Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mr. Becker

Most people have at least one teacher that they remember who had a major influence on their lives. Or we hope so. Experts may differ on what criteria define “good teacher”, but for me and many others Bob Becker, my 6th grade teacher, was most assuredly one. In those days (1960) there were not that many male elementary school teachers in Brooklyn, but they were not so rare; I had had one in the 5th grade also. But Mr.Becker was quite special. One of the “male teacher” things he did was coach – and pitch for – our class and intramural softball games (you got “two swings”). But most of the things he did were far from gender-defined.
The most unique part of the curriculum was a daily lecture, called the “Basic Lecture Series”. Throughout the year, he lectured (for, I guess, an hour, or 45 min) on core topics for our education. At least to my memory, they tended to focus on the what I would now call the social sciences: history, economic, politics. I remember a series on different forms of government and another on different economic systems. A whole series of lectures that covered WWII. And so on. And all the students in the class were required to take notes on the lectures and turn them to be graded. Early in the year, he reviewed various styles of note-taking (e.g, numbered, outline, free-style), so that each of us could try out different ways of doing it. The best notes were graded “MN” (master note-taker) or MHR (“most highly recommended); these were the ones we were to borrow to review if we missed a lecture. I cannot imagine how long it took him to grade all these every night. Or,maybe, it was only 3 times a week.

This was not the only area in which our sixth-grade instruction presaged not just high school but college. We had to do 3 term papers (“research papers”) during the year. The topics were up to us to choose, but the style was rigorous. They had to be at least 10 typed pages, contain at least 6 references (listed in a formatted bibliography) and some number of footnotes. We learned footnote style: format, the use of Op. cit.  and Ibid. (Op cit’s, meaning you had previously cited that reference, were ok, but too many Ibid’s – meaning the same as the previous reference – in a row were not.)  We had other projects, where we collaborated with others in the class in small groups. I remember one set of reports was on “countries of the world”, and my group had Eastern Europe. I was Bulgaria (attar of roses!); my friend Mark was Rumania. We were told to read the newspapers, and he oriented us to the style (full sheet or tabloid), politics (Republican or Democratic, liberal or conservative), and the reliability of each of the 7 major NYC dailies of the time (the Times, Herald-Tribune, Daily News, Daily Mirror, Journal-American, World-Telegram, and Post) as well as the general perspectives of each of their major political columnists (Lippmann, Alsop, Krock, Kempton) and their political cartoonists (e.g., Herblock).

Mr. Becker’s interests were catholic (small “c”); he obviously believed in a strong liberal arts education, even for 11 year-olds. (Actually, also for a fair number of 10 year-olds, who had “skipped” 3rd grade and were in our 5th and 6th grade classes. While “skipping” was an old tradition in NYC schools, I learned from my parents, it hadn’t been offered for quite some time, including not to those my age; none of our age cohort had “skipped” 3rd grade. We made up for it in junior high school, though, where many of us were in the “2-Year SP”, another NYC institution, where we did the 3 years of junior high in 2. This option was not available to those who had already skipped a grade.) We regularly had to listen to classical music that he played, after, of course, lecturing to us on the various musical periods (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern) and what characterized the music of those periods, the style of the composer, and the individual piece. Of course, we were required to write down our reactions to and impressions of the music. Ironically, although obviously his class was one of the “smart” classes, it didn’t include the students who were in the school orchestra, who were in their own class. I believe a few years later he did teach the “orchestra class”; perhaps he lobbied for it.

He also directed our Dramatics Club. During that year, we performed two plays or musicals, or maybe three; I think in the fall I believe we all did Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Ruddigore” (he took us later to see a performance at Brooklyn College, which, we were very clear, did not come up to our standards!). In the Spring I think half of us were in Kaufman and Hart’s “You Can't Take it With You”, while the other half did “The Diary of Anne Frank”. That one brought some feedback from some of the parents, who believed it was, perhaps, too serious and sad for children our age. Remember that it had been scarcely over 15 years since the end of WWII. Most of our father were veterans and were still under 40. And it was a Jewish neighborhood with an overwhelmingly Jewish class, most of whom had had family, nearer or closer, who were victims of the Holocaust. He won enough of them over for it to be performed, and, of course we (the global “we”; I was in the other play) did great. He took us on class trips, both more “traditional” ones to the great museums of NYC (such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art) but also long-distance ones, such as the anticipated annual trip to the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut (change trains in Bridgeport), which, unfortunately, no longer exists.

And, obviously, we read books. We read novels, either assigned or chosen by us (and approved by him), known as “independent reading”. Not the “Dick and Jane” series of graded “readers” which we had mostly had (with the exception of 4th grade, where I also had a teacher committed to independent reading). And, just as obviously by now, he required us to write book reports on them that were held to a much higher standard that a plot summary and “I liked it”. I am certain that he taught science as well, because it was part of the curriculum, but whether the fact  that I have little memory of that part was because he was less enthusiastic and/or innovative in that area than in others, or because of something about me, I don’t know. (I do remember having to do a report on Francesco Redi, who disproved the theory of spontaneous generation, and who I could only find an article about in the Compton’s Pictured Encylopedia in the Kings Highway Library, not the Brittanica or Colliers; but maybe that was in 7th grade. I am not sure if the person who didn’t make that Compton’s discovery, and said he turned in a report that went “Francesco Redi was born was he was very young. He died when he was old, and has been dead ever since”, was serious or not, but it still makes a good story!)

He had great loyalty to alumni, and often brought back former students or regaled us with their current achievements. And, when we became alumni, we learned that he did not intend to give up on us. We left elementary school for junior high in the 7th grade, but he created an “after-school dramatics club” for alumni which met weekly in someone’s basement. That year we performed Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple”. And, unsurprisingly, there were alumni trips to Stratford, which I am sure I went on for several years.

I am not sure how old Mr. Becker was in 1960. Late 20s? Early 30s? I do know that a few years later he took a teaching position at a state college in New Jersey, and got married, and had a baby – at least one, because a number of us, with our parents who had stayed friends with him, journeyed down to see the baby. I also heard quite some time ago that he died, and I know that at the time it seemed as if he must be very young.

I hope all of you had at least one great teacher in school. I am not sure how many had one like Bob Becker.


  1. Wow, Josh, your memory is quite impressive. Your blog has started a flood of remembrances (all of them kind of hazy) of our days together in Mr. Becker's class which I haven't thought about in ages, so here's some random thoughts from half-a-century ago - 1) Mr. Becker talking about the suicide of James Wechsler's son (Wechsler was a columnist for the then-liberal NY Post) & saying that some people will say it happened b/c the son was raised in too liberal a manner, but that we shouldn't believe those people. That was some pretty deep stuff for 10 & 11-yr.-olds! 2) Tami Horowitz bringing in her research paper & telling Mr. Becker her mother typed it. Mr. Becker then made her re-write it by hand (but he let her spend all of the class day - even during the basic lectures! - doing so until she finished). I think I remember that b/c she sat in front of me & I watched her do it. Actually, come to think of it, I think YOU sat in front of her. 3) The trip to Brooklyn College to see Ruddigore. It's funny the things that stick in one's head, but I remember that while getting on the bus going home, Kenny Friedman (who I think was the smallest guy in the 6th grade) was screwing around in some way or another, so Mr. Becker grabbed (?) him. Some guy on the street saw that & then grabbed Mr. Becker. The guy told Mr. Becker that if he ever saw him treat a kid like that again, Mr. Becker would have to answer to him. I was standing next to Mr. Becker when the guy walked away and I remember (from an 11-yr.-old's perspective) Mr. Becker looking shaken & embarrassed. I remember him saying "I guess I'm a terrible teacher." 50 yrs. later, I'm sorry I didn't tell him he was a great teacher. In the mid 70's I tried to look Mr. Becker up at what was then Glassboro (NJ) State College (I was living in South Jersey at the time) but I could never track him down. I'm so sorry to hear that he's passed. Oh yeah, 1 more thing. I played Anne Frank's father in the Diary of Anne Frank...and boy, was I tremendous :-)

  2. as i recall my "best" teachers, i think of Mr Nowinski, Mr Pansick, Miss Tannenbaum and Mr Ray Musiker as having the greatest influence on my education and life. Two were music teachers, and i still benefit from their instruction and inspiration. Notable perhaps is that three of the four are also male.

    Mr Becker's style and substance were extraordinary, but within the realm of the quality of education were were lucky to obtain back then. It is sad to contrast it to today's public education in Floriduh and elsewhere, where the average high school senior would have difficulty meeting the writing requirements of your fifth grade class.

    regards, bill g

  3. "You Can't Take it With You". By Kaufman and Hart. I have no idea why I thought of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest"!
    (except -- this is a stretch -- that they were secondary plays, to K&H's "Life with Father" and Wilde's many other plays.)


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