For My Teacher

On December 29, 2013, I lost one of the greatest teachers I had -- my dad, Michael Greenberg.

My mom and dad met in 1962, and fittingly, their first date was a SNCC benefit concert at the Apollo Theater featuring Tony Bennett. My parents were two of the many unsung heroes that transformed this country during the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. They were repelled by injustice and war and racism and economic inequality. They answered the call from their conscience.

My dad would be the first person in his family to graduate from college, with a full scholarship to Hofstra -- $1,000 a year. My mom's college education certainly wouldn't incur any student debt; she went to the working class Harvard, the City College of New York, where tuition was free. (A four year degree at CCNY now costs more than $11,000 for in-state students.)

While a student at Hofstra, my dad joined the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, at a demonstration to integrate a work site in Manhattan, he and my mother chose to participate in civil disobedience. My father wrote in his unpublished memoir:

The main project was an attempt to integrate the workforce that was building the Rutgers Housing Projects on Rutgers Street in Manhattan. We would get up around 6am, picket from 7 to 8:30... We were making little progress... [W]e decided on civil disobedience. We would block the entrance to the construction site with our bodies. Barbara and I decided to join the action. We managed to get under the barriers and block the entrance.

They were arrested. My father was charged with assaulting a police officer. Innocent, he took the case to trial and won. My mother challenged her charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, took her case to the Supreme Court, and lost. CORE (the Congress on Racial Equality) paid her fine.

As a PhD student at Rutgers, he and my mother would continue organizing -- from starting a preschool for low-income children (before Head Start) to staging one of the first demonstrations against the Vietnam War. As he continued work on his dissertation, he began teaching Black History at Monmouth College.

While a professor at Monmouth (and without tenure) he decided to attend an event with Retired General Maxwell Taylor, an architect of the Vietnam War. He wrote:

That night I took a seat in the middle of the auditorium and was ready to make a brief statement. Before I could speak they announced the ground rules: all questions were to be submitted in writing before the speech. A majority of the audience rose in protest. During the ensuing protest a number of faculty members went on the stage to try to quiet the crowd. I rose, denounced the war, and the ground rules for the speech. I had trouble being heard above the tumult and walked to the stage to use the microphone. As I was walking up the stairs, the head of the student body, a former marine, moved down the stairs and socked me in the jaw.

My father, dazed, returned to his seat and remained quiet. His contract was not renewed over the "Taylor Incident." Students rallied around him, holding demonstrations and petition drives. The Appeals Committee would hear his case. A hearing was held but the decision to fire him was upheld. He began looking for a new job. A chance meeting with a dear friend helped him land a teaching job at the College of Staten Island (then Richmond College), where he would teach American History until he retired.

My sister was born in 1973, I in 1979. My father had been practicing being a dad since he was a little boy. When he was teased as a child for playing with a stroller he retorted, "Haven't you seen a daddy pushing a baby before?"

My dad was a working class kid from Brooklyn who grew up to teach other working class kids. He wasn't a superstar of academia. His unfinished book lies somewhere in the basement. He was a teacher, a father, an inspiration to our family and many others on how to lead a principled life. He was, as one of his colleagues wrote after his death, an egalitarian to his bones.

Growing up I learned that creating a more just and equitable world was not someone else's job. When we see injustice it was our duty to intervene. Always an activist, one of the last times I saw my father before his stroke was when he and my mom came to New York to join me at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration.

As he wrote in his memoir:

At the Yeshiva [as a child] I had done something wrong and was told to sit under a tree. My fellow students, with the encouragement of the teachers, threw stones at me. When my mother came to pick me up, she screamed at the teachers and took me out of the school. She asked me why I just sat there. I replied because I was told to. Later I was less likely to do something because someone in authority told me to.

My dad had the kind of academic career and middle class life that is fast disappearing. He was a tenured and unionized professor with creative and academic autonomy. A natural teacher, his history classes were education at their finest -- lessons in storytelling, critical thinking, writing. For my father, history was not about memorizing facts and dates. My own history education with him began as a sleepless newborn while he held me, pacing, lecturing on Aaron Burr.

He was able to retire at 68 and travel with my mother for two years, before suffering a debilitating, devastating stroke. My mother, on the other hand, also a brilliant academic, had the misfortune of working in the new academia as an underpaid, overworked adjunct at a local community college. If not for my father's income and benefits, she would have been living in abject poverty.

When I look at my father's career, at the middle-class life he created for our family, I see a life that is no longer available. A PhD is now a fool's errand. College debt is status quo. Middle-class incomes and union jobs (and yes, the two do go together) have been vilified as income inequality grows and at-will employment and poverty wages (and yes, the two do go together) proliferate.

The last sentence my father wrote in his memoir, before his stroke was, "Today we are doing what we can to save the social programs that were passed in the 20th century to try to humanize capitalism."

We will carry it on, we will carry it on.