(Photo credit: Sarah Chen)
About a week ago, my daughter, Rachel, aged six years and eight months, drew a picture of a colorful little girl and wrote the following message next to it intended for either of her parents to discover on her desk on parent-teacher day: “Dear Mommy or Papa. I you. Don’t forget to be happy.”
I can’t recall exactly how many of my friends, classmates, and acquaintances surrounded me in the lobby of the main airport in Budapest waiving goodbye to me, but it must have been at least fifteen. We knew it was the last time we would ever see each other as a group. One last round of hugs later, it was time to go our separate ways. I was heading to a place called “America” with my parents while they were heading home to theirs.
“America” was Erica, my aunt and the basement room in her house reserved for my new immigrant family in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Ten days later, America became a now defunct sprawling public school called South Shore High School with bars on all its windows along with something truly incredible: adults in uniforms carrying walkie-talkies. “Did I land in a prison by accident?” I wondered aloud the first time I set foot inside the building. What was it that these uniformed creatures were shouting? “Program cards.” Oh yes. In order to be admitted into this palace of learning, I imitated the people around me and held up a thick, colorful paper printout with my classes listed on it to the security officers blocking the entrance. Inside, a noxious admixture of human sweat, hamburger meat and onions formed an invisible wall between the outside world and school. “If I make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” I would have muttered had I known the English lyrics of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” then.
With my knowledge of English extending not much farther than the phrases, “my name is David Mandler” and “I live in Budapest,” I was placed into the school’s English as a Second Language program (ESL). I took four English classes each day and ESL math, social studies, biology, and French. I also jumped at the opportunity to attend a class with a promising title called “Orchestra.” Over the course of the term, though, it became clear that Orchestra was a place where most students struggled to hold their instruments in the right way and felt a sense of pride when they succeeded in producing the kind of cacophony (topped with drums and all) that would have even made the totally deaf Beethoven shout in joy, “I can hear, I can hear!”
I found out early on in the guidance counselor’s office that another Hungarian student was roaming the windowless palace corridors along with three thousand others. Months into the school year, having been demoted a year from junior back to sophomore, I met him. That was the first time in a long time that I felt somewhat reassured. By that time, I had stopped wearing watches and hats in school lest they be stolen. My English slowly improved over the months, and I was able to skip the lost year and be mainstreamed as a senior. The most immediate benefit of regular classes was that I was permitted to take an English class that was devoted entirely to watching and analyzing films. Apparently, I had “caught up” with American culture. Never mind that I had no idea how a football game was played (not that I do now), was so self-conscious about my deficient English that I could not manage to get a girlfriend (though now that I’m married, the need to procure one is gone) and had no American friends (not that it’s much different now). I totally missed prom (“prom, what’s that?”) and completely abandoned my first instrument, the cello. But I did something new: I began to read books, and I hand wrote dozens of letters each week to my former classmates in Budapest. It was at that time that the desire to become a teacher began to replace my long-standing goal of becoming a classical music composer. True, I still heard and enjoyed the fully-orchestrated hymns in my head on fifteen-minute solitary walks home from school, knowing I would be the only person ever to hear them, but my sights were set on acquiring English to such extent that I could be as funny and witty using English as some people used to tell me I was in Hungarian.
Over the years that followed, every time I traveled with out-of-town acquaintances to Manhattan and passed by Chambers Street, I pointed at the shiny new building across the bridge over the West Side Highway to say, “that’s Stuyvesant High School. It’s one of the best schools in the city,” before driving away. It seemed impossible that I, who had no chance of getting in as a student, would end up teaching English literature there one day.
After a somewhat depressing high school graduation ceremony with musical accompaniment provided by the proud members of the Orchestra class, I entered Brooklyn College. Four years later, I graduated with a dual major in English and French and a minor in secondary education. I gave piano lessons to children and teens not much younger than me and wondered at the parents who trusted me to do the job right even before I was out of high school. I’d like to think that my teaching skills had improved as a result, but that statement may only serve to provoke the question in some of my more snarky students, “just how bad were Mandler’s skills back than if what he’s got now is an improvement.” Be it as it may, my new goal in college was to become a professor of English. I was very happy that NYU admitted me to its M.A-Ph.D. program, albeit without any financial aid. With the help of my parents, I managed to pay tuition in full year after year. Years of afternoon classes followed. I still could not replace the friends left behind in Budapest who by that time, sadly, were no longer my friends, either. Life went on for them without me.
At one point in my life, I made the decision to be happier, which sounds odd but true. I subsequently gave myself permission to relax a bit after graduating NYU and not mind the fact that I was a poorly paid adjunct professor at Touro College without any realistic prospects of securing a full-time, tenure-track position at a college. In 2007, with two years of high school teaching at private schools behind me, I was hired to teach at the Baccalaureate School for Global Education in Queens. Three years later, I was excessed, i.e., dismissed from my position, putatively for financial reasons. Despair and gloom enveloped me as I looked for a new position. Quite unexpectedly, Mr. Grossman, Assistant Principal of English, called me in the summer. An interview? A demo lesson? I got the job? Ecstasy. A year later, I experienced more heartache when it seemed that I would have to leave Stuyvesant. Thankfully, a teacher retired, and I could stay. In the meantime, I published a short story on amazon.com called “The Loft” and to my intense joy, my academic book Arminius Vambéry and the British Empire: Between East and West appeared this past July, following many years of hard work.
Nowadays, when I emerge from the Chambers Street subway station and see Stuy students rushing towards the sunlit building (with a handful of people with backpacks heading in the opposite direction for some unfathomable reason), I am reminded of my long-ago friends in Budapest heading to school with me decades earlier. So, as I near the Tribeca Bridge each morning, I thank G-d out loud for sending me to Stuyvesant, a school populated with such amazing people.
Ever since the moment I first read Rachel’s message, I knew that my young daughter’s incredibly simple yet quintessential message hit the nail on the head for me. The message on the bulletin board of my classroom is a quote from a little girl to myself, to my students and to the world at large: “Don’t forget to be happy!”
(This story first appeared on Humans of Stuy on 9/26/16).