbye, Mom. We will miss you.

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