by RIP RENSE
A WORD FROM MR. JAVITZ
(March 13, 2008)
tell you a little about Louis B. Javitz.
It’s important that you
know about him, I think, and importance is a term I don’t just toss around.
I wish I could tell you
his history, where he was from, where he studied---all the nuts and bolts of
how he became the man he was. It would be interesting. But I don’t know much
of it. I was only eleven when I met Lou Javitz, and eleven-year-olds aren’t
too concerned with such things.
Lou was perhaps fifty
then, round-faced with sort of frog eyes, engineer's glasses, and 5 o’clock
shadow by 11 a.m. He was about five-feet-nine, and seemed to always wear
dark slacks and white shirts with the sleeves rolled up. If there was a tie,
it was skinny, black, and loosened into inconsequence.
Lou's build was kind of
portly, with a bull neck, and he spoke out of one side of his mouth because
the other half was paralyzed. One of his legs was all busted up and stiff,
and he dragged it as he walked. He sweated like crazy, whether it was hot or
cool. His hair was a kind of mussed Brillo pad.
I knew him as “Mr.
Javitz,” and I knew just a few things about him. He had been badly
injured while working as a blacksmith (I think employed by the U.S. Navy) at
Pearl Harbor. He had a wife and a couple of sons. He owned his own gas
station/garage in the Valley, and frequently stayed up all night overhauling
I knew about the
all-night greasemonkey work because it left him especially short on patience
the next day, when he came to work on no sleep. I knew about that because
his work was to teach sixth grade at Meadows Elementary School in Thousand
Oaks, California, where I was one of his students. I can still see the
occasional eraser whiz past a kid’s forehead in a cloud of chalk dust.
I’m older now than Lou
Javitz was when he taught me, incredibly, and his personality and Meadows
School are now kind of mixed together in mind and memory. Where one thing
ends and the other begins, I no longer quite know. He is that school, to me,
almost part of its very walls and chalkboards and desks. Schools, after all,
are made of teachers.
And Mr. Javitz was
among Meadows' original batch. When he and I started there in 1962, the
school was brand-new. I remember my father showing me a magazine article
(Time, as I recall) in which Meadows was mentioned as architecturally
innovative. It sure looked futuristic, what with circular buildings, and
walls that folded aside so classrooms could be combined (quite a kid thrill,
seeing those walls disappear to reveal all your other pals, like some
Oh, and there was a
great, sweeping playground, and something called a “cafetorium” in which all
the tables and benches somehow magically folded into the walls, so the
students could put on Christmas concerts and the 8th graders have dances. I
spent five years there, learning to play basketball on its blacktop courts,
writing my first poems and short stories with yellow Ticonderoga No. 2
pencils at its wood desks.
Here's part of one, which
I did for Mr. Javitz:
airplanes, trains, a car or bus
Transportation is good
for us. . .
Take a plane to Maine
but don't open the door
Take a train to Texas
but please don't be sore
At the porters, for
getting baggage mixed up
or opening a door
in the middle of a card
while you're trying to
keep score. . ."
Not bad for an
eleven-year-old! (Especially one who had never traveled.) Mr. Javitz liked
it (A-plus!), and I doubt I would have done anything as good for any other
teacher. He had a knack for getting work out of you that you didn't know you
were capable of.
I can still see him
arriving in the early mornings in his pale blue Dodge station wagon,
stopping off for coffee in the teachers’ lounge, and dragging his stiff leg
over to room 12, where he was met by a flailing, shouting, laughing
11-and-12-year-old mayhem of burgeoning body chemistry.
Once inside that
pie-wedge-shaped classroom, he harnessed our mad energy, honed the
flailing arms and legs into incipient thinking machines. He was serious, and
he expected us to be, too. I don’t think I ever worked as hard in school
again, or learned as much, as I did in the 6th grade with Mr. Javitz. I mean
And to think: he was not
paid extra to teach us high-school level Spanish, and high-school level
geometry. He was not paid extra to go to night school and study Spanish just
so he could teach it to us. He was not paid extra to have us write 20-page
reports about different countries of the world. Twenty pages! In sixth
grade! He was not paid extra to go, desk-by-desk, around the room and help
each of his (must have been close to 35) students with math, sentence
diagramming, drops of sweat landing on our papers. . .
He was not paid extra
to inspire grass-stained boys and chattery little girls to take a real
interest and pride in their work, many (including me) for the first time in
their lives. He was not paid extra to make at least one kid think he could
write. He was not paid extra to play put classical records on a phonograph,
some afternoons, as we did our work. . .
Yes, I see Mr. Javitz
clearly, very clearly, sitting at his desk and smiling that crooked smile at
us all, eyes crinkling with warmth. Having a piece of cake at a class
holiday party. And I hear his cigarette-raspy, hearty laugh, and his rich
baritone voice. Especially as it spoke a sentence one day as he
dropped me off at home, when I'd stayed late to help clean up his classroom:
“You can go far in life, and I want to see you do it!”
He wasn't paid extra for that, either.
So when I read recently
Conejo Valley Unified School District is planning to close my old school---despite
its perfect condition and its status as a National Blue Ribbon institution,
despite its shining history, and despite the astonishing amount of loyalty
and love that former students have for it---it felt like they’re somehow
also closing the spirit of Louis B. Javitz.
I don’t think the great
man would understand it.
I don’t think he would
understand CVUSD members being so unable to cope with budget cuts, so
unimaginative and unintelligent that they want to actually close such a
I don’t think Mr. Javitz
would buy the official excuses about decreased district-wide enrollment and
“diversity.” After all, student-teacher ratio is now right where he would have
liked it. Diverse? There are, and have always been, minority kids at
Meadows. I don’t think he would have understood singling out a school for
closure because its neighborhoods have always been predominantly white.
And I especially don’t
think this tough, durable man who lived with terrible physical limitation and daily pain
would have understood closing one of three schools in the area equipped to
deal with disabled children.
Frankly, I don’t think
Lou Javitz would have understood a school district wanting to close a school---period. I can picture him shaking his head sadly at rumors that the
proposed shutdown is actually born of mysterious CVUSD politics.
And I absolutely know
that he would have been outraged and insulted by an e-mail from the
“committee” of parents and teachers recommending closure to the CVUSD, in
which it callously, cynically dismissed
impassioned defense of Meadows by hundreds of parents and ex-students as
mere “my school is great and should not be closed” rhetoric.
Well, Mr. Javitz isn’t
here, but I think I can tell you exactly what he---and many other selfless
and heroic teachers who have made Meadows an exceptional place of learning
for 46 years---would say in response to that committee, and the CVUSD:
“My school is great and
should not be closed.”
Mr. Louis B. Javitz
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