A Mentor’s Passing

Gladys Stein, My High School English Teacher
When it comes to teachers, Gladys Stein was a true gem. She was my high school English teacher and because of her I guess I became a writer and a speaker–but most importantly, Mrs. Stein helped me find a voice in the first place.

I was an awkward high school sophomore when I first encountered Mrs. Stein’s English class. She required us to have a journal and write in it daily, even if it were just a few lines. That year our class was overflowing, so much so that we ran out of seats. I parked myself on the classroom radiator and refused to move. Mrs. Stein would tease me that her classroom would smell like Crisco if I sat there, but she allowed me to stay and there I sat for an entire year.

Mrs. Stein was a character. She had an “ain’t jar” in her classroom. It was a huge pickle jar and every time someone would utter the word “ain’t” she’d simply remove the lid and wait for someone to deposit the 25 cent fine that she imposed for the infraction of bad english. My classmate Denis Lawlor was a frequent offender.

Mrs. Stein: Tonight you all have homework. Read the first act of Julius Caesar and then answer these reflection questions in your journal.

Denis: I ain’t doin’ it.

Mrs. Stein: (Removes lid and looks angry)

Awkward silence

Denis: I ain’t giving you a quarter.

Mrs. Stein: You mean fifty cents and you own me another quarter for yesterday. See, here’s the IOU.

Denis: Wait a minute! That ain’t me!

Mrs. Stein: SEVENTY-FIVE!

Denis: Aw shit, I ain’t ever gonna gonna win.

Mrs. Stein: (Trying not to laugh) One Dollar!

Denis: (Gets up and walks to the front of the room with a ten dollar bill unfolded and deposits it in the jar) Just tell me when it’s gone.

The money would be used to buy donuts for us to eat during our midterm and final exam and she always did use it.

We shared a love of Bloom County comic strips, liberal politics and a rye sense of humor. I even gave her an Opus the Penguin (one of the strips main characters and she’d always sign her notes and cards to me Love, Opus and Me. She made us name our journal and I aptly named my “Shithead” and when I did she was able to draw out many of my childhood insecurities.

And that was the start of a wonderful mentorship. I decided to run for treasurer for one of the popular clubs in the school. It was a huge popularity contest and I was relegated to “no chance of winning.” I confided in one of my gym coaches, Coach Hughes, that I didn’t expect to win. He replied, “Don’t bother running then. If you can’t say something positive than don’t say anything. Go up to Mrs. Stein and have her help you with your speech!”

That idea changed me. She was more than happy to help and she knew all the gimmicks. Since this was a treasurer she asked me: “What does a treasurer have to know how to do?”

And because I was a wise-acre I said: “Count!”

“EXACTLY!” she said. “Here’s the start of your speech. ‘Hi! I’m Mike Hayes, that’s 9 letters. I’m a sophomore that’s 9 more letters. And I’m in Chemistry. Which is also 9 letters for a grand total of 27 letters. As you can see by this remarkable demonstration, I can count!”

I laughed but I didn’t think anyone else would. But I trusted her enough to give it a shot. We littered the rest of the speech with similar stuff and even ended with the grand total of letters in the speech (before computers and letter counts I might add). After that first line, which I delivered with great timing, I paused and one person in the back of the class let out a roaring laugh.

Now everyone was paying attention to the nerdy kid who nobody knew.

“This is my third year in VICA (the club in question). That’s five letters for third and four more for VICA to add 9 more. And I’m 16 so that equals 25!”

“YEAH! ALLRIGHT!” Someone shouted from the back! Everyone was on their feet clapping and chanting now. I had them in the palm of my hand.

WHen I hit that grand total of letters, the whole place was in a frenzy. My two opponents, one who still had yet to speak, were flabbergasted. They were done and they knew it. I won in a landslide and was re-elected the following year and was even elected Senior Class Treasurer and a National Delegate to a National VICA convention and finished up as the State Extemporaneous Speech champ.

I ran to her classroom and said, “I think we just pulled this off!”

Her response: “Ya think? Come with me!”

She knew where my next class was and she told me to walk in. There a bunch of my closest classmates burst into applause. She later would tell me, “Never, ever count yourself out of anything. You’re smart and funny and should have more confidence in yourself.”

She encouraged my gifts for speaking and writing. And even after I had left high school she called when a rumor broke out that I had killed myself (a rumor that was untrue and nobody knew how it started) and told me that she knew it couldn’t be true but wanted me to know what was being said. I showed up at the high school when I could and people thought they had seen a ghost. Rumor squashed!

While we didn’t share a religion, she often encouraged mine. She always said that she found me to be a “healthy person” who shared emotions openly, showed empathy to others and who was faithful to his beliefs. The same can be said about her, in fact that’s probably where I learned much of that.

The truth is that Gladys Stein was a true mench. She was named New York State teacher of the year in 1994 and after a group of students suggested that they dedicate the yearbook to her because she was retiring, she was so moved that she called off calling it quits. (The yearbook advisor refused to ever dedicate a yearbook to her again!).

If you were one of her students, you probably dropped a quarter into that ain’t jar, or received a note written in purple ink (she hated red ink–said it reminded her of blood all over the page). She may have even made you clean her entire classroom with a toothbrush as she did to a group of my friends who showed up to class drunk. (The alternative was to tell their parents).

But most of all, she loved us. Every one of us.

If you have an extra shekel or two…the family would appreciate contributions to the Saunders High School Gladys M Stein English Scholarship Fund c/o District Guidance Department, Yonkers Public Schools, One Larkin Center, Yonkers, NY 10701

Rest in peace, Mrs. Stein and thanks for giving me my voice.

Join the Conversation

25 Comments

  1. You inspired me. I always looked up to you, I always talked about you. RIP you will be missed

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  2. I loved this. As an English teacher myself, it’s an inspiration to read about someone who taught not just reading and writing, but also the whole person. Thank you for sharing your memories.

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  3. This article proves what a dynamite teacher she was – Reading it makes me feel like I knew and admired her. As always, great job, Mike!

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  4. What an amazing person. Thanks for your post Mike. I was still struggling with English as my second language when the exchange with Dennis happened – but I still remember it distinctly even though at the time I only understood half it (I didn’t actually know what ain’t or IOU meant).

    I can only hope my son comes across at least one teacher as spectacularly talented and enormously caring as Mrs. Stein was. How she managed to run a class so large, and yet touch every single student’s life I will never know. I remember that (knowing my family was hard up for money) she lined up a tutoring gig for me. One day after school I was feeling down and beat, and instead of heading straight for tutoring I was loitering on the school grounds looking sad and depressed. Mrs. Stein saw me. Not only did she give me one of those “sit down and listen” speeches she was so good at – but then she went on to demonstrate what exactly commitment meant by taking me to her car (a sporty little coup she drove with a lead foot) and driving me to my gig. In spite of myself I was on time to my commitment – but more importantly just the fact that she cared that much told me by example that maybe I should too.

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    1. Dave, great post! Now that I know that English wasn’t your first language I’m amazed! You were the smartest kid in the class by far. We have lots to be thankful for today in remembering Mrs. Stein. I wrote to Joe Egan that she once made a great joke (that went over nearly everyone’s head) about cannibalism (we were reading something that referred to it). Barbara Streisand wrote a song about this: “People, people who eat people!”

      Bwhahahahahaha. She actually had to tell people “Um, it’s a joke. The song is people who NEED people.”

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  5. Mike, a great post about an incredible person. Mrs. Stein really pushed us all to be bigger and better. And, she was great fun to be around. Rest in Peace, Mrs. Stein.

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  6. I had the honor of having Mrs. Stein for 3 years throughout my school experience. What an amazing person, English was the subject but, It was so much much more. Mrs. Stein taught every student to be them selves and be the very best they could be. The story above brought me right back to that classroom. Such a warm spot in my heart. One of the best educators that I ever encountered.

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  7. Thank you for that. She was an amazing teacher who helped me in so many ways. I will never forget her even though I graduated way back in 1990. That was the impact she had on me. She truly was a gifted teacher and she also helped me with my speech. I competed, unwillingly mind you, in district and state public speaking through FBLA. I unfortunately did not move on to nationals and she remarked because her speech may have been a bit raunchy…lol. That was Mrs. Stein.

    I’ll always remember the ain’t jar and when we would have to act and direct scenes from Julius Cesar, she was the one class I never cut. Thank you for you homage to her, she deserves it and so much more.

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  8. Thanks for bringing me back to a place I enjoyed. RIP Mrs. Stein. I remember you had us take a song and write the lyrics to the song. We discussed the song we brought in and I picked Hotel California. I remember she looked at be and said why this song? I love this song and she said me too. Years later saw Mrs. Stein at Bloomingdale’s and asked me, Do you still listen to Hotel California ? Yes I do. I love the song so much that I learned it on guitar and sing it. Thank you Mrs. Stein and RIP.

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  9. She really was an inspiration and motivator to all her students. She touched man and will not be forgotten. Rest in peace Ms. Stein and know that you made a difference in this world and to the children.

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  10. What a great tribute Mike! It brought back many memories. She was a great teacher that touched so many people’s lives.

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  11. I once had to scrub the floors of her classroom with a toothbrush, I can’t remember what I did to deserve it but i’m sure I deserved it. The funny thing was at the time she wasn’t even my teacher. It wasn’t untl a year later that I had her as an English teacher and came to appreciate her wit and her energy for life and literature and she helped me learn the importance of self-expression and not just following the crowd but creating your own voice. RIP Mrs. Stein.

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  12. What a beautiful tribute. Mrs. Stein was an incredible person, she left her mark on so very many of us.

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  13. Mike,

    I read every word of your beautiful tribute. In a time when it has become cool in some circles to pick on teachers (as though they caused the recession, or the poor family backgrounds that some of their students bring with them) it is good to be reminded of the ones who have made a difference.

    The society that demeans its teachers has no future.

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  14. I truly loved Mrs. Stein she was a woman, a teacher, a lover if language, and loved life! I had the honor of having her for tenth and senior year at Saunders. She made me fall in love with English! I will always have a place for her in my heart!

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  15. My father was honored to call this amazing woman and her wonderful husband Kal his best friends for most of his adult life.

    I look forward to sharing these tributes and stories about her to my own children as part of learning about the grandfather they never knew.

    Gladys was one of those people who made you a better person just by knowing her. She leaves a lasting legancy in the hearts of her family, her colleagues, her students, and her friends.

    Thank you Gladys Stein for helping make the world a better place and for being the best friend my dad could ever have.

    You are loved, missed, and remembered!

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  16. Scrub the classroom with a toothbrush? Now why didn’t I ever think of that? 😉 Mrs. Stein sounds like a wonderful woman who will be genuinely missed.

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  17. Great piece, you have all caught so many of her finer points and I love the Opus reference – one thing I shared back with her. She was a great mom in so many ways but always a teacher first …

    Her son, Adam.

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