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Posts Tagged ‘Hudson Falls High School’

 

(What if you imagined something, beyond imagination?)

 

My last child graduated from high school today, the same high school that I graduated from nearly 40 years ago.

The two of us piled into the truck for the 15-minute commute to the school, one we have been making for the past 13 years. She had her green graduation gown already on, and before I turned the key, I turned to look at her and say, ‘You know, this is our last trip together to the school.’ Mary replied, ‘Let’s go Dad! I’m going to be late!’ And that was that…

I got the call about 6 weeks ago that they wanted to start a new tradition, and add a keynote speaker to the graduation program. They picked me for the inaugural. This is a class I regretted leaving when I retired just before their senior year.

The venue, our air conditioned high school gymnasium, was packed. The salutatorian and valedictorian, who I was so proud of, delivered their own addresses to their peers that mirrored what we all had to say perfectly.

Anyway, I was grateful for the opportunity to speak. Afterwards, I went to the cemetery and stood before my parents’ grave, in the pouring rain. I updated them on the kids, read their inscriptions aloud, wished them a happy upcoming anniversary, told them I hoped I’d made them and my hometown proud.

I walked away with the rain, and maybe something else, streaming down my face.

***

Today is the day of your high school graduation. It’s called commencement because today is the beginning of the rest of your life, beyond these hallowed halls.

This is the day that you have long awaited, that some of you perhaps are meeting with equal parts excitement and sorrow, a day that you may remember for the rest of your life. So when I was asked to address you, the Class of 2018, I was honored, I was flattered, and I was happy to know I would have your full and complete attention for at least one time in my life.

*

You are going out into a brave new world, a scary place to navigate. It helps to have a bedrock of confidence, a road map, a plan ‘A’, a plan ‘B’. But the fact is that you can’t plan. Some of my best planned lessons were destroyed by factors beyond my control, like the 3-minute PA announcement of Prom Court just as a World War II veteran was finishing a tearful story. And sometimes the best received lessons were totally unscripted and from the heart.

But alas, today I am forced to stay on message, so to keep this short, I came up with a ‘graduation advice list’ on my own, without cheating on Google. I now gift you with Mr. Rozell’s 15 Words of Wisdom.

#1. Don’t address your new boss, or your new drill instructor, or your new college professor by their last name only, no matter how cool it sounds. It’s not going to end well.

#2. It’s nice to have a plan. But if you don’t know what you want to do with your life right now, you don’t have to collapse into a quivering mess after the ceremony.

#3. A plan is a nice touch, but your life will thank you more if you have a passion. Now take that further. Turn your passion into a PURPOSE.

#4 Accept that ‘stuff’ happens. For example, as I was typing this, my daughter decided that that exact moment would be the best time to finally turn on the vacuum cleaner and attack her room, instigating major writer’s distraction. But life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

#5. Recognize that your setbacks are gifts in disguise. How you react to your failures or disappointments can be defining moments and set the table for your achievements. [The noisy vacuum reminds me of my delight in being Mary’s dad, the daily gift of her presence in our lives, tinged with a bittersweet understanding that someday all will be quiet.]

#6. Appreciate your education. Value learning. Teach yourself something new every day. Ignorance is not really bliss, as proven hourly in your social media feed. Recognize too that knowledge does not always equate to understanding. Sometimes you just have to accept the mystery.

#7. See the world with a sense of wonder. Be open to new experiences and new people. Un-plug. If you can’t travel, lose yourself in a book.

#8. Try to see something good in a person or a situation where you think there can’t possibly be anything good. Take a sad song, and make it better.

#9 Be curious. Ask questions. Recognize that having the question is more important than getting the answer.

#10. Be terrified of that first new step. Then take it. Take risks. Ask yourself “WHAT IF?”

#11. Guard your reputation. Honor your integrity. Cultivate your character. And audit your friends for the same.

#12. Use your gifts for the power of good. Kindness is contagious. There’s no such thing as coincidence. There is such a thing as karma.

#13. Miracles happen. Recognize the miracles in your life. Recognize that your existence is a miracle.

#14. No matter how much you want to get out of Hudson Falls or the high school, don’t forget where you came from and the people who shaped you. I’ve met people who were honored by their school who then talked trash about their own hometown. Don’t be that guy or girl, ever. If you don’t like what you see, change it. Don’t walk away and badmouth it from a safe distance.

Finally, #15. If you ever have to give a speech like this, remember that no one will remember your advice unless you tell a story to go with it. Also remind your audience at that point that your remarks are half over.

*

Forty years ago when I was a senior in high school, I told my parents that I did not know what I wanted to do, but I did know I was not going to stay in Hudson Falls. I also smugly informed my father, a history teacher, that I was not going to be a teacher. Seven years later I was living back under their roof and driving his car up Main Street to Hudson Falls High School. Most of the waking hours of my life were spent in these very halls.

When I started as a teacher I was the students’ third teacher that year. They did not welcome me with open arms, and I saw them as mean 9th graders. It was rough. I was still living with my parents down across from the Dog Shack praying I would get laid off because I was too chicken to quit. I got through the first year, but I almost cried when I saw my class list the next fall. But a funny thing happened, the now-tenth graders were genuinely glad to see me. I became their class advisor, and some of them are friends and teachers today.

When we began to interview World War II veterans I let my passion become a purpose in the classroom and it became contagious. Seventeen summers ago, I interviewed Judge Walsh on Coleman Avenue. I was going to shut the video camera off, but his daughter Elizabeth Connolly prodded him to tell me about a train he encountered with another tank commander at the end of WW2. My PASSION to learn more would not allow me to let it go. I contacted the other tank commander, who had more stories and even pictures of the liberation of a train full of concentration camp victims.

With PURPOSE I put them on the school website I built. Four whole years went by and then I heard from a grandmother in Australia who had been a 7-year-old girl on that train. Just then three more survivors appeared-all organically, and all within reasonable distance, but in hindsight, I don’t believe in coincidences.

At the time I just asked myself, “WHAT IF?” And our school community got behind it and we pulled off a reunion at the high school between the survivors and Judge Walsh in 2007, the first of 11 reunions worldwide that reunited 300 survivors and their families with the soldiers who freed them. I had taken the risk and spent many sleepless nights, I was terrified. What if the students are rude? What if one of the elderly people has a heart attack? But it was nothing less than an outpouring of love from this school and this community. And this love was powerful enough to break the barriers of space and time; we all became overnight best friends.

*

I want to close with the miracles and mysteries of life. Leslie Meisels, a survivor from Hungary, told me he had always thought for all his adult life that he had been graced with three miracles.

The first was after the Germans had invaded his country and the family was forced to wait for transports that, unknown to his community were heading straight to Auschwitz where up to 25,000 people were being murdered every day. At a time when 17-year-old boys did not talk back to their mothers (his father was already taken) he defied her and insisted that his mother and his younger siblings board a train they were not supposed to be on. She relented, and that transport was the only one shunted away from Auschwitz that day.

The second miracle was as he just finished handing off a bag of stolen beets to his mother behind a guard’s back when the guard suddenly whipped around and barked orders to him. The guard then shot another boy to death, catching him in the act of stealing beets for survival as Leslie had just done.

The third miracle, he would tell his audiences, was the day of his liberation at the hands of U.S. forces. April 13th, 1945. Friday the 13th. His luckiest day, his new birthday.

Today Leslie goes to schools and tells of the fourth miracle, being able to meet and laugh and cry with his actual liberators, whom he met at this very high school nine years ago —and that it was ‘just beyond imagination’. And every April 13th, he emails birthday greetings to all his ‘twins’, his fellow survivors of that train whom he met right here in Hudson Falls.

Most of the soldiers are dead now, but those ripples go forth, still, and for all time. Why did that ‘fourth miracle’ unfold at that time in his life? That is the question I have asked myself many, many times. And to me it will have to remain a MYSTERY, one that began with another question: “WHAT IF?”

A final thought: Students like you had good questions, too. One asked another survivor if anything good came out of the Holocaust. The survivor thought a minute, because it was an important question, and replied, ‘Yes. My rescuers.’ A victim of the greatest crime in the history of the world found some good out of the evil.

*

Some of you will remember the days when I began my lessons with, ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your life’, and it wasn’t just on the days when I was passing tests back.

Maybe today you will take me seriously.

Your life is a miracle and you are adored by everyone in this room.

Have a purpose, cherish your honor, and don’t look back in old age with regrets.

Have fun, keep that sense of wonder, and don’t be afraid to ask the words, “WHAT IF?”

***

 

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Thirty years ago next month I began my career teaching history in a summer school, getting my foot in the door. Shortly thereafter I wound up back at my own high school, just eight years after telling my parents I was leaving my hometown for good (I had also told my history teacher father that I certainly was NOT going to be an educator like him and my school-nurse mom). Now I was living in their garage, no less, commuting up the main street to my old high school in my dad’s  hand-me-down car. Karma can be a bitch.

So there I was, a rookie newbie history teacher shuffling from class to class with with no classroom to call my own, pushing a cart like an unknown peddler through the crowded halls of my alma mater. There were times when I was sure I was going to leave the profession in those early days. (Maybe in some of the later ones too.) But I kept plugging, through the rough days and good. I didn’t quit.

 

New York State Education Department Building. Photo by Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-3.0

New York State Education Department Building. Photo by Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-3.0

This week I was called to Albany to be honored by the New York State Education Department Board of Regents, and the Commissioner of Education herself. It is close to the highest honor that a teacher in this state can have, to get a standing ovation from the movers and shakers in the field, to sit at their table and be able to thank them for the recognition and to explain why you think that your career path was somehow ordained by forces beyond your control. To the Louis E. Yavner Award Committee, thank you for counting me as worthy.

 

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Commisioner Elia's (L) tweet. Chancellor Rosa, asked me to sit in her chair and address the Regents at their meeting, May 17. 2016.

Commissioner Elia’s (L) tweet. Chancellor Rosa, asked me to sit in her chair and address the Regents at their meeting, May 17. 2016.

Sometimes you lie awake and wonder if it has been worth it. I guess I don’t really need an award to tell me that it has, but it feels nice, and I hope that other teachers know that they make the same difference everyday.

Sometimes karma is not such a bitch, after all.

Video of acceptance speech below.

New York State United Teachers article here.

New York State Legislature recognition below.

 

 

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Vet tells his story: from Pearl Harbor to the classroom

by Liza Frenette

Alvin Peachman

Nineteen-year-old Alvin Peachman was playing pingpong when he heard about the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. His heart might have skipped a few beats, like a ping-pong ball skittering across the table. But it didn’t take too many heartbeats after that for him to enlist in the Navy.

“We heard the news on the radio. There was no TV then,” he told students at Hudson Falls High School recently. The idea of the U.S. Navy being so outrageously attacked seemed unthinkable.

“We thought it was a joke. Then, we heard President Roosevelt ask Congress for a Declaration of War. And I knew that I’d be in it,” Peachman said. “There was war fever. There were posters to inflame your patriotism.”

Always interested in history and geography, he said he knew right where Pearl Harbor was. Information about Pearl Harbor Day can be accessed in a free lesson plan at the American Federation of Teachers’ “Share My Lesson” site.

“I volunteered for the Navy. You had to be in perfect physical condition,” Peachman said.

At the time, he was working on the docks in New York City, where he’d come to find work away from the coal mines of Appalachia, where he grew up. He unloaded coffee on the piers. “I could rip the pier up!” he boasted.

It’s been a long time since Peachman was in front of a classroom, teaching students about history. But, at 93, he still lives just down the street from the small and rural Hudson Falls High School where he taught from 1951 to 1983. So he came on over recently to spend several hours with two classes of students, talking about his experiences during WWII. He fought in the Pacific Theater, which spilled out on a map behind him for students to see. A white-haired man with sparkling blue eyes, he sat comfortably in front of the students, wearing a brown cardigan, telling them how he slept in a hammock on his ship with 50 men in a room the size of their classroom.

He showed them a metal chunk from a kamikaze plane that attacked the U.S.S. Witter, a destroyer escort ship off Okinawa. Peachman worked as a radio operator and barely escaped death. Students marveled at the piece of history.

Peachman earned $21 a month for his service in the military, but he had to pay $6.50 of that for insurance because, he recalled, “If you got killed and didn’t have insurance, your mother got nothing.”

His service included fighting in the Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands and New Zealand. When fighting on land, he said his helmet served as a wash basin to shave and wash. Many comrades got malaria or other tropical diseases. “You’d get dysentery and be so sick, you wish you were dead,” he said.

Sometimes he was “10,000 to 12,000 miles away from anywhere on the ship,” he said. He crossed the equator a half dozen times and lived through a typhoon, where waves slammed the ships sideways. People had to be tied down so they didn’t get washed away. More than a thousand lives were lost during the two-week storm, Peachman said.

Those weren’t the only challenges.

“I saw no girls for two years and that bothered me,” he said, as students laughed with him. “You go nuts!”

He got out of the service on a Friday and enrolled in college in New York City the following Monday. “I studied like a bulldog,” he said. He worked on Wall Street and then for Western Electric, but his commute was long and he found the city crowded. He went to New York University to get his history degree, and then found a listing for a teaching job in Hudson Falls.

“When they told me the train fare was $15, I almost collapsed,” he said, breaking out into a huge smile.

His host for the day at the school was Matt Rozell, who used to be Peachman’s student. Now, Rozell has written a book, The Things Our Fathers Saw (The Untold Stories of the WWII Generation from Hometown USA — which includes interviews with Peachman and many other veterans. Peachman also passed around a book with photos of his bombed out ship and pictures of his comrades.

“This book will help to remind those who are young and who are living in today’s confused world, that freedom is not free,” Peachman said.

http://blogs.nysut.org/blog/2015/12/07/pearl-harbor-attack-prompted-dockworker-to-enlist-retired-vet-and-teacher-tells-students/

 

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Slide17NBC Learn came to town and filmed in my classroom in late April. We were learning about some pretty heavy stuff, the liberation of the camps, in this case Dachau.

It was a good experience for my kids to kind of demonstrate what they learned and why the study of this particular segment of history is something that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Slide24From the producer:

“Our site is accessed by thousands of teachers and students…. [for use as] on-line curriculum for middle school students on World War II.”

“I owe a debt to you and your students for your help on the video… By allowing us to film in the class and setting it up for us, you and your students provided a context that was so essential to tell Rich’s difficult story.”

 

You can also click here for the High Def version, “Richard Marowitz, a Liberation Story.”

http://static.nbclearn.com/files/nbclearn/site/video/widget/NBC_Learn_Video_Widget2.swf?CUECARD_ID=70738

It’s pretty well done and the kids did a great job.

UPDATE: Richard passed shortly after this interview was released. It was his last one. God speed, Rich.

Here are some stills:

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For more about the original visit by NBC, click here.

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