|I have often been asked why I do what I do. Why do I care? Why do I spend my free time writing and advocating for an ideal, when I see what I see every day? The never ending stream of new inmates, returning parole violators, the tensions between other officers and inmates, the complete discomfort of the environment, the fact that I actually at one point had human excrement thrown on me. And I’m not going lie, being a Correction Officer does not play to the liberality of the mind, however, there is a root cause to everything. Something from my past, something from the story of who I am has created this feeling inside me. A feeling that if I didn’t advocate it would be a betrayal of where I have come from and what I fought to be in the land of the free.
Growing up my family was a run of the mill middle class family and really did not suffer from want or need. We never had to worry about food, shelter or clothing. Life was always stable and there weren’t any major difficulties; especially nothing like the stories I hear from those at work every day. My Father was a public school teacher and my mother became a teacher early in my life. So it’s no surprise I value the importance of education and those values my parents instilled in me is an important piece to who I am personally; and who I want to be politically.
Growing up with a learning disability didn’t help, however working extra hard and having a mother who would get a masters in special education to better understand her son and help the children of others with the same developmental issue gave me a leg up. My mother was unwilling to let me become another statistic when my first elementary school wanted to put me in special education classes. She would fight back against the district office, having me transferred to the elementary school that she taught at.
Those two years at PS 171 would teach me more than most of my K-12 life. Not only did I have to work twice as hard to learn to focus and counteract my disability, but I would have to learn it while being the only white student in a school in Harlem. I credit my exposure to a predominately African American elementary school at the ages of seven and eight to the fact that I have never bought into so-called differences in the races. The differences that we see pushed as a wedge time and time again, however subtle they have to be today.
After college, I mostly bounced around from jobs that didn’t suit me, or I wasn’t emotionally prepared for. From making 850 a month in retail while living on the floor in the attic of a house that I shared with six people, to trying to be the only Caucasian juvenile counselor at Bridges Juvenile Detention Center in NYC, being a security guard at a Kmart Warehouse, going back to for a second stint at retail, then going back to another attempt at working in juvenile justice and now working as a Correction Officer. Not only have I never found a fit, I often find myself doubling back on my path. And it’s taken me eight years post college to not only find my way, but find the faith and courage to fight for what I believe in.
My father was then and is now the unapologetic liberal of the sixties. Not radical, more practical he has always taught me to ask the simple question that many forget or are afraid to ask; why. The famous Kennedy quote from the 1960 campaign would define my father’s political ideology, as it would for many in his generation.
The Grandmother I most identified with was my paternal Grandmother Ceil. A woman whose compassion and fortitude leaves me at a loss for words. Her perseverance throughout the eighty-six years of her life was a testament to the American Ideal. Born in 1908, the first natural born American in a family working class Russian Jews who fled Minsk several years earlier to escape yet another pogrom. She would spend her entire life working for her family, and her community.
Her oldest brother Max, due to the prevailing anti-Semitism of his early adult life changed his last name from the Jewish sounding Kaplowitz to the more American Kane, instilled in her the importance of an education. My grandmother followed this advice, and Max would tutor her in his free time and help her get through business classes, in a time when education of women was not the norm. Ceil would instill in my father the importance of education, leading him to getting his teaching degree, one of three degrees from Brooklyn College. She would use that education to help in the 60′s and 70′s with Tiny Hearts Foundation, a foundation dedicated to helping kids with heart conditions.
My only Grandfather I knew was my mother’s father Jack. Being the first to push back against tradition in his family by refusing to go to Hebrew school, in a family that descended from cantors is where I like to believe my rebellious nature has come from. Jack was a member of the greatest generation who served as an officer in Italy teaching boxing and driving to his fellow soldiers, educating was just a common thread in my family. When Jack returned home following the war he takes that knowledge of driving and become a taxi driver, and owned a bar with his brother.
Jack would later be one of the first in his family to move out of New York City. Jack would not have to change his last name to get by like my Grandmothers brother, but he would still have to deal with the exclusiveness of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant 1950s suburban lifestyle. The story I remembered most is when my mother told me how a date she had said “I didn’t know your father was black” before leaving her on her doorstep. Well Jack wasn’t black; however he had the curly Jewish hair that could resemble an Afro, and not the lightest skin tone.
These stories and struggles of trying to become accepted within a family and society have made me who I am today. Into an unapologetic Liberal, with a rebellious spirit and caring nature. I would also be the first in my family to buck tradition by not following the faith of the chosen people. Being the first member of my family to be baptized and becoming a Lutheran in my early twenties. I have gone through the whole spectrum of religious awakening from Jewish, to atheist, to agnostic, to non-denominational and finding my way in the Lutheran interpretation. This ever evolving awakening has led me to my belief that religion can’t be forced on people; we must be allowed to find it on our own. Exercising the free will that God gives us to accept his love, or reject it.
The one ideal of America, which I must say I cherish the most, is you can come from different backgrounds, yet have similar stories. While my story is unique, many could find similarities to their stories. America is a land where many people have come together to be one; E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, one) as stated in the Seal of the United States. And that is why I advocate for those who either don’t stand up for themselves, or need help learning how. We are all different, yet we are all the same and there is an inherent value in us all.