It doesn’t take much courage to join a popular cause.
Courage is shown when a person stands up for what is right, even when it is not popular to do so.
Charlotte Bruney, my math teacher in 9th grade, demonstrated true courage, even though she would never have deemed it as such.
She was far too modest. She would have said that she was simply doing the right thing.
We all need to do the right thing.
We all need to stop the lies, the hatred, the bullying and the demagoguery that have poisoned the state of our country and the world.
When I think of the courage of Miss Bruney, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 60, I am reminded of something that Bob Dylan sang during what is known as his Christian period.
“I believe in you, even if I’d be outnumbered,” chanted the Bobster during that stage in his career in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
That period might be more aptly characterized as Dylan’s most mystical one, for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as other religions, all have their mystical strains.
And the Abrahamic faiths all believe in one God.
We have begun the Jewish New Year, the High Holy Days, in which God inscribes some of us into the Book of Life.
The Days of Awe are a time of reflection and atonement.
They are also a time of remembrance.
As I have written before, I am convinced that memory—like imagination, voice, as well as alacrity, endurance, and other cognitive, aesthetic and physical gifts—arises from love.
Someday, scientists will do imaging scans on the brains of a random sample of people, and those scans will confirm what I have just written, that areas of the brain associated with these gifts light up when a person exudes love.
Of course, love, when it is sublime or divine, cannot be limited. It cannot be contained in any region of the brain, or anywhere else.
No, love cannot be measured. It soars into the infinite, like memory, imagination and voice.
This gets to the issue of mysticism, of what it means to have a deep, spiritual relationship with God.
Charlotte Bruney, who left teaching to become a pastoral leader, certainly had such a relationship with God.
As did Barbara, my late wife.
And Barbara and Miss Bruney, as well as some other angels, will always have a spiritual presence in my life.
But sometimes we do not realize the presence of an angel or of God.
That does not mean that God or those helping Him are not here.
As it relates to the mysticism of the writing process, few have articulated it as well as Thornton Wilder, the late playwright and novelist, who also composed music, essays and speeches, among other written forms, all in the tradition of the Kabbalah.
Wilder once wrote, “The history of a writer is his search for his own subject, his myth-theme, hidden from him but prepared for him in every hour of his life.”
If we can get beyond Wilder’s antiquated usage of the male pronoun, we might realize that what Wilder was saying about writers and the writing process — about how some matters are hidden from us but prepared for us in every hour of our lives — can be true for everyone on this planet, writer or otherwise.
But, as I pointed out, not everyone understands that God is present in our lives. And many people want to reject or dismiss God’s presence.
Agnostics and atheists are entitled to their beliefs. But many of them are not simply skeptics; many are cynics. And they are jealous of people, who overflow with love.
God is love, as Jesus said, and as Barbara, my late wife, was fond of reminding me.
I know that Miss Bruney felt the same way.
And Barbara, like Miss Bruney, my math teacher, was right.
I have compared my Barbara to many characters from literature and the Bible, such as Rosalind, Cleopatra and Bathsheba.
I might also compare Barbara to some of the women depicted by Bob Dylan in his canon, particularly in his Christian or most mystical phase.
On the song, “Precious Angel,” Dylan sings, “Well, I just couldn’t make it by myself. I was a little too blind to see.”
This gets to another issue dear to God and dear to life, the issue of teamwork, of being part of something greater than yourself, of forging a connection with another human being.
Showing such love and devotion to someone else may in fact be the essence of godliness.
Like Dylan, I too just couldn’t have made it by myself, were it not for Barbara, my late wife, as well as other angels, like Charlotte Bruney, my 9th grade math teacher.
I have indeed been blessed by Barbara, my own “precious angel” and “comely woman,” the title of another of Dylan’s Christian songs. And I have also been blessed by Miss Bruney, a champion, who practiced a Gospel of love, in all its strength, and who showed the courage to stand up for me, even when she was outnumbered.
These High Holy Days have begun for me with memories of Miss Bruney. And it is my Barbara, who passed away two years ago on the day after Labor Day, who has revealed these memories to me.
Throughout our courtship in the late 1990s and throughout our 18 years of marriage, I used to tell Barbara stories from my past, just as she used to tell me stories from hers.
We had both been savaged by sadists when we were younger, but Barbara and I always retained the love within us.
In telling stories from our past, Barbara and I told each other about some of the wonderful people, who had helped us over the years.
In my case, I often spoke to Barbara about Delaney Kiphuth and Mrs. Toni Giamatti, who both looked out for me when I was in high school and college.
And I told Barbara about some of my other fine teachers, like Charlotte Bruney, who taught me math at Hopkins, my junior high and high school in New Haven, Conn.
But I did not always realize what Miss Bruney and some other people did for me behind the scenes and even in open forums.
This is because I had been so brutally traumatized when I was a little child in kindergarten that I dissociated for decades whenever evil targeted me or even when some people tried to help me fight that evil.
My brain and body were, of course, in their formative stages when I was 5 years old, when Mrs. Crawley, my public school K teacher, started to abuse me because I missed two days of school for Yom Kippur in 1970.
I have discussed at length how Mrs. Crawley, an anti-Semite, smacked my left hand, my dominant side, and would not let me use it; how she dragged me to the “dunce corner” where I was forced to hunch or crouch against the wall for long periods of time; how she mocked me when I subsequently raised my hand in class; and how she tried to force me to stay back, even though and undoubtedly because I was the only kid in my class, who could already read.
I was also the only practicing Jewish child in that class. And Mrs. Crawley, after initially asking me to help the other kids learn how to read, a task that I embraced, later tried to destroy my soul.
I am not the first or the last kid, who has been victimized at a young age.
Consider all the Native American children, like the children of the First Nations in Canada, who were abused and, in some cases, killed over the course of a century at the so-called residential schools in Canada and boarding schools in this country.
And consider how children and young people have been preyed upon by clerics in the Catholic Church, by gymnastics coaches and doctors, by Boy Scout leaders and others in positions of power and authority, abuse that has been revealed and documented much more openly in recent years.
Other matters have been revealed to me over the years. And Barbara, my prophetess, is the one, more than anyone else, who has revealed them to me, including the recent burst of memories about Miss Bruney, memories that I will discuss or reveal in a bit.
Like the women, whom Bob Dylan heralds in the songs, “Precious Angel” and “Comely Woman,” my Barbara, who passed away on Sept. 3, 2019, “sees invisible things that are hidden from the world.”
This brings me back to the nature of mysticism, to love and to having a deep spiritual connection to God.
We all need to beware of Pharisees, as Barbara sometimes warned me, and as President Biden has pointed out, too.
Barbara was excommunicated from her Lutheran church decades ago, because of the lies of her first husband, who had beaten her, as well as the cowardice of the minister.
The minister at Barbara’s Lutheran church had already shown his spinelessness when he kicked out a Black family from the church due to pressure from other congregants during the Sixties.
Barbara is not the only one who has been harmed by Pharisees.
My father, who was 9 years old when he lost his own father to suicide, was kicked out of his synagogue, when he was a young kid, by a sadistic rabbi. The reason? The rabbi did not like my father’s wisecracks.
And some people at my synagogue years ago warned me that they had considered kicking me out.
When I did not admit to something that is not true, they got angry at me.
To be fair to these people, they did not know me well. Some had their own agendas, driven by confirmation bias, desirability bias and unsophisticated thinking.
And many of them did not have the courage, the empathy or the insight to recognize what was obvious to just about anyone, who actually did know and care about me.
The obvious truth, to anyone with an open mind, was that I had been abused as a little child.
Of course, there are some people, including teachers and clerics, who don’t care. There are others, who don’t understand, or who do not even try to educate themselves about the repercussions of early childhood trauma.
And then there are those, who do not have the courage to fight evil, even when they know that it is taking place.
One day, late in this life, Barbara said to me sweetly, with a smile on her face, that there was someone whom I was forgetting, someone whom I had discussed with her before.
Barbara was communicating a message of love to me. It was a message about a hero from my past, a woman who went out of her way to save me when I was in high school at Hopkins in New Haven, Conn.
Like any good storyteller, especially an artist with gifts, Barbara did not tell me any of this outright. Barbara gave me hints at this secret and many others. She did not spell them out explicitly.
But she did smile with love and warmth when she gave me these hints.
Barbara knew that I would need to find these secrets on my own. And she knew that I could do it. She knew that, once these secrets were revealed to me, I would inscribe them in our own Book of Life, the voluminous, eight-book, 6,000-page opus that Barbara has mused and that I have written over the past 25 years.
On the eve of this Rosh Hashanah, almost exactly two years to the day after Barbara passed away, a memory came flooding back to me.
This was not the first time that this has happened to me over the decades.
Memories, of this nature, flow from love.
It is also true that we have an ethical duty to remember. This is especially true during the Days of Awe.
Yes, there are some sadists, stewing in hatred, who remember with glee how they sabotaged other people.
But that is not what I am referring to when I refer to memory.
I am referring to something else. I am referring to a gift, a blessing, perhaps the greatest of all blessings. I am referring to the memory of God, the memory of the Torah and the Word, and the memory of the Kabbalah, the oral tradition that has been passed down cryptically and chanted in the ears of some of us over the generations.
No sadist has a memory or a voice for the language and literature of God. No sadist has lived the Word. And no sadist has any true respect for the Torah, for the Ten Commandments, or for the Gospels.
There are, of course, gradations to evil, as I have written before.
And I recognize that some people may have thought that they were being well-intentioned when they tried to “help” me decades ago.
But most of them all too readily converted back to what may have been their default mode, that of a sadist or a Pharisee.
Some of these sadists resemble the “Masters of War,” whom Bob Dylan wrote about in one of his early songs, a song with an apocalyptic theme.
I have invoked these masters before, and I will remind them, if they did not realize it by now, that their plots over the decades to destroy lives of artists and idealists have only ensured that it is they, the Masters of War, who are doomed.
They are headed for a fall into the pit. And it will happen in this lifetime, not only in the afterlife.
It already has happened. To varying degrees, the Masters of War have already been thwarted. They can posture and deny, but they have already begun their descent.
And this is because their acts of evil have not escaped the notice of God, just as acts of evil committed against me when I was in high school did not escape the notice of Charlotte Bruney, my 9th grade math teacher.
It is also true that these acts of evil have not escaped my notice. I have never forgotten what happened in the past. I have a pretty good memory, and the memories have never disappeared. For decades, I was too traumatized to process them because I had been so savagely abused by Mrs. Crawley, my kindergarten teacher, when I was 5 years old.
I had trouble for decades in retrieving some of the memories of abuse. But they were stored in my hippocampus.
And, as my brain, my body and my soul have healed, the memories have come back, particularly in recent years.
As a result, I too know the identities of the Masters of War, from my earliest years in public school kindergarten and elementary school, to my preteen and teen years at Hopkins, to my time at Yale and the Yale School of Management, and elsewhere.
And the reason why I know the identities of the Masters of War is because God has blessed me with love.
As my Barbara has healed me, many other things have been revealed to me, many other memories have come back, such as the blessing of angels like Charlotte Bruney.
Miss Bruney, who passed away from cancer in 2014, arrived at Hopkins, my junior high and high school, in 1979. At that time, she was finishing up her Masters degree in education at Southern Connecticut State College, now known as SCSU. She had received her B.A. in mathematics at Fordham University in New York, where she was born.
I can recall one day when Miss Bruney gave a speech at morning assembly at Hopkins.
Among other charming anecdotes and observations, Miss Bruney told the roughly 600 students and faculty, then at the school, how astonished, how delighted in fact she was when she came to a traffic light or a stop sign in New Haven; and pedestrians actually stopped!
She joked about how that was not the case in her hometown of New York, famous for its jaywalkers.
Miss Bruney taught me intermediate algebra in 9th grade.
It was a fun class.
Some years ago, a classmate of mine, who was a fine math student, and I reminded ourselves of how, at the end of class just about every day, Miss Bruney would reserve the final 15 minutes or so for a math competition on the blackboard.
We had three teams, as I recall. And each team would send a representative to the blackboard to solve a problem that Miss Bruney, seated in a chair, some yards away, would read aloud.
We would then compete to see who could solve the problem and who could solve it first.
I was a good student. But, more importantly, I was, as Miss Bruney knew, a good kid.
And Miss Bruney sensed that I had been traumatized when I was very young, when I was a little child.
An African-American woman, Miss Bruney had grown up in New York during the Civil Rights era; and she had seen many gifted young people, who had suffered, who had been abused.
It was quite clear to her that I was not unlike those idealists and artists, whom she had known.
Miss Bruney could see that many people at Hopkins, including some teachers, were not being nice to me. And she did not like that.
None of this means that I do not have good memories of my time at Hopkins.
Last month, I wrote a piece about the Kabbalah and how the sacred letters of the alphabet can lead us to peace in the Middle East. In that article, I also discussed my high school friend, Isam Kaoud, who is of Arabic descent and with whom I shared a yearbook page when I was a senior at Hopkins.
In 2015, I wrote an essay for the Huffington Post about Hopkins’ then-longtime football coach Tom Parr and linked him to Walter Camp, a Hopkins graduate, who founded the modern game of football.
Two years ago, on the eve of the passing of Barbara, my wife, I read her passages from an article that I was writing about how college admissions committees and the rest of us need to deemphasize test scores and elevate other factors, such as wit, originality, imagination and memory when we evaluate a human being. In that essay, I hailed the late Toni Giamatti, my English teacher and adviser in 7th grade at Hopkins, and Mrs. Maria Dawidoff, another one of my English teachers and advisers at Hopkins, who asked me when I was in 11th grade to give a speech before morning assembly, a speech that I gave on Errol Flynn.
All three of these pieces reflect the positive memories that I have, overall, of my time at Hopkins.
In March 2020, at the outset of COVID-19, I wrote another piece, in which I alluded to some of the cruelties that took place when I was a senior at Hopkins, when some people lied about me and tried to hurt me in other ways.
I pointed out in that piece that Mrs. Susan Feinberg, the adviser to Hopkins’ newspaper, which I served as editor-in-chief, and Matt Lieberman, one of the paper’s reporters, helped me by enlisting Matt’s father, Joe Lieberman, then the attorney general of Connecticut, to thwart the lies of one of the sadists, who was harming me.
This liar, who was supposedly one of my friends, had no ethical compass, no character. And he did not work hard or do well at Hopkins.
He was one of the sadists, whom Miss Bruney called out at morning assembly for damaging my reputation when I was a senior at Hopkins.
At that point, when I was in 12th grade, Miss Bruney was a dean or on her way to being appointed a dean at Hopkins.
She was highly regarded by everyone at the school and not only because she was an outstanding math teacher. Miss Bruney was highly regarded by everyone because she had honor. And she was an idealist of rare, spiritual strength.
After roughly 10 years of teaching, Miss Bruney would leave Hopkins and switch careers, as I noted earlier.
She studied divinity, getting another Masters degree, this one from St. Joseph College Pastoral Ministry Institute. And she became a pastoral leader at Catholic Churches in Oxford, Conn., and New York, as well as a hospital chaplain in New Haven.
A woman of God and a devotee of Mary, Miss Bruney had all too often witnessed the cruelties and the violence that targeted many African-Americans and other young idealists during the Civil Rights era and afterwards in New York.
She was quite familiar with the kind of people, whom Bob Dylan wryly dubbed “my so-called friends” in the song, “Precious Angel.”
These so-called friends, of whom Dylan wailed, were people who had betrayed him.
We all encounter such people.
But few of us are willing to stand up to a mob.
Miss Bruney had no fear in doing so.
Miss Bruney knew that many kids at school, who were supposed to be my friends, were not only betraying me; they were also lying about me.
Barbara, my late wife, knew this, too.
And, so, near the end of this life, Barbara alluded to a wonderful person, whom I was forgetting, someone whom I had discussed with her before, someone who had helped me greatly when I was younger.
Barbara was alluding to Miss Bruney.
As the memories came back to me, on the eve of this Rosh Hashanah and on the approximate, second anniversary of Barbara’s passing, I knew what I was going to do.
I drove home, then I inscribed and explicitly honored Miss Bruney in the opus that Barbara has mused and that I have written these past 25 years.
One might say that I have inscribed Miss Bruney’s name, revealed to me by Barbara, in our own Book of Life.
But, true to the Kabbalah, true to the mysticism that comes from love, I realize something else that has also always been true; and what I now realize more fully is that Charlotte Bruney, my math teacher in 9th grade, has always been present in the opus, as she was in my life.
During the 25 years that I composed the opus, I wrote in a character, who was always based, if mostly subconsciously, on Miss Bruney.
This gets me back, once again, to mysticism and to the writing process, which, as Thornton Wilder said, is hidden from us but prepared for us in every hour of our lives.
I have written or inscribed many other characters into the opus that Barbara has inspired.
And not all of these characters are modeled after individuals. Some are hybrids. And some may come from the ether or elsewhere.
But few are as laudable, as loving, or as courageous as the character based on Miss Bruney.
Miss Bruney has always had a special and beautiful place in my heart because of all the wonderful times we shared in our math class when I was in 9th grade.
But Barbara, late in this life, was reminding me of something else that Miss Bruney did for me when I was a senior at Hopkins, when Miss Bruney called out the entire school, including some members of the faculty, for their silence, for their willingness to accept and propagate lies, for their failure to stand up for me when I was so obviously being defamed, ostracized and bullied.
Like Jesus admonishing the Pharisees, Miss Bruney told everyone, and she repeated the word, “everyone,” that she would hold them all responsible if anything happened to me, that she would in fact “go public” with the damage that was being done to me.
She added fearlessly that she did not care who these people were; she did not care if they were associated with Ivy League universities. She was going to call them out. And she was not going to allow anything else to happen to me.
Some people had told her that I had opened the window to one of my classrooms, a math class, in my senior year. When I opened the window, I had joked to the class that I might jump out.
A few kids in that class actually urged me to do so. “Jump, jump!”
That was what a few of them shouted with grins on their faces. This was not the only time that this happened to me at Hopkins or elsewhere.
There would be other sadists at other institutions, sadists who would fit a pattern.
And one thing that they all shared, whether I encountered these individuals in public school or private school, college or graduate school, was that they were jealous of me.
All of these people have been revealed to me over the years, as I have healed. And they have been revealed to me from memory, from love, from God.
What matters more, far more, during these Days of Awe, is that God remembers them, every single one of them. He knows what these cowards did to me and what they have done to other sweet people, including little children, who flow with love.
As Bob Dylan sings during his Christian or most mystical period, “God doesn’t make promises that He won’t keep.”
This is another way of saying that God rewards the good, and He punishes the evil.
There can be no forgiveness, without apology, contrition, atonement and a positive change in one’s behavior, a change that must endure for the rest of your life.
We are all flawed. We all make mistakes. But some people go out of their way to harm others.
God knows how to handle these evildoers.
There is a tradition on Yom Kippur, in which those, who have done evil, seek out other members of the synagogue, people whom they have harmed. This kind of public apology, by itself, does not absolve someone of his or her sins. But it is a start toward forgiveness, toward growth, toward atonement.
As for the good, even “the perfect and upright,” like Job, God has made other promises.
God tests all of us, but He may reserve the most severe tests for those whom He loves the most.
He wants to see that sweet people, like Job, will retain their love for God, for the planet, and for the world.
I am referring not only to Job, but to other figures, too, like Eliyahu, Moses, Abraham, Joseph and David, all of whom are subjected to tests that require extraordinary strength and endurance.
And that is because, in spite of all the pain they suffer, and in spite of bouts of frustration, these patriarchs and prophets never stop loving God.
And God has upheld the bargain. He has made promises to protect members of their progeny, members who “will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” as King David writes in Psalm 23.
Still, we must all demonstrate our love to God every generation, every year, and every day, as Charlotte Bruney did.
We all behave selfishly at times, and some people do far worse.
That is why we all need to atone during the High Holy Days, even someone, like Job, who “eschews evil” and who is so “perfect and upright.”
Job, of course, is tested like few others. He loses his cattle, his property, his so-called friendsand more. His face become pockmarked with disease. He is ostracized and treated as a pariah by almost everyone.
At these critical times on this planet, when we are battling so much evil, when we are being tested in so many ways, we need to remind ourselves that God “canst do everything,” that He created the heavens and the earth, that He got us out of Egypt, and that He gave us the Torah and the Word, commandments and parables that teach us how to live.
Charlotte Bruney, my 9th grade math teacher, was one of those chosen few, who always lived by the code, who always embraced the Ten Commandments, and who was always devoted to the Gospels.
She was not intimidated by anyone. And what gave Miss Bruney this courage, this fearlessness, this strength, was love.
Miss Bruney was worried about me when I was a senior in high school. She, who had not been my teacher since 9th grade, came up to me at school one day in my senior year and asked me if I was okay. She gazed at me gently but also with a serious demeanor, as she then asked me if I was thinking about hurting myself.
I told her that I was not. As I recall, she then asked me again.
She wanted to make sure that I was truly okay.
A few other people, including some of my classmates, also asked me if I was alright.
They too were worried about me.
But it was only Miss Bruney, who had the courage to stand up before morning assembly and to denounce the sadism that was being directed at me, as well as the silence of so many others.
In her speech, in which she inveighed like a pastor from the pulpit, she reminded everyone at morning assembly that, several years before, one of my classmates had also been mistreated.
Then she told everyone at school that I had been the only one, the only one, who had stood up for this student, who had left Hopkins after that year.
Unlike that classmate of mine, who was mistreated in 9th grade, Miss Bruney intuited correctly that I had been harmed when I was younger, much younger, at a time when my brain and my body were just growing.
Miss Bruney understood that I was a victim of early childhood trauma, and she was not going to allow it to persist at Hopkins.
When Miss Bruney spoke of me at morning assembly, she said, “He doesn’t even know that I’m talking about him, and that’s because he’s so damaged; and you’re damaging him even more.”
I can’t remember if it was just before or just after her speech at morning assembly that Miss Bruney came up to me again and asked if I was okay.
She then told me to tell her if anyone was bothering me; she said that she would take care of it. She added that she was not going to let anyone else hurt me anymore at my high school.
I always loved Miss Bruney. She was the best math teacher that I ever had.
And I always knew that she exuded love and strength.
But, because of the savagery of my trauma from kindergarten, because I dissociated for decades whenever I encountered evil, I had no idea that Miss Bruney saved me when I was in high school.
After Miss Bruney gave her speech, some other faculty members, who had been mostly silent, also came to my defense.
It is true that some had already done so in different settings.
Delaney Kiphuth, my American history teacher at Hopkins and the former Yale Athletic Director, had chided others in my 11th grade history class for hurting me. And he had helped me out in the locker room when I was being bothered there.
He too was a hero. As were some others.
But no one, except Miss Bruney, stood up before morning assembly and defended me before the whole school.
No one else had that courage, that fearlessness or that love, no one, except my Barbara, my “precious angel” and “comely woman,” who has revealed the secrets of God to me.
Scripture teaches us to “seek, and ye shall find.”
Mysticism, a deeper connection to God, is open to all of us.
But we have to open our souls and our minds to love.
And we need to do so forever, for 40, 50 years and more.
You can’t do one good deed for another human being and think that allows you to be cruel to that person in the future.
You can’t expect a medal or a so-called profile in courage for doing the right thing once or twice in your career.
You have to try your best to summon all of your free will, to do the right thing every time, every time, throughout your life, especially when a good person, a sweet and bright kid, a little child, is being harmed.
And the commandment to do a mitzvah, to do good deeds, to do the right thing, is true whether you are Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or any other religion.
All these years later, I have never received a true apology from those classmates, who hurt me years ago.
I did receive a few situational ones years ago from students, who feared that I would sue them, after Miss Bruney gave her speech.
But I did not know what these kids were talking about because I was still dissociating, triggered, of course, by the trauma that had lesioned my brain, my body and my soul, when I was in kindergarten.
Once these kids realized that I did not understand what was happening, they smirked and, in most cases, continued to abuse me, to lie about me, to damage me.
Needless to say, they were all cowards and sadists, and, to the extent that any of them offered me an apology, those apologies were clearly insincere.
But a few teachers did apologize to me, and they did so more earnestly.
One of them, a gentleman, was, at least for a period of time, a somewhat observant Catholic, though he has never had the conviction or the ethical compass of Miss Bruney, his co-religionist.
This man had also studied early childhood education. And, like Miss Bruney, he had suspected not long after meeting me that I had been traumatized when I was a little child.
This fellow had tried to help me when I was young, and I know that he did care about me for a period of time.
But he also turned on me later, at the urging of some very cruel people, entitled legacies or wannabe legacies, who had no compassion for me and no insight into the early childhood trauma that I had endured at the hands of Mrs. Crawley.
“We did a terrible thing to you, Robert,” said this gentleman to me over the phone many years ago.
I told him that I did not know what he was talking about.
“Some day, you will,” he said, as he noted the strength of my memory.
He asked me if I had read the prophets from the Hebrew Bible; he then cited the Book of Isaiah.
I told him that I had not read that portion of the Old Testament.
“Some day, you will,” this gentleman said again.
A career educator, this man, in his own way, had, like Miss Bruney, been inspired by the Civil Rights movement, by heroes like the Rev. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
“You’re incredibly strong, Robert. Now, I know what you can do. And I ask that you go easy on us,” he added over the phone. “I know that you won’t be able to forgive some people. But I ask, at a personal level, that you please forgive me.”
I repeated to this gentleman that I did not know what he was talking about.
“God, did she damage you,” he said of Mrs. Crawley, my kindergarten teacher. “I am so ashamed, Robert.”
This gentleman had looked into what had happened to me when I was a little child in Hamden, Conn. He knew that Mrs. Crawley had tried to destroy me, a Jewish boy. And he had learned that I was teaching the other kindergartners, most of them Catholic kids, how to read in the days leading up to Yom Kippur in 1970.
He said that, at the appropriate time, he would come forward and reveal the truth.
“We’re expecting great things from you, Robert,” said this gentleman over the phone.
Then, in his final words to me, he said, “Don’t let them win.”
I won’t let them win.
And I do forgive this gentleman, because I know, that, unlike most of the others, who were cruel to me, he actually did care for me at one time when I was young.
But, in many respects, it may not matter if I forgive this gentleman.
His fate is in God’s hands.
I can send positive vibes about this particular educator to God.
But this gentleman must do the right thing. He must indeed come forward and tell the truth about what he and others did to me over the years.
He must do so, because God demands it, especially during the Days of Awe, when popes have sometimes visited the United States and published encyclicals.
“Judaism is a well-cultivated, olive tree, onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles,” as Nostra Aetate proclaimed during Vatican II in the 1960s.
Miss Bruney, my 9th grade math teacher at Hopkins, later left the school and became a pastoral leader in the Catholic Church.
Her idealism for civil rights and her devotion to God were both forged during the 1950s and 1960s, when, as I already mentioned, she had seen too many gifted, young people suffer from the evil of prejudice and from jealousy of the other.
When Miss Bruney gave her speech on the stage at Hopkins, when I was a senior in 1983, she spoke with righteousness and fury.
The stage at morning assembly that day was transformed into Miss Bruney’s pulpit.
In speaking of me, Miss Bruney told everyone at morning assembly, “He’s better than you; he’s better than all of you, and I’m including faculty! And he’s better than you in every way.”
To paraphrase from the Book of Isaiah, Miss Bruney “smote” the attendees at that morning assembly with the “rod of her mouth.”
And, to invoke Isaiah again, Miss Bruney, “with the breath of her lips”, then laid waste to and “slayed the wicked” at my school.
“He’s different,” she told everyone at assembly. “But not in the way you think.”
It would be fine, she said, if I were different in the way that people were saying. But she knew that I was not. And she told everyone this.
Then Miss Bruney articulated what, at core, made me different. I don’t recall how she phrased it exactly, but Miss Bruney said, in essence, that I radiated love.
And she pointed out that all of the Black students at Hopkins knew this about me. They all knew that I was their friend. They all knew that I cared about them. And they all knew that I cared out of love.
Miss Bruney then said that she would “hold everyone accountable,” everyone, including the faculty, if anything happened to me.
And if anything did happen to me, by which she meant, were I to hurt myself by jumping out of a window, Miss Bruney minced no words: “That would be unforgivable!”
Several faculty members applauded that day at morning assembly. And Mrs. Giamatti, my first adviser at Hopkins in 7th grade and my English teacher senior year, smiled at me later in school and asked if I had understood what Miss Bruney was saying.
I had not understood it at the time. I had not understood back then that Miss Bruney was saving me from further harm at Hopkins.
But I understand now.
Barbara, my precious angel, shone her light on me quite radiantly during the eve of this Rosh Hashanah, an eve that coincided almost exactly with the second anniversary of her passing.
And Barbara shone her light on the love of Miss Bruney, my 9th grade math teacher.
As Miss Bruney pointed out in her speech, there are some sins that may be unforgivable.
God, of course, is the one who makes these judgments.
He assesses such sins and metes out punishment.
God is love, but God is also justice, true justice.
We should always strive to do good deeds, and this is particularly the case during the Days of Awe.
During this time, when God decides whether to write us into the Book of Life, we need to do our best to reflect on the past, to show contrition and humility, and to atone, even if it is painful, even if God may “reduce us to tears,” as Bob Dylan sings, and even if the pain of trauma and the memories of the past leave us disoriented in the middle of the night after we have awakened from a bad dream.
We must do the right thing now and forever, but perhaps especially now, at this time in our existence, when we face numerous crises, some of an existential nature, when many of our schoolchildren and teachers, among others, are traumatized by COVID-19, extreme weather, climate change, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and other issues.
We have a chance to provide a safety net for our children and our young people.
We have always had the ability to confront hatred and evil. And we must do so with love, sometimes with a love that is fierce, like that of Charlotte Bruney.
Love, as Barbara said, is the most powerful thing of all. And God is love.
Shalom and Shanah Tovah!
And a little child shall lead them.