How God Called Me to the Bronx

The Voice of  God came to me upon the Massachusetts Turnpike, May 18, 2000, directing me into New York City— eventually to oversee arts instruction in 33 schools. This should be merely another story about how a mid-career public school teacher, at the start of the twenty-first century, changed jobs. I thought I was applying for an ordinary teaching position— maybe in Brooklyn— but I ended up getting an extraordinary professional opportunity that I had no idea even existed at the time.
What I mean to tell you here is this— disregard “common sense” and “conventional practice” when you know you have a calling from 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.

 

Take the story of the boy, Samuel. In bed at night, he hears his name recited out loud. Then he hears it again. He gets up and goes to Eli, the high priest and his guardian, and asks him what he wants. 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 Sammy back to bed again and again— until it dawns on Eli that this is God calling. The holy man instructs his pupil to go back and, when he hears that voice again, he is to answer with these exact words: “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.”

 

My take- away from this story the lesson that— if a person is ever to benefit from spiritual guidance, he or she must first feel the presence of the Divine Spirit Within. Divine Presence drops down to some clearly from out of the blue, like a gift— with no efforts on their parts at all. But that same precious experience of Divine Presence will come to others only after years and years and years of study and/or intense self-examination. No matter.

 

The narrative that Eckhart Tolle described to Oprah about his own personal calling was not unlike mine, except he did not reference the Judaeo- Christian- GOD tradition, which I am very comfortable in. The best selling author and spiritual philosopher 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” evolved into “a strong impulse” and “a strong knowing.” He distinguished this kind of knowing from any other decision- making process he had ever experienced before. It made no logical sense for him to move to California at that time, but nevertheless, he knew he must do it— “absolutely, and with no doubt.” He declared to Oprah, “Trusting that gut feeling changed the trajectory of my 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. As Tolle did, I experienced a call to action from outside my usual decision- making mentality.

 

II

How God Operates in Traffic

I am testifying to you here that, at the matrix of this past Millennium, spring 2000, God Almighty spoke to me on the Massachusetts Turnpike— soon after the Northampton exit. By a lucky coincidence, I had been listening.

 

For most of that past year, I had been practicing Vipassana Meditation while going through a transitional period in my 30 year marriage. You’ll see how that chapter in my life tends to conform with the dramatic arc of almost any 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 Val’s 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 Blandford. 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. Unlike Joel, Karen’s enthusiastic advice was neither calm nor level-headed. “It will change your life forever!” she insisted.

 

And as it turned out, Karen was exactly right. My life would change utterly because I took that meditation retreat —but not for another year.

 

In the meanwhile, not ready yet to break away, but no longer making a marriage, I decided to rent some space in the three-bedroom house of my friend, Marguerite. I stayed in the room that was historically my son’s. Together, but separated, we went our own ways, cooperated on practical things. Another school year passed. It was Spring, 1999.

 

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. “I’m now living as my wife’s boarder in my own house,  sleeping in my son’s old room.  So if my life has changed because I learned to meditate, it certainly hasn’t been for the better.”

 

“Give it time,” my friend said, “Keep at it. Don’t give up. When your whole vibration starts resonating with your inner Being, then something will happen. You’ll know.”

 

By the middle of May, 2000, I was completing my thirty- second year as a public school teacher. For the past 13 of those years, I had been commuting over that 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 just this section of highway, near the top of the Blandford hill— just before the Burger King— where I had my burning bush experience. I was passing the Westfield/Northampton exit. I imagined getting a little apartment up north. Northampton was a very cool college town: cafes, book stores, boutique shops, restaurants. There even was a video store that organized movies by directors. I started feeling excited about living in Northampton and commuting up and down the 91 to Springfield.  My foot was pressing hard on the gas, fueling that old Ford up the Blandford hill until just past the rest stop.

 

That’s when the Voice popped into— or out of, my head:

 

“There is something for you in New York.”

 

The experience was so strong, that 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 realize today, the rather deliberate ambiguity of that word, “something”— was a hugely brilliant choice of language 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 told to do, and then leave the rest to God.

 

Granted, it’s a very nerve- racking business to keep setting your hopes wholeheartedly upon the accomplishment of something particular while, at the same time, accepting the fact that, at any moment, for any reason, God may say, “Enough. Drop it. Move on.” Perhaps your only role was to get a process started, or to bring a thing up to a certain point. You may have imagined or wished for a different outcome, a different result, a certain reward, but in fact, you did what was spiritually required of you, and now you have to stop and listen for what is next: “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.”

 

For me, what was next is what was first.

 

I’m standing on line at 65 Court Street, Brooklyn. This is action central for the New York City Board (now Department) of Education. This is where I filled out my first teaching job application in 1968 to be a “full-time pedagogue” in the New York City Public School System. Instead, I took a job out on Long Island, and then even further into rural Suffolk County, and then up north to inner city Springfield, MA. So, finally, here I am, in the year 2000, back to where I started.  I am now applying to be one of 80,000 pedagogues in the New York City public school system. Certainly, out of one thousand, four hundred and fifty schools, there’s got to be that “something that’s there for me”— but then—who knows?

 

So while I am here standing on line, I issue a strong recommendation to the spiritual forces that have directed me to this point. I insist that I should, at the very least, get to speak with someone, a person. Otherwise, I nearly whine to myself, it was such a waste of gas and time to get down here only to fill out a form, hand it in, and then go home.

 

 

Not to worry.

 

Out from within the restricted maze of inner offices comes Rosie— Rosie from Human Resources. She leads me back to her cubicle and, like a plain talking, gum smacking gal pal, she tells it like it is. Her horned rimmed glasses are attached to a silver chain around her neck. She introduces herself as my intake counselor. And she has some good news.

 

I already have a license to teach in the New York City public schools, issued in 1968. It is still good. I already have an official New York City Board of Education Employee File Number, from over thirty years ago. Congratulations, she warmly wishes me. “You are already in THE SYSTEM.”

 

Now, she asks— which would I prefer to teach? Middle? High?— with my Secondary English license— or, perhaps, elementary school with my Common Branches license? I qualify for both, but not at the same time. I must make a choice.

 

So, after thirty years of teaching 12- 15 year olds, I opt for the little kids.

 

“Now,” my new mentor asks, “Where in the five boroughs are you interested in teaching?—- Manhattan? The Bronx? Brooklyn? Queens? Staten Island? Any preferences?”

 

She cocks her ear over to receive my answer.

 

“It doesn’t matter to me,” I reply. “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 slips down her spectacles, low on her nose, and looks me directly in the eyes.

 

“With all due respect, Mr. Katzoff,” she observes, “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 in the country 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 proceeds to recommend the Districts where I want 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– their principals, and all the district offices and 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 have to be planted than will ever 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?” I asked her,” or should I call schools to follow up the mailing?— And should I send out another mailing in fluorescent pink, do you think?”

 

“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 I got out of 370 principals and superintendents I mailed my stuff to. As an educational administrator, it follows, this lady 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 still had two weeks to go. When we finally spoke, he asked me to tell him how I would use Drama to teach History. I shared my ideas and gave him some examples that he seemed to like.

 

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

 

“What grade?”

 

“8”

 

I thought, Back to a middle school again?… But, “American History?” is what I asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

“How about a lesson on the Revolution?”

 

“Perfect!” Spinowitz concluded.

 

We made an appointment for that Friday afternoon.

 

After much thinking about my demo lesson integrating Dramatic Arts with American History, I came up with my final plan. I pictured a rigid line of 14 year olds drilling and marching in red T-shirts while their motley classmates were hiding behind upturned 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 in sounding-out all the syllables necessary for a reading lesson. I needed a simple text the kids could immediately articulate 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 off 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 sign me into the building. “No problem” he declared. He gave me directions to the Project ARTS “Department” on the second floor.

 

The “office” of Fred Spinowitz, Project ARTS Coordinator, 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. “Mr. Spinowitz?” I inquired.

 

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 new office 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 to this school. Just in its second year, Maritime Academy was already the highest scoring school in the Bronx. Mr. Spinowitz wished me luck and gave me directions to Throg’s Neck. He would not be there.

 

In the building, I was assigned a parent volunteer who took me up to the music room where I would teach my lesson in place of the children’s music class. After I was introduced to the music teacher, I apologized for preempting 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 dishevelment— neckties down and shirt tails out, ranging from the one youngster who remained neat and orderly, to the utterly and otherwise completely 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 we practiced the left-face, right-face, and about-face military drills which the British soldiers would later employ for our 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 had gotten 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.

 

I waited on the bench next to the time clock outside the principal’s 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 that his Superintendent happened to know my Superintendent from Springfield, who was formerly from the Bronx. She had called her old colleague. He knew me and gave a good recommendation on the spot. The music teacher had not been re-hired for the next year. My job would be to set up a drama program for grades 6-8.

 

I thought that this principal would be terrific. These kids were wonderful. God had sent me to this special school in a quiet area of the Bronx. What else could the phrase something there for you mean?

 

Well, my spiritual journey into the New York City public school system was not meant for that dream job in a nice corner of the Bronx. The words, There is something for you in New York were not meant to be fully comprehensible to me for most of that summer.

 

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 last question: “What’s my salary?”

 

The bottom line is that my overwhelming sense of Destiny hadn’t accounted for the teachers’ contract. My particular employer’s enthusiasm for my personal potential as an employee could not be translated into an attractive enough 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 just knew that I was not destined to take that much of a pay cut. Perhaps my journey, after all, was about getting to this stage and nothing else. So I started 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. Friends said I was stupid to do work for nothing. Yet being there and thinking about teaching and learning in this way felt exactly right.

 

Fast forward to mid summer.

 

There seemed no way to cut the salary gap. I went for what could only have been a final scheduled meeting with Dr. Rosa. She had been delayed in Manhattan. Could we reschedule?

I concluded that it was time to write 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 was leaving the building for my car, with visions of Northampton apartments dancing in my head— it hit me that I hadn’t 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 up high with brand 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……… With the S.U.R.R. differential…. tap, tap….You’ll 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 would give 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 I wrote.

 

If, in reading this testimony, you feel that something miraculous has taken place here, then I would urge you to encourage the author to write about a second miracle that occurred just as the District offices were being collapsed by Michael Bloomberg.

 

 

Special thanks to Milt Polsky for editing

2 Responses to “How God Called Me to the Bronx”

  1. chris englund says:

    great story Howard ! I’ve been doing a spiritual quest myself the last couple of years . Familiar with the Samuel being called lesson . I was called and called and kept thinking it must be for the guy behind me, can’t be for me . And then it hits me nobody else is going to do this , and it has to be done . It is not for us to refuse the mission even if we can’t finish it . Weighty lesson .

    shalom , Chris

  2. Joan Vohl Hamilton says:

    I loved traveling with you on this trip back in time, Howard Katzoff. There are valuable lessons within the narrative – and I’m not even in your classroom! How fortunate for NYC District 8 that you were sent to NYC, and what a loss for the Springfield Public Schools. You sow magic wherever you go. I’m proud to call you “friend.”