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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

It doesnt cost anything to be nice

Published: March 31, 2006
Section: Arts, Etc.

I was excited when, for one of my previous articles, the good people at The Hoot enlarged a quote from my mother, It doesnt cost anything to be nice. My parents are visiting Brandeis this weekend, so perhaps this is an appropriate time to tell the story behind the quote, explain my mothers life a bit, and maybe inspire some readers.

My mom was born in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, the only child of a blue-collar Jewish-American family. Her mother was the daughter of a Jewish baker who fled Poland as a boy. My grandmother left high school to take care of her family after her mother fell ill. My grandfather was a simple, kind-hearted man who had fled Eastern Europe as a child, settling with his parents in Blairsville, Pennsylvania. He worked at his fathers dry goods business, and also peddled goods in Blairsville and the surrounding towns of Black Lick and Bolivar. When my mother was growing up, he, like countless other Pittsburghers, worked in the steel mills.

My mother had very little growing up. She lived with her parents in a one-bedroom home in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. They had no car. Her family would pick up leftover pizza crusts from the nearby pizza shop, a source of free food for a family that struggled to make ends meet;

even today, she prefers the crust to the more flavorful middle of the pizza.

At age eight, my mom was adopted by her aunt and uncle. When my mom was a teenager, her aunt fell ill with cancer, and my mother was left to take care of her uncle, terminally ill aunt, and three cousins. Never a quitter, she took care of her family, worked after school, and went on to graduate among the top students in a high school class of nearly 600 students.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to attend a wonderful school like Brandeis;

for my mother, however, simply attending college was a blessing, let alone choosing a school. You see, my mom had two options following high schooleither go off to work somewhere or try to win a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. Through collaboration with her history teacher, she applied for and was awarded an AFL-CIO labor union scholarship.

The scholarship paid half of her Pitt tuition;

working in a hospital coffee shop, among other jobs, would pay for the other half. Commuting to Pitt from her aunt and uncles home, she also continued raising her cousins and taking care of her uncle and her aunt, whose health only worsened. She graduated magna cum laude from Pittsburgh in three-and-one-half years with a Bachelors degree in Elementary Education. The working-class girl from inner city Pittsburgh was also an invited speaker at Columbia Universitys Teachers College at the ripe age of twenty.

The following year, she married my dadthis November will mark their thirtieth anniversary. The newlyweds worked during the day and pursued Masters degrees at night, he in business and she in education. From her graduate training, she was a Reading specialist, and she worked for a time on a reading van, helping remedial students to read at a number of Pittsburgh schools until there was a shooting at one of the schools. She later taught at Gateway, the school district my sister and I would attend, until she was nearly nine months pregnant with my sister, and the high school told her it was no longer safe for her to come to school. (Some of her students were teenage mothers and comforted her, saying that giving birth was not such a big deal.)

Gateway went without Mrs. Heyman for nine years as she raised my sister and me. She went back to Gateway in fall 1991, looking for a teaching job as I started kindergarten. My mother worked the next several years as a substitute teacher, subbing for everything from kindergarten to school library to high school French or Tech Ed. A full-time position never has opened up, but she has picked up a new educational specialtyhomebound instruction.