Thank You, Irma Rhodes
Tuesday is National Teacher Day, and people are being asked to salute a teacher who made a difference in their lives.
We’ve got teachers in my family – my wife, our daughter-in-law, a sister, a brother, a sister-in-law, two nieces, a nephew and his wife. I’m proud of all of them.
But the teacher I am thanking today is Irma Rhodes, who found me underperforming in high school and turned me around. She opened a world for me, after I had washed out of honors classes at Jamaica High in Queens.
I honor the teacher who did what teachers do – she made English exciting, or fun, or at least tolerable. She was, as I discovered, an educated woman with intellectual and literary interests, and she managed to transmit a bit of her enthusiasm to her class of juniors.
Early in the fall semester, Mrs. Rhodes assigned us to write a book report, any author, any subject. As the son of two journalists, I chose Stranger Come Home by William L. Shirer, a novel by a well-known journalist.
The book was probably lying around the house; my mother probably put it in my hand. (By that time she was legitimately worried that I would remain a slacker.) I did some minimal research and deduced that the plot pretty much matched the career of Shirer – a correspondent in Europe who had been pursued by the red-baiters when he returned stateside after World War Two.
Mrs. Rhodes read the report and asked me to me read parts out loud in class. She was so pleasant that she never transmitted the feeling she was turning me into a teacher’s pet. She just said, this is a book report, and people in the class seemed happy for me. She created a positive mood among the students, which is not easy to do.
She followed it up, talked to me after class, inviting me to work on the school yearbook, promoting me when openings came up. She held salons in her home for the yearbook staff – a bit of work and planning, plus piano playing, literary talk, refreshments. She organized theater outings to Manhattan on weekends – something at the Jan Hus Playhouse on the east side, Anastasia on Broadway.
Oh, yes, and I got a date for the senior prom, much to my shock. A girl, a year older than me, liked my essays when Mrs. Rhodes had me read out loud. (Jean, our class president-for-life, had to virtually order me to ask the girl out.) As Richard Price wrote in a classic essay in 1981, one of his earliest lessons was that being The Writer was a neat way to meet girls.
Mrs. Rhodes and I kept in touch long after I was actually accepted by Hofstra and started working for newspapers. I brought my wife to her home. I mourned when she passed much too soon and I mourned when one of her daughters also passed way too young.
I don’t mind saying I think Mrs. Rhodes was proud of me, the way my wife is proud of the smart young man she taught in her humanities group in the challenging late ‘60’s, who is now a national byline.
I see that same pride in our daughter-in-law who teaches English as a Second Language. I cannot describe how proud I am to see this dedicated young woman going to work every day with the new ethnic groups of my home borough of Queens.
Teachers do this. The vast majority of them care. It makes me crazy to hear taxpayers complain about the alleged high salaries and perks of teachers. “(They get the whole summer off.”) They didn’t see my wife doing lesson plans on weekends, or my sister's daughter using part of her modest salary to buy school supplies for the underprivileged children of her southern town.
About a decade ago, I got to reconnect with my old high school – the same rooms, the same hopeful faces as my contemporaries in the ‘50’s, in some honors classes I visited. I could feel Mrs. Rhodes (and Mrs. Kirchman and Mrs. Gollobin and all the rest) still in that building.
Yet the city of New York saw fit to cook the books so Jamaica High would look like a statistical failure. They are keeping the glorious landmark building open and are tossing out the institution in favor of the new fad of boutique schools.
The teachers of today remind me of the teachers who taught us back in the ‘50’s. I thank them all, and most of all I thank Irma Rhodes.
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I should add: memories of favorite teachers are welcome here, under Comments. GV
5/8/2012 01:52:01 am
TIMELY column. i just went to see ron rayner two days ago. mr rayner was my teacher in grades 4&5 at greensville school from 1959-61. he's almost 77 now and in very poor health. he had the most influence on me than anybody but my parents. in a time when learning by rote was the way, he lit up our imaginations. there isn't enough space for me to list all the things he did to light a fire rather than fill a bucket....i will say one thing he did that has stayed with me for more than 50 years. i was one of the best kids in arithmetic. he used to put me at the blackboard and challenge the rest of the class to come up one by one to try to defeat me. i never lost, but it was tremendously stimulating for everybody. kids rooting for me to get whupped and me determined not to lose. i mention this memory because in grade four (it was a split grade of 4&5) i got my report card and it said i'd failed arithmetic. i took the report up to him and protested, but he said that mark was correct. i knew it wasn't. i went home that night and told my parents mr rayner had made a mistake. shortly after dinner the phone rang and my mother answered it. she handed it to me and it was mr rayner apologizing for messing up. he double checked and realized he'd switched marks with somebody from grade 5. left quite a mark on me. a teacher apologized to me. it was if the world had turned upside down. as i said, i could spent an hour mentioning all the fantastic things he did to stimulate our minds. as t.s. eliot said, 'shakespeare and dante divide the world between them. there is no third.' i feel the same way about mr. rayner--there is no second.
5/8/2012 01:58:04 am
5/8/2012 02:41:00 am
It's true...I pulled some deal and managed to get back with mr fvorite teacher for my eighth semester -- and aced the English regents. But there were so many other good teachers at my high school. All three of our kids had mentor types who were presences in their lives. But just remember the local taxpayer bleat: they have all that free time. GV
5/8/2012 02:43:55 am
5/8/2012 03:00:57 am
IT ALWAYS stuns me that there seems to be such a lack of respect for teachers in american culture--or should i say amongst the neanderthal right? they are incredibly important. education is under provincial jurisdiction in canada. i don't recall the disrespect and bad mouthing in ontario that goes on so often in the states. also, i know a few teachers and most of them are paid well.
5/8/2012 03:07:29 am
It's sick. I heard some public figure referring to those "millionaire teachers" the other day. Part of it is anti-union bias. Part of it is resentment from the anti-reality swath. GV
5/8/2012 03:41:09 am
ACTUALLY it is, literally, comprehensible to me. good teachers are worth more than their weight in gold. i guess the fixation is on perceived time off. also, some sort of strange $ value put on so many things.
5/8/2012 03:52:00 am
MY AGE is catching up to me. have to get an editor, of course, i meant to say INcomprehensible......sigh...
5/8/2012 01:11:07 pm
May all the school bells peal like thunder, today and every day, in honor of our great teachers! Which include my wife, daughter, son-in-law and my granddaughter-to-become (she's only 8 now, but is inspired by her Mom and GrandMom to become a teacher). Irma Rhodes, whom we most affectionately called "Dusty Rhodes" [unless you were a Dodger fan because for those too young to know, the Giants' pinch-hitter de luxe Dusty Rhodes was a Dodger killer] lived with her husband and two very bright daughters about five houses down the block from me on the right side of my block in Jamaica, Queens. Then, she and her family moved about five houses down the block from me on the left side, for reasons that I never stopped to consider. Although I never had the privilege of being in her English class, she was especially kind to me after I was relieved of my duties as editor-in-chief of the Jamaica High school newspaper in October '55 for re-arranging the furniture in the office, or something equally serious. Before I was restored to the post three months later thanks to my Dad--who would have made a wonderful teacher--, knowing that I needed a "job," she most supportingly put me on the school yearbook which she mentored, and I did write several pieces that occupied me during my period of suspended animation. That act on her part was somewhat courageous, given the politics of the moment. Thanks for bringing Irma Rhodes back into my life, and everyone else's favorite teacher back into theirs.
5/9/2012 12:12:10 am
Chief, Mrs. Rhodes did have an eye for wayward souls like us.
Joan (Weissman) Lipton
5/8/2012 02:19:35 pm
George, whatever you write and/or Wally Schwartz recommends to me, I read and thoroughly enjoy. Although Irma Rhodes was not my teacher I certainly knew about her and her qualities. As a student at JHS I was given the best four years of my life then. The teachers fired me up to "go all the way" for a few MA degrees and a PhD. Your comments about your favorite teacher bring to mind the professional qualities, enthusiasm and sincerity of the teachers I had in the foreign language department: Abraham Aaroni, Regina Miller, Rose Landy, Joseph Lundari and Senta Stiefel,. And there were so many in other departments. How lucky I was to student teach there and then return for a semester to teach. Had it not been for the requisite of an MA degree - I had just graduated from college - I would have stayed on and on!! To compete with Wally's statement: I, my husband, my daughter, my sister and her husband, my sister-in-law and her husband, my mother, my aunt, my niece and undoubtedly more relatives, not to mention friends have received more than they gave from this so honorable and satisfying profession. We could not become rich in such positions, as some uninformed believe, but we became so enriched by the students we mentored.
5/9/2012 12:11:07 am
Joan, great to hear from you. I never heard of Miller and Stiefel -- that's how big JHS was -- but I did have Lundari for French.
5/8/2012 02:43:12 pm
Timely? I'll say. Tonight our region voted down the school budget by 98 votes, and I participated in the majority. I'm sorry Mrs. Rhodes and your kindred spirits in my region and everywhere else. I have no problem with you and your sainted colleagues and everything due to you under contract. My problem was with huge mid-contract salary increases voted for a very controversial Superintendent and staff that has been investigated by an outside law firm and constituted the primary element in a significant budget increase at a time and in a place where the economic conditions are deteriorating very badly for many of my neighbors. Education reminds me of our health care sector. The primary care givers are underpaid and under appreciated, but what we pay somehow becomes more than what anyone can afford. Where does the money go? What is happening? How did we get so broken?
5/9/2012 12:17:15 am
Brian, thanks for your comments. I can't comment on one district's politics, but there are clearly issues about trophy superintendents and the CEO salaries they command. And obviously there is waste in huge systems like NYC. But I see teachers up close and respect what they do, almost by tropism. GV
Terry Troiano Mas
5/9/2012 01:33:24 pm
5/10/2012 03:26:07 am
Terry, the prettiest girl in my home room at Jamaica, seems to have had technical difficulties. I hear so many stories about teachers who are able to reassure kids, in the middle of a lot of other duties. GV
5/10/2012 05:14:00 am
Edward B. Lewin, M.D.
12/17/2012 01:45:17 am
Richard Zalman, JHS '65
4/11/2013 04:30:47 am
Mrs. Gollobin was still directing the Choir when I attended, from 1963 - 1965, and it was every bit as good a choir as any I have heard since. Why she chose me to participate was beyond me, then, but participating had a profound influence on my life. I majored in Music for a while at Queens College, then turned it into a means of earning $ with a band, later directing choirs of my own in Chicago. Mrs. Gollobin was just one of many teachers at JHS who gave me a great education. Other memorable teachers I had included Mrs. Florence Lazerson for English, Mrs. Oppenheimer for Chemistry, and Mr. Weingartner for History. JHS was an incredible school, home to thousands of students attending on three shifts, from 6:30 A.M. - 5:30 P.M. They just don't make schools like that anymore!
6/11/2013 11:09:00 pm
Yes, of course, Teachers day is a great occasion to remember the wonderful work our teachers had spend towards the success of our life. Their dedication as well as concern for us can never be forgotten and it is a great day to show our gratitude to them. Thanks for a good read.
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8/12/2014 09:01:47 am
I was thinking about Irma Rhodes tonight myself. There are two young Moravian women who started a cafe here in Prague a year ago. They make great quiche and cakes. The both have boyfriends but when I watch them together I see an intimacy neither of these boys can match. Sitting on a bar stool I quoted something I heard Irma Rhodes tell us at Jamaica HS. "The loves are between men and women are the earthly loves. The loves between men and men, and women and women are the heavenly loves." The two young women smiled broadly at me .
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From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.