So-so student eventually becomes a teacher himself

When Brooklyn Was Heaven: A Memoir from Brooklyn to L.A. and Places In-Between, by Stan Levenson. Outskirts Press, Inc. Denver, Colorado. 313pp.

By David Strom

David Strom

SAN DIEGO–Now eighty, Stan Levenson, a retired professor, elementary teacher, school consultant, and author of books about raising funds for public education,  is now living in San Diego.  He recently wrote a fascinating memoir of his first 30 years of life.

The memoir was about the essence of life growing up during the Great Depression in New York City. Stan rightfully highlights family, life-long friends, love, and meaningful work as the key ingredients to happiness.  They are human, real and often exciting. The memoir appeals to readers because the adventures of Stan and his buddies had are ones all of us can relate with.

Stan’s father died in 1936, when Stan was five years old. His widowed mother, facing economic hardship with three children to support, worked to support her young family.

Like many other families during the Great Depression, the Levenson family moved into a small flat, owned by Stan’s dear uncle, in Brooklyn. Wearing hand-me-downs, sleeping nightly on the front room couch, learning from an older cousin how to play baseball, Stan enjoyed his life. Though he was poor, he never realized how poor he was, like so many others, including his close friends in the neighborhood living under similar conditions, who he remains friends with to this day.     

Like many youngsters, Stan “goofed off” in and out of school. Although he wasn’t a great student in elementary school, he managed well enough to be at the proper grade level at the end of each school year.

Stan’s mother and father were not born in the United States. His mother came from Austria and his father was from Poland. His mother, Esther, kept a kosher home and gave Stan a meager religious Jewish education. Esther worked very hard and saved enough money to give Stan a bar mitzvah and a small party afterwards. Following his bar mitzvah, he and his mother attemded synagogue services on the Jewish High Holidays. This continued for a few years, until that family tradition faded from his life.

Growing up in a loving environment enabled Stan with enough confidence to try “out his wings” doing many childish and often dangerously immature actions. His “macho” and scary swimming escapade with his friends at Coney Island was remarkably “stupid,” yet understandable for a developing young teenager. Being shot at while trying to steal fruit from a “not so-easy-going” farmer’s orchard taught Stan an important lesson-the difference between life and death might just be the aim of the shooter. Stan’s journey into the world of sex was mainly uneventful and quite normal for the times.

Not a stellar student and academically directionless, Stan enrolled in one of the roughest vocational high schools in New York City. Being in a technical vocational school reinforced for Stan what he already knew-he was all thumbs and definitely not mechanical. Fortunately, Stan had some teachers who took an interest in him. One teacher encouraged him to take the New York State Regents Exam. If you passed the exam and finished high school, you could apply, and possibly be accepted, into a college or university. What kept Stan in high school was his involvement in sports-as a junior and senior he played on the high school teams. Stan took the Regents and “squeakily” passed.

Stan graduated, did not apply to any colleges, and went to work. The jobs he had were not fulfilling, nor did he last long with them. They were dead end jobs. Luckily, he ran into his old high school basketball coach and this encounter changed Stan’s life forever. The coach told him about Oswego College in upstate New York and that Stan could possibly get an athletic scholarship there. Stan applied, got accepted and received a basketball scholarship.

Big-city Stan, the first in his family to go to college, went off to play college basketball in small town Oswego, New York. Even though Stan had a scholarship, he had to work to economically survive. He worked hard on basketball, worked for his room and board, maintained a healthy social life, and did poorly in the academic arena. Called into the administration’s office, Stan was told they were dropping him as a student. Pleading with the administration earned Stan probationary status for the next semester. He had to earn a B average to continue at the college. Also, he was able to switch his major to elementary education-this turned into another important change in the life of Stan Levenson.

Stan played varsity basketball, enjoyed his soccer days at the college, participated with his friends and roommates in many of the college activities, graduated as an elementary teacher, and met his future wife, Lee, at Oswego.

They married, taught school in the United States, had children, and took teaching jobs in Germany with the Department of Defense (DOD). Lee and Stan loved traveling. They visited much of Western Europe, made lifelong friends, and were able to travel to Egypt-in those days Jews were not allowed to visit Egypt. However, a friendly priest gave them false baptismal papers, which allowed them to visit Egypt.

While in Europe, Stan completed his master’s degree. Stan was a talented teacher and administrator for the Department of Defense in Germany. A unique opportunity to earn a doctorate came up and might have kept Lee and Stan in Europe a while longer. Not enough DOD teachers at the time showed an interest in earning a doctorate and so the idea was dropped. The collapse of the possible doctoral program was yet another important event in Stan’s life. Lee and Stan decided to return to the United States.

Eventually they taught and settled in California. Like so many other marriages, theirs ended in divorce.

The book, When Brooklyn Was Heaven is a warm friendly look at the 1930’s through the early 60’s. Stan’s adventures and misadventures are easily identifiable-many of us have had similar experiences, both positive and negative, and lived to tell the tales to our children and sometimes grandchildren. So much of what he did makes this book worth reading. Remaining friends with his childhood buddies, keeping in touch with them, being a part of their lives is an important part of what makes us who we are, as well as and having a loving supportive wife and family.

For me, it brought to my mind the wonderful childhood friends I made and have, the activities we participated in then, now, and hopefully in the future, and the importance of family.

Strom is professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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