Recently, the founder of Temescal’s legendary Park Day School passed.

If you knew him or if you’d like to learn more about him, Park Day School, and progressive education in the East Bay, you may attend his memorial service at The Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, at 2025 Addison Street in Berkeley, on Monday, June 2 at 7 p.m.

I write a tribute in his name because he was a great role model, and he helped me when my mother died and I was adopted.

There were more than ten other kids, besides myself, with lesbian moms at Park Day, so it was nice to feel camaraderie with them.

I was more angry at the world in general after my mom died, because I had to move to Oakland at 7 years old, “by myself.” My classmates seemed unable to relate to me, partly because they liked television and I didn’t have one.

Eventually, I only made friends with kids who caused trouble with me. I became a chronic problem for my teachers, even though I was “one of the best” students, and I realized that each one of us was treated as “one of the best” students, in his or her own way.

When I gave someone a bloody nose or sprayed the maintenance man’s truck with the hose, I would be sent to Tom’s office, with its grand wooden furniture, where he would invoke his powers as a visionary leader to convince me that I should consider following certain basic rules of decency. I would argue with him, and tell the teachers I was innocent, and keep getting in trouble.

Tom never threatened to punish me. Being in his office was considered punishment, even though it felt more like a privilege to disrupt his busy day for my own mistakes.

Instead of punishment, he used reason: Why are you doing this, Shoshone? I could not give him an answer, and I still can’t. I was angry with everyone in the world except him. The buck stopped, magically, there. He could not (or would not) pass me off to anyone else, even though my mom had passed me off and each teacher, in turn, had passed me off to him.

He was very generous with his time and with his advice. I remember him strolling into Joan Albertini’s first-grade classroom, made up to encompass the feeling of the South American rainforest, and holding forth on the importance of random acts of kindness and senseless beauty. I had no idea what he meant, but I remember his confidence, his patience, and his demeanor. I could see how he was once a kid like me.

When we became a little too interested in the shooting-game part of the Oregon Trail CD-ROM, Tom himself came in to check it out, commenting that he wasn’t sure we should be spending hours on end shooting virtual animals.

At one point, after going to his office a dozen times, I actually made Tom lose his patience. I don’t remember what either of us said, and he did not raise his voice. If he had, I would have remembered it. I don’t, actually, remember anything about that meeting with Tom, but afterward I remember feeling an awesome, mysterious sense of power: I could make Tom Little listen to me.

I was shocked, truly, when Tom contacted my mom and apologized to me, even though (or because) I now knew the problem was me. After that day, I no longer went to his office, on the east side of the building, sun always streaming through the large paneled windows that framed the elder’s home that Park would later buy and convert into a middle school.

In an unfortunate way, even though he was in his sixties, Tom was like both of my parents, who died in their fifties. Friends of both of my parents have told me that they were generous in carrying the burdens of others. Tom was like that. When my mother died, he, along with other staff and my teacher, Karen Corzan, coordinated a feeding program for us.

Every night, as if by some unseen magic, a Park Day family would materialize on the dark, dusty doorstep of our apartment building on Opal Street. Often, they were elegantly dressed, with all their kids in tow, as if it were a true honor to serve us. They brought casseroles and salads, entrees and hors d’oeuvres, always home-cooked. It was a way of teaching me that every tragedy brings people closer together, especially under Tom’s watch.

Now that he is gone, still young, we must be like him in watching those who are having trouble, and, more importantly, listening to them and making them feel welcome wherever they are, and whatever they’ve done or will do in the future. I never went back to Park to tell Tom how much he helped me, because I knew that his actions were the outcome of a life of wisdom, service, and compassionate devotion, and that following his ideals was the best way to pay him back.

Shoshone Odess,
Park Day School Alum

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.
For guidelines, see: http://oaklandlocal.com/guidelines.
For more information on posting to community voices, see The word on Oakland Local’s Community Voices posts, http://bit.ly/1nsD19L.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.