Moments and teachers that changed my life

Wednesday’s Guardian newspaper carried a moving testimonial by famed Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart to Cecil Dormand, a high school English teacher who “spotted” Stewart’s talent and essentially put him on the path to a brilliant acting career in Britain and the United States (Remember Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”?) 

In the testimonial, effectively an obituary to Dormand who had passed a few weeks before at age 96, Stewart wrote, “He saved me when I was a boy and my education was failing—and was without doubt the most significant person in my life.” 

When the Queen knighted Stewart in 2010 for his contributions in the field of drama, he invited Dormand to the celebratory lunch, and asked him to say a few words. Dormand said, “What the heck am I going to call him now? For decades he called me Sir!”

Stewart’s recollection set me off on my own. Though my life voyage has been far more tortuous and bumpy—and I can’t hope to achieve his fame and fortune—I still can recall teachers and individuals who reached out to me when was foundering.

I could go back to grammar school but I really don’t remember any teachers or mentors there who had any great impact on me. 

Rather, I vividly recall February 9, 1962, a month after my fourteenth birthday, as the watershed event when, ready or not, I entered the U.S. alone as a refugee—and also adulthood. 

I was part of a program that would eventually bring 14,000 minors out of Cuba, supposedly to rescue them from the communist tsunami that was engulfing the island. Recently some scholars have questioned the program’s humanitarian motives, and whether it instead was a cynical “psyop” operation by the CIA, intended to sow panic among the already panicked Cuban middle class. 

Whatever the true motivations, upon arrival I was taken to a holding camp outside Miami for unaccompanied boys, which marked the beginning of a three-year separation from my parents—and a solo adventure of survival in the U.S. Though initially excited, I was soon overcome with homesickness, fear and loneliness. 

In desperation, I wrote an over-the-top melodramatic letter to Heriberto, a maternal uncle I didn’t know, and his wife Tina, who lived in New York with a daughter roughly my age.  

They brought me to live with them in New York, for what everyone assumed would be short stay of maybe a few weeks or a couple of months. Then the Missile Crisis in October 1962 shut down all refugee flights out of Cuba, and stranded my parents, just about when they had already decided to flee to the U.S. too. My stay became open-ended. 

At the same time, my fantasies of the American Dream, fed by TV programs we watched in Cuba and by American publications, had vanished. 

My home in New York, post-gentrification. 

My supposedly rich uncle lived at 18 West 90th Street, now a fashionable white brownstone, but in 1962 a decrepit tenement. The four of us, and a obese orange mutt that had never been housebroken, lived in a rental not much bigger than a studio, with a bathroom and a separate kitchen but no private bedrooms. 

Despite the dreary surroundings I also remember, in the fall of 1962, my first glimpse of snow. To my tropical eyes at first it looked like someone was standing on the roof slowly flinging handfuls of confetti. Even through the grimy windows facing an airshaft, it was memorably beautiful sight.

Shortly after my arrival, I was enrolled at the nearby public Joan of Arc Junior High School, a gray, eight-story, bunker-like building near where I lived.  

It was there that I met two teachers who made a real difference in my life, and whose faces and names are still engraved in my mind: Virginia Mazzaro, a tall Italian-American in her forties who always came elegantly dressed, often wearing a colorful silk scarf, and Geraldine Schiff, a shorter, slight woman with large blue eyes magnified by her thick eyeglasses. 

They presided over a “homeroom” that was more like a holding pen for recently arrived non-English speaking immigrant teens, mostly from the Caribbean and a few from Africa. 

Using her knowledge of Italian and her fractured Spanish, Miss Mazzaro endeavored to teach us English and was actually quite successful, at least for her Spanish-speaking subjects. Miss Schiff also worked with us in broken Spanish and sign language, to divine our talents and previous education and in which grade to place us. 

Joan of Arc Jr. H.S.

For some reason, they singled me out for what could be described as a crash introduction, not only to English but also to how to navigate life in my new country, particularly the wonders of New York. They pointed out the location of the nearest public library, Central Park and the Museum of Natural History, which was within walking distance of the school. 

One day they presented me and two other students with tickets to a Metropolitan Opera production, at its previous location, of Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande.” For a 14-year-old, it was a brain-deadening experience, but I was dazzled by the faded glitter of the old Met. Later, they gave me tickets to a concert by the New York Philharmonic, which was still performing at Carnegie Hall. 

Most unexpectedly, Miss Mazzaro began writing letters to the admissions people at the ultra-elite Stuyvesant High School, recommending me even though I probably would have problems with the entrance exams because of my faulty English. Only until much later was I was able appreciate that honor enough to be flattered by her gesture and faith in me. 

Unfortunately, after several months my living situation with my uncle and his family deteriorated to the point I was told flat-out to find somewhere else to live. 

I don’t remember the exact transaction, or how Miss Mazzaro specifically helped me, but I remember that a refugee resettlement agency materialized and placed me in a foster home in suburban Long Island, long ways from the hubbub of New York’s Upper West Side. 

By then I knew enough English to converse and, thanks to my two teachers and mentors at Joan of Arc, had developed sufficient self-confidence to continue my high school education and to carve my own slice of the American dream, until my parents arrived in 1965.

I credit those two teachers with helping me during that most frightening period in my life, and also with instilling my permanent love for New York, which I still consider the greatest city in the whole universe.    


Next post—Two more unforgettable mentors: A chubby Dominican nun, and the son of a Holocaust survivor. 

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