How God Called Me to the Bronx

The Voice of God came to me on the Massachusetts Turnpike on May 18, 2000, directing me to teach in New York City— eventually overseeing 33 schools in District 8. This is the true story of how I transferred from one job to another late in my career.  I thought I was applying for an ordinary teaching position, but I ended up getting an extraordinary professional opportunity that I didnt even know existed at the time. What I am telling you also is to disregard common sense and conventional practices when you know you have a calling from the Spirit.

I

“Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.”

I Samuel 3.9

The Book of Samuel advises us how to communicate with spiritual forces when they unexpectedly call out to us in our daily lives.

 

In bed at night, Samuel hears his name recited out loud. He gets up and goes to Eli, the high priest and his guardian. Eli tells the child to go back to bed because, “I didn’t call you.” But the unseen voice calls out again and again, and Eli keeps sending little Sam back to bed, until it dawns on him that it is God calling the boy. The holy man instructs his pupil to go back and, when he hears that voice again, he is to answer with the exact words, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.”

 

We must take away from the story the lesson that, if we are ever to benefit from spiritual guidance, we must first acknowledge the Spirit. Maybe that divine presence comes to us from out of the blue— with no effort on our own part. Maybe we have to put in years and years of study, or extensive preparation or intense self-examination. No matter. We can only take advantage of transcendent forces by acknowledging their presence.

 

The narrative Eckhart Tolle described to Oprah about his personal calling was not unlike mine, except he did not reference the Judaeo- Christian- Islamic GOD tradition. The spiritual philosopher and best selling author explained how he was moved to relocate to California in order to write The Power of Now. While living in England, it came to him that he should move to California. He told Oprah that the idea California became “a strong impulse,” or “a strong knowing.” He distinguished this kind of knowing from any other decision making process he had experienced. It made no logical sense for him to move to California, but he knew that he must do it— “absolutely, and with no doubt.” That gut feeling, so to speak, changed the trajectory of his life.

 

What had come to Mr. Tolle in the form of an idea that evolved into a “strong impulse” had came to me with specific words that just popped into my head— with all the impact of an external voice. The words that came to me were not of my conscious mind, either. As Tolle did, I experienced a call to action from outside my usual decision- making mentality.

 

II

How God Operates in Traffic

I have already testified that, in the matrix of the millennium year, Spring 2000, God Almighty Himself spoke to me on the Massachusetts Turnpike, not long after the exit to Northampton. By lucky coincidence, I just so happened to be listening. For most of that past year, I had been practicing Vipassana Meditation. I was now coming to the end of a transitional period that had lasted for about a year and a half. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how that chapter in my life conforms to the dramatic arc of a spiritual journey.

 

It had snowed a lot in the Berkshires during the winter of 1998.

 

Marguerite and I were going through a trial separation. She lived at home in Great Barrington, and I was house sitting Val’s mountain cottage up in Monterey while Val was visiting Emily at school in Europe. My own kids, at college, were philosophical and sturdy about their mother and me living apart. When Val returned in May, I had either to move back into my house, or move out.

 

From starkly beautiful views, and with ample time for watching burning wood, I seized that winter wonderland for a period of isolation and reflection on my life. I was fifty one years old.

 

Our 1982 Ford Fairmont served as my trusted steed. During the cocooning winter of ‘98, that car brought me out of my retreat in the Berkshire Mountains into my middle school in the Pioneer Valley— safely, time and time again, over icy and twisting country roads. During the thickest snowfalls, she lumbered steadily onward. I can still feel the stress in my fingers from clutching her steering wheel as she carried me up and over that torturous hill in Blanford. This was a winter when my closest companion had four wheels.

 

And then came Spring. Winter had been steadily losing its clasp on the rocks all along the Massachusetts Turnpike. The frozen snow was melting. Likewise, the wood pile out back of Val’s house was sopping wet, as was the pile of leaves I forgot to pick up before the first snowfall.

 

In two months, my alter-ego, Hieronymus Bear, would have no choice but to lumber out from his cave, face the warm sunshine, and decide about his life. I talked over my dilemma with my buddy, Joel Rosen, at the Great Barrington Coffee Roasting Company. Joel happened to be a psychiatrist.

 

He recommended taking a silent, 10- day meditation retreat. “Whatever you decide to do,” he counseled, “you’d be choosing from a state of calm, and with a level head.”

 

Soon afterward, in the West Springfield Wendy’s, across the bridge from our classes at the new Chestnut Middle School, I told my teaching buddy Karen Schumer that I had signed up for a 10 day Vipassana Meditation retreat in Shelburne, Mass. By coincidence, she had just recently done it, herself. Her enthusiastic advice was neither calm nor level-headed. “It will change your life forever!” she declared.

 

As it turned out, Karen was exactly right. My life was to change utterly because I took that meditation retreat —but I would have to wait another year.

 

So, I moved back home. Marguerite and I got along. I stayed in my son’s old room. We went our separate ways. Another school year passed.

 

Ever since our conversation at Wendy’s, I had been teasing Karen about her prediction, “It will change your life forever!

 

“Some kind of change!” I complained. “For all intents and purposes, I’m now living in my wife’s place, in my son’s room, and I feel like a boarder in my own house. So if my life changed, it certainly wasn’t for the good.”

 

In the middle of that May, 2000, I was completing my thirty second year as a school teacher. For the past 13 of those years, I had been commuting into Springfield and out to Great Barrington over the same stretch of Mass Pike immortalized by James Taylor in “Sweet Baby James.”

 

 

The first of December was covered with snow
So was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
The Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go.

 

 

It was over this section of highway, near the top of the Blandford hill, just before the Burger King, where I had my burning bush experience. While I was passing the Westfield/Northampton exit, I imagined getting a little apartment up north. Northampton was a very cool college town with several coffee cafes, book stores, great little shops and restaurants. The video store there organized movies by the Director.

 

Suddenly, something that had been frozen inside me melted. My cocoon spun off and got sucked out the open window. I felt enthusiasm awakening in me again— liberation. My foot was pressing hard on the gas, fueling that old Ford up the Blanford hill just before the rest stop.

 

That’s when the voice popped into my head:

 

“There’s something for you in New York.”

 

The very next day I took off school and drove straight down to the headquarters of the New York City Board of Education in Brooklyn. I thought for sure the words “something for you” meant “a teaching job.” As I think about it today, the rather deliberate ambiguity of that word, “something”— made it such a brilliant choice by the Author.

 

 

III

“It is not up to you to complete the Work, but you are not free to abstain from it.”

Avot 2:21

 

 

When the Rabbis say, “It is not up to you to complete the work….” they are warning us that we may be called upon to contribute something to a situation, but we shouldn’t get attached to the outcome of our contribution. We must do what we are asked to do, and then leave the rest to God.

 

It’s a very nerve racking business, of course, to set your hopes wholeheartedly onto accomplishing something while, at the same time, accepting that simply getting the process going may be all that is spiritually required of you.

 

I watched myself standing on line at 65 Court Street, having filled out a job application to become a “full-time pedagogue.” I was applying to be one of 80,000 teachers in the New York City school system. Certainly, out of 1,450 schools, “something” was there for me. While I was standing on line, I strongly recommended to the spiritual forces that were guiding me that I should at least get to talk with someone, personally.

 

Not to worry.

 

Out from the restricted maze of inner offices, came Rosie from Human Resources. She led me back to her cubicle and, like a plain talking, gum smacking gal pal, she told it like it was. Her horned rimmed glasses were attached to a silver chain around her neck. She introduced herself as my intake counselor. And she had some good news.

 

I already had a license to teach in the New York City public schools, issued in 1968 when I applied straight out of college. I already had an official New York City Board of Education Employee File Number from over thirty years ago. Congratulations, I was already in the system.

 

Now, she asked, would I like to teach elementary school with a Common Branches license, or middle- through- high school with an English license? I qualified for both, but not at the same time. I had to make a choice.

 

After thirty years of teaching 12- 15 year olds, I opted for the Common Branches license.

 

“Now, where in the five boroughs,” she asked, “are you interested in teaching?—- Manhattan? The Bronx? Brooklyn? Queens? Staten Island?

 

She cocked her ear slightly to receive my answer.

 

“It doesn’t matter to me,” I replied. “I’m moving here from out of town. I’ve taught inner city Springfield kids and suburban Long Island kids, so I’m sure I can teach anywhere.”

 

At that point, my guardian angel slipped down her spectacles, low on her nose, and looked me directly in the eye.

 

“With all due respect, Mr. Katzoff,” she observed, “you don’t want to teach anywhere. That whole Springfield, Massachusetts school system could fit into just one of our boroughs. The New York City public schools teach 1,100,000 children. Los Angeles is the next largest system and it teaches almost HALF the kids we do— 600,000. So write down these numbers, Howard—- but you did not get this from me.”

 

Rosie proceeded to recommend the Districts where I wanted to teach. “These are schools where you’ll find parents are the most active.”

 

I went home with contact information for more than 300 elementary schools with their principals, and all the district offices with their superintendents. Rosie suggested I send each principal a resume and also a flyer with pictures of my students acting in plays.

 

She shook my hand wholeheartedly. “I’m sure you’ll have no trouble getting a job in a good district.”

 

Over the next two weeks, I sent out resume after resume. As she suggested, I attached a graphic flyer of K-8 Springfield students acting in my original plays. I felt like a farmer sowing seeds. So many more seeds had to be planted than would grow. From over 300 pieces of mail, I got just one response, from an elementary school in Queens. By the time I called back, the job had already been taken. I phoned Rosie.

 

“Should I just be patient and wait? Should I start calling schools to follow up the mailing? Should I send out another mailing in fluorescent pink?”

 

“Have you sent your resumes and pictures to the district superintendents? There are less than 70 of them.”

 

I hadn’t. So I did.

 

On Friday evening, June 16, 2000, I went to the Great Barrington Triplex to see Mission Impossible, the first one.

 

When I got home, Marguerite excitedly read me her notes from a phone conversation she had with Dr. Betty A. Rosa, Superintendent of District 8 in the Bronx. Dr. Rosa was very interested in my work with kids.

 

“She said to follow up with this guy Spinowitz on Monday. He’s her Project ARTS Coordinator.

 

When Marguerite said, “Arts,” I was relieved that I had finally connected with an administrator who understood exactly what I wanted to do: teach an elementary grade class using dramatic arts to enhance the curriculum.

 

Dr. Rosa’s was the only viable reply out of 370 principals and superintendents. As an educational administrator, she turned out to be one in a million.

 

 

IV

This Guy, Spinowitz

 

I remember that it wasn’t easy to get hold of this Mr. Spinowitz. We played phone tag. Fortunately, summer vacation had already begun in Springfield but New York City schools still had two weeks to go. When we finally spoke, he asked me exactly how I would use Drama to teach History. I shared my ideas and gave him some examples he seemed to like.

 

“Come down to the Bronx and we’ll give you a class. You’ll show us how.”

 

“What grade?”

 

“8”

 

“American History?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“How about a lesson on the Revolution?”

 

“Perfect!”

 

We made an appointment for the end of that week.

 

David, my son— having just graduated from college, was also a job seeker aiming for New York City. I impressed on him the sheer quantity of resumes I had sent out, and got just one answer— even with thirty years’ experience in my field. When I told him about my appointment with Mr. Spinowitz, David offered me some practical advice of his own: GET A HAIRCUT!

 

After much thinking about my demo lesson combining Dramatic Arts with American History, I came up with a good lesson plan. I pictured a rigid line of 14 year olds drilling and marching in red T-shirts while their motley classmates were hiding behind desks and chairs poised to ambush them.

 

I knew I had to relate this scene to some work of literature set in the period. The 8th grade cannon, of course, pointed to Johnny Tremain. However, I considered that my school was in the Bronx. More than likely, I assumed, my students would not be able to read a scene from that novel fluently enough to narrate the action. I wanted to showcase Dramatic Arts teaching, and not get bogged down in the vocabulary, pronunciation, and the sounding-out- of- syllables common in a reading lesson. I needed a simple text the kids could immediately comprehend and then act out. I selected a story which I knew had a third grade reading level:

 

 

They listened and in the distance they could hear the sound of marching feet.

Tramp. Tramp. Tramp. Tramp. Tramp. Tramp.

And then, over the hill and past the tavern, came the British soldiers.

 

Sam The Minuteman

 

 

That Friday, I parked my trusty 1982 Ford Fairmont at the District 8 office on White Plains Road, facing Stickball Boulevard. I told Security about my appointment with Mr. Spinowitz and I asked where his office was. Henry, the guard, smiled as he asked to see my ID and signed me into the building. “No problem” he declared. He gave me directions to the “Project ARTS Department” on the second floor. On the way upstairs, I nervously patted down my unkempt hair, suddenly aware that I had neglected David’s sage advice.

 

The “office” of Fred Spinowitz consisted of a desk in an alcove off a corridor leading to the men’s bathroom. File cabinets, art supplies, packages of office supplies, a case of old books and pamphlets, boxes and more boxes were piled up all around him. His work space was out in the open, yet I clearly had the feeling that I had walked into the Project ARTS closet.

 

A clean cut gentleman with impeccable gray hair, wearing a light gray suit, stood up from behind the computer screen. Every obedient hair on his head was perfectly in place. He gave me a vigorous hand shake. “Welcome!” he said, “I’ll make some room for you in a minute. I’ve been working on a grant for the New York Historical Society. Have you heard about their American Musicals Project?”

 

I hadn’t even heard of the New York Historical Society.

 

He finished his work on the computer with the gingerly hand movements of someone who was not completely comfortable with this technology. Seemingly assured that his work would not be lost, he parted company with the screen and keyboard and started clearing off a round table near his desk. He borrowed a chair from across the corridor, and we sat down.

 

“They take Broadway musicals and make them part of the curriculum. We have teachers who piloted lesson plans for 1776 and they love it.”

 

He asked me to tell him about my lesson with the kids. I confessed my conflict over Johnny Tremain vs. Sam the Minuteman.

 

The students had already read Citizen Tom Paine by Howard Fast, he advised. I was heading to Maritime Academy, MS 101, a magnet middle school directly under the wing of Superintendent Rosa. The boss wanted to create a program to attract top kids from all over her District, which included depressed areas in the South Bronx. Students took a competitive exam to get in. Just in its second year, Maritime Academy was already the highest scoring school in the Bronx. He wished me luck and gave me directions to Throg’s Neck. He would not be there.

 

At the building, I was assigned a parent volunteer who took me up to the music room where I would teach my lesson during the children’s music class. As I was being introduced to the music teacher, I apologized for pre-empting her program.

 

“Oh, it’s OK with me” she replied. “Next week is the last week of school. I’m sure they’ll be much more interested in anything you teach than what I’ve been doing. We have a double period on Friday, so take as much time as you need.”

 

The class came in, boys and girls in uniforms of white shirts and blue pants or skirts. I had never taught a class wearing uniforms before. I noticed, now at the end of their school day, how the girls remained well groomed and composed from top to bottom. As for the boys, of course, there was great variety in the collective state of their neckties and shirt tails, ranging from the one young man who remained respectably neat and orderly to the many utterly and otherwise disheveled. This could have been a scene by Norman Rockwell.

 

The class was diverse, bright, well articulated. They were fun to teach. They were more like students I had taught in Shoreham Wading River on Long Island than they were City kids. We did the tongue twister “Unique New York” and they were very eager to take turns saying it three times each. Then I taught them, “A proper copper coffee pot.” They enjoyed reciting it so much, and in dialect, that we turned the front of the classroom into an improvisational diner staffed with a gum chomping Bronx waiter or waitresses taking orders from customers who demanded their “cawfee” from a proppa coppa cawfee pot. Then we practiced the left-face, right-face, and about-face military drills which the British soldiers would later employ for their scene. We marched for a while in place, and then finished in unison with a hearty, “COMPANY HALT: ONE, TWO!”

 

Within forty minutes the kids had become an acting ensemble.

 

As I was teaching my lesson, I noticed that the principal kept going out and coming back with more people. By the time we got to the Ambush Scene, there were five or six adults in back of the room watching, approvingly, as their fourteen year olds acted out the page from Sam the Minuteman.

 

At dismissal, the kids crowded around their principal and me. “When are you coming back?” They were eager to shake hands. Mr. Nobile seemed pleased.

 

I waited on the bench next to the time clock outside his office as he talked on the phone inside.

 

He called me in with the news that they wanted to hire me at Maritime. What had really clinched the deal was the coincidence that his Superintendent knew my Superintendent from Springfield, who was formerly from the Bronx. She had called him. He knew me and gave a good recommendation on the spot. The music teacher had not been re-hired for next year. My job was to set up a drama program for grades 6-8.

 

I thought this principal was a great guy. These kids were terrific. I had landed in a good school in a nice area of the Bronx. What more could I want? It would seem that Destiny had led me from the Massachusetts Turnpike right here to Throg’s Neck.

 

However, my spiritual journey into the New York City public school system was not meant to end in that corner of the Bronx. The words, There’s something for you in New York would take me most of the rest of the summer to comprehend.

 

Back at the District 8 office, I met with Dr. Rosa and Mr. Spinowitz. She told me personally about her vision for the Maritime Academy and how I could contribute to it. We were both enthused to have found each other. “There are no accidents,” she said wisely. Just as we were about to shake hands, it occurred to me to ask one remaining question: “What’s my salary?”

 

The bottom line is that an overwhelming sense of Destiny wasn’t accounted for in the teachers’ contract. My employer’s enthusiasm for my potential as an employee cannot be translated into an attractive compensation package. Unlike moving around in the corporate world, and valuing your work within the free marketplace of your profession, a teacher is dis-incentivized from changing jobs. I had been teaching for over 30 years outside the New York City public school system, and now New York City would pay me for only 8 of them.

 

So Dr. Rosa had to offer me a $10,000 cut from what I was making in Springfield.

 

 

V

Money Happens

 

I knew I was not destined to take that much of a pay cut. Perhaps my journey, after all, was all about getting to this stage and nothing else. I was preparing myself to say goodbye.

 

“Look” she said, disappointed, too. “Let’s not give up yet. We can’t violate the contract, but I have an idea. Give me another week or two.” I went back with Fred Spinowitz to his “office.” It was a little after 4:00 PM.

 

“Do you know anything about writing grants?” he asked, all of a sudden. We were about to sit down at the round table.

 

I did. I had.

 

“So, would you mind helping us out by writing up a short grant proposal?”

 

“Sure.” I thought I could take the paperwork home and give it some time. “When is it due?”

 

“Today.”

 

“Today?”

 

“I just can’t get to it. It’s for the New York Historical Societys American Musicals Project. Maritime wants to apply and I said I would do it— and now I can’t. The application form is pretty short.”

 

So there I was, sitting at Fred Spinowitz’ s computer at the District 8 office, the last man in the building. New York City public school children and their teachers had been dismissed hours ago. The administrators and civil service workers at the District office were now gone for the weekend. Fred Spinowitz had gone home to prepare for the Sabbath. There I was, deep in creative ruminations, composing a grant proposal for a program I knew nothing about, from an institution that I had never heard of before, in support of a school I had just visited once. My staying on and doing that work, for free, made no real sense. Yet being there and thinking about teaching and learning in this way felt exactly right.

 

Sara was in northern California finishing up a year of study at the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre. David and I decided to take a break from our employment quests, go out and meet her near San Francisco, then travel down the coast, visit friends in Los Angeles, and finally fly back to Bradley and Mom.

 

From a parking lot in Santa Barbara, I learned from Mr. Spinowitz that a new regulation from the Chancellor’s Office allowed Dr. Rosa to pay me at a higher step on the salary scale. I rejoiced at this news, until I calculated that my pay cut would now amount to $8,000 instead of $10,000. That amount was still unacceptable.

 

On the plane from LA to Massachusetts, my kids and I discussed our feelings about facing the future. Sara reflected on a year immersed in her kind of theatrical arts. How would her new found skills affect her professional work? David reflected on his years in college. How could he have better connected his studies to the work he expected get in New York? I reflected on my transcendent moment on the Massachusetts Turnpike and my seeming trajectory— or not— into the New York City schools. How can I accept whatever is meant to be?

 

A few days after we returned, I was back at the District 8 office to see Dr. Rosa. It did not look likely that the New York City Board of Education could come up with any more salary. Patricia, Dr. Rosa’s secretary, said we’d have to re-schedule my appointment. “The Superintendent has been delayed getting back to the office from a meeting in Manhattan.”

 

I wrote the Superintendent a goodbye note. “Dear Dr. Rosa: If theres a way we can do this, Id love to be part of your team.

 

As I headed towards my car, imagining an apartment in Northampton as an acceptable consolation prize, it occurred to me that I had not said goodbye to Fred Spinowitz. I went back upstairs to his “office.” He was standing up, filing papers into the open drawer of a tall, gray file cabinet. I offered him my hand, which he didn’t notice because he had suddenly turned around and started clearing off a chair which was piled high with new music text books. What Fred Spinowitz told me next came out of his own mouth and with his own voice, but I remember getting the same feeling I did when I heard those fateful words on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

 

“I’m so glad you came by. There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you. Sit down.”

 

The District 8 Project ARTS supervisor confided, “Nobody knows this yet, but I am planning to retire next year. I want to recommend you for this job.”

 

I was baffled. “But I’m not an administrator.”

 

You don’t need an administrators’ license to do this. You can be hired as a Teacher- in- Charge under your Common Branches license.” He took out a calculator from the scramble of items mixed up in his desk drawer. Immediately, he started tapping out numbers.

 

“They’ll hire you at step 8A— tap,tap,tap,tap,tap……… You come to the District Office after schooltap,tap, tap……… at the per session hourly ratetap, tap, tap, tap, tap……… for 40 weeks—- tap, tap……….

 

After he finished his tap dancing, Mr. Spinowitz announced a number that gave me a $10,000 raise. “And I’ll be able to give you plenty of help because, after I retire, Dr. Rosa can bring me back as your consultant.”

 

The following week my consultant and I attended my first official function as the new Project ARTS Coordinator for District 8. It was an orientation to The American Musicals Project at the New York Historical Society. Our school had received the grant.

 

So at the end of that summer, 2000, David and I were heading into New York City together— me to my job in the Bronx and he, into the financial district. He would be studying for his stockbroker’s licenses, having gotten a job with a securities corporation located at Two World Trade Center, at the Twin Towers.

 

If I had experienced any miracles on my way into the New York City public schools, I surely hadn’t used up my lifetime supply.

 

There would be another one coming a year from that September.

 

Special thanks to Milt Polsky for editing

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