Florence Alice Itkin 1920-2009
Flo was a teacher, in fact, from the time she was a little girl until the moment she slipped away yesterday. I thought I might share a few words about this great passion of hers.
Just as the Great Depression struck its most demoralizing chords, her father Solomon passed away, leaving the family to live off of my great grandmother's meager income as sweatshop worker. Like many first-generation Americans, Flo provided a lot of practical support for her mother, and helped her two sisters with their schoolwork. Flo was twelve, my grandmother Vivian was nine and my other aunt Selma was five. Florence spent her teenage years watching over her sisters's schoolwork and helping her mother.
Anna had missed the opportunity for formal education, and so my great grandmother was determined that her daughters would receive the best education possible. She had grown up in a rabbinical household in what is now Belarus, but she left for America (alone) as a young teenager. Later in life, she was an avid reader in English, Yiddish, Russian, and a bit of German and Hebrew. But until the Depression and the war were over, and her daughters safely making their way in life, all of that was on hold. Anna's hopes for her daughters' future depended on public education. Sight unseen, she placed those hopes on the University of California.
Whenever I think of their journey from New York to Los Angeles, I always think of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, and imagine the surviving Itkens making their way among the bedraggled columns of Americans on the long road to California (though, I cannot imagine them tolerating any literal bedragglement). The fictional Joads fleeing the Dust Bowl for greener pastures of the California Central Valley, the actual Itkins fleeing the tenements of the Lower East Side for the sanctuary California classrooms. Fortunately, things turned out much better for the Itkins than the Joads.
All three of the Itkin girls went to UCLA, and all three of them became teachers. Florence became a colleague and friend of the great educator Corinne A. Seeds, for whom UCLA's Lab School is named. To give you an idea of the company Flo kept, you can read about Ms. Seeds (Flo always called her Ms. Seeds, even though they were close friends) in Pedagogies of Resistance: Women Educator Activists, 1880-1960, or if you're near Tufts, you can look up Professsor Kathleen Weiler, who is writing a biography of Ms. Seeds.
Barely out of college, Flo was one of the few people who publicly supported Ms. Seeds' opposition to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (for which both of them received death threats). Along with Ms. Seeds and others, my aunt was one of the shock troops of John Dewey's progressive movement. It is because of them that primary eduction is actually educational.
Flo was the principal of Kenter Canyon Elementary for, I think, about forty years. During her tenure at Kenter Canyon Elementary, it was the top-performing elementary school in the LA Unified School District. This was in no small part because Flo was an excellent teacher herself, and because she acted as a human firewall between her staff and "the conniving bureaucrats downtown," "the pencil pushers" and "the idiot school board." She retired on May 31st, 1980. Flo has teased me for my whole life on account of the fact that I caused my mother to miss her retirement party by arriving in the world on that particular day.
When I saw her on Saturday, she used what little energy she had to ask me three questions: How is school? When is Mimi graduating? Tell me what you've learned. Those were her last words to me, save three. To understand those three, I'll have to make a little diversion.
For Flo, politics was an integral part of being a teacher. She believed that a good teacher should fight for her students, and should not be shy about carrying the fight wherever it had to go. The task of an educator is to create opportunities for her students. That means that an educator is called upon to confront prejudice and ignorance when they threaten those opportunities. Flo believed that smashing social barriers was just as important as multiplication tables (although, this was not a simple distinction to her, since one can smash social barriers by teaching multiplication tables, depending on who was doing the teaching and who was doing the learning).
Of course, she didn't clutter up her classroom with politics. Education is a science, and she was a serious practitioner. Her politics was about clearing the road ahead of her students.
It came as a huge shock to me that her views were so forceful. She was the very model of an elementary school principal -- proper, patient, and professional. She was the sort of lady that hippies feared; she would have told them to wash up, given them The Look and used The Voice, and made them feel very foolish.
Flo kept her radicalism under tight control, unleashing it in calculated measures. The people who saw her act on those principles never knew what hit them. She only brought out the knives in board meetings and budget committees. Most of the time I knew her, she seemed like a funny, sweet old lady. But when Her Children (or students generally) were threatened, the sweet old lady was suddenly made of steel. She would, and did, go to war for her pupils and for her teaching staff. I suspect that her first objection to Japanese internment was that it took students out of their classrooms, and death threats weren't going to stop her from raising hell about it.
I was with Flo through the 2004 election, and she was devastated. George Bush was, in her view, a teacher's worst nightmare. He was a great propagator of ignorance, advocate of prejudice, a spoiled, dull child of a rich politician, and a conniving bureaucrat. Flo described the mandatory testing in the No Child Left Behind Act as "a bunch of skull-measuring" and "a jobs program for bad administrators."
A few days after Kerry lost, I was having breakfast with Flo and talking about the election. Flo waived at the double fistfull of pills she was trying to swallow and said, "Damn him, now I'm going to have to do this for another four years." Like all of Flo's Pronouncements, it was accomplished. She weathered four years of Parkinson's disease, heart failure, blindness, broken bones and (most painfully) the dismal news of the last four years so that she could deliver her vote for the sake of her students.
I asked her what she thinks of our new president. She gasped, and gave me the thumbs up. "I'm so proud," she said, speaking, I know, as a teacher.
Florence loved flowers, but if you really want to honor her memory, please do so by supporting teachers.