It’s funny how things come together.
Friday afternoon I was partaking in end of the week “Happy Hour” at a local sports bar with Patrick Flanigan (see Patrick interview pg. 115 in Shut-Down Learner.) Also at the bar by chance was the father of Alex one of the kids who was an inspiration for the Shut-Down Learner (see Helen interview, pg. 127). (Alex is still angry with me for not having him on the cover of the book.)
Recently, Patrick did the photo shoot for Lloyd Stone, President of Manny Stone Decorators (www.mannystone.com). Lloyd, a trade show designer who is tops in his field, is a boyhood friend from Staten Island. He was also instrumental in helping me shape ideas for The Shut-Down Learner, as Lloyd well understands what it means to be a visually-based person.
Patrick has a great eye as a photographer (www.flazzproductions.com). It was a wonderful match of two very talented visual-spatial people coming together the result of their involvement with Shut-Down Learner.
Patrick told me he was impressed with Lloyd’s respectful treatment of his customers. As we talked at the bar, Patrick’s words triggered off thoughts of my father, Mel, who influenced legions of kids from Staten Island, one of whom was Lloyd.
Mel (or Mr. Selznick to those who knew him in school) was principal at P.S. 22, assistant principal of IS 27, IS 69 and a teacher at PS 49. He was also very influential to an innumerable number of kids at the SI JCC. My dad was always fixated on “human relations,” having come up in an era where people actually discussed human relations in their coursework, in social agencies and education. Mel would have been 81 this past week.
Patrick said, “I wish I had the kind of experience when I was a kid that you and Lloyd had at the JCC and with your dad; it would have made a big difference in how I deal with people and in my confidence – but I am learning a lot and getting better at it. Just watching you and Lloyd has shown me a lot.”
Patrick’s talk made me think about my dad and his emphasis on human relations.
I see my father in my mind’s eye. He is about 30. I am five or six. For his summer job he was director of a camp at the Edgewood Inn, a hotel in the Catskill Mountains. I see Mel in a pool with about 20 kids. Everyone is having a great time. There is controlled chaos. Mel is wildly splashing one boy who is having the time of his life, splashing my father back. The boy’s name is Marc. Marc is blind. It was an image and memory that always stayed with me.
Months afterward my dad got a thank you letter from Marc written in braille. Marc’s parents translated the letter and stated that Marc never had the experience of being just like all the other kids like he had that summer. They owed it to Mel’s instincts for including Marc, a blind boy who had never horsed around with others before in a pool.
Patrick’s talk and the fact that this past week would have been my dad’s 81st birthday, made me go back to the words of Harvey Araton, a kid from the Staten Island projects, later a columnist with the New York Times, who had written a tribute to the influence of Mel at the time of his passing away:
"He made me a kid from the West Brighton projects with few connections to the Jewish community at large, feel like a part of a family. He never once asked me if my dues were fully paid, which of course, they usually weren’t. When I knew it, when I walked in the building just hoping I wouldn’t be sent home, embarrassed in front of all these new kids in my life by whom I wanted desperately to be accepted, Mel would catch my eye and mouth the words, “Go get dressed.” The last thing this man would have done was send a kid home.
He took me in and he took my friends from the projects in, too. Didn’t matter to Mel if they were Jewish, white, black. They didn’t have any more money to spend at the Center than I did but they wanted to play, they wanted to belong. That was good enough for Mel who taught us a few things about compassion and inclusion.
A generation ago, when parents didn’t stand on the sidelines and scrutinize their children at play the way we do now, it was Mel who watched over us. He applauded our successes, consoled us when we failed. My father didn’t know much about sports but I will never forget the awards breakfast when Mel ticked off my achievements before calling me up to receive the Weissglass award (a JCC award). My father left the Center thinking his son was the Jewish Jim Thorpe. Poor guy. How was he to know that it was just Mel being Mel, the best advocate any of us ever had."
Long before 504 Plans, Special Ed Law, attorneys, medical doctors and psychologists, Mel understood inclusion and accommodations. He didn’t need it all documented. It was embodied in his actions.
Patrick and I had another drink, sentimentally talking about Lloyd, Alex, Mel, the Shut-Down Learner and the connection of it all.
Too bad Mel wasn’t there. He loved happy hour and sports bars and I know he would have picked up the tab!
Happy 81st birthday, Mel. May you rest in peace.