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)
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.