by Elizabeth Jefferson
Life's insights can come from seemingly trifling sources. In 1807 English poet William Wordsworth published a charming little poem entitled, "My Heart Leaps Up" one line of which suggests why my life — its values and approaches — has developed the way it did. In his seventh line Wordsworth wrote: "The Child is father to the Man." The poet's wisdom applies to my various roles in public service. We need both to learn from role models early in our lives and to be given opportunities to perform public service. We can find these role models and opportunities in our families, at school and church, and in the many other sectors of our communities. We don't learn in a vacuum. We observe public service; we absorb it, share it, extend it in the paths we choose.
Let me explain. I have had a lifelong commitment to peace. That commitment began at the moment — literally the very moment — that World War Two began. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, my family was living in naval housing near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where my career-NCO father was stationed with the Pacific Fleet. That day I experienced the terror of war, most closely on the very body of my little brother who had been hit by shrapnel. On Christmas Day, being evacuated to California, we said goodbye to Richard Baker and, for the next sixteen months, Helena Baker would have to raise David and me alone, without husband and father. Dad was in the Battle of Guadalcanal and, in November 1942, was aboard the USS San Francisco when the ship was hit by one of the war's first kamikaze attacks, killing 167 men and wounding more than 200 others. When Dad came home on a brief leave to Long Beach, California, we knew, as a family, that we had all served our country.
In the early 1950's at Jordan High School in Long Beach, students were encouraged to participate in a variety of clubs and activities. I became president of the World Friendship Club, which used discussions, debates and panel programs to stretch our minds and stretch our boundaries to the whole world. In my senior year I was selected to attend a seminar, sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, on peace issues first in Washington, D.C., and then at the United Nations in New York City. Naturally, there were students from all over the United States. It would be no surprise that, decades later, I became actively involved in the United Nations Association (UNA), eventually serving as President of the Montclair (New Jersey) chapter of UNA/USA.
Working for peace is important to me, and I've had many opportunities to do so. Here are but two examples: a high school student from Brazil, through Rotary International, lived with our family; I have been a board member – and even president for a while – of the Friends of Barnet, Montclair's English sister-city, which had sent fifty-two children to live in Montclair during The London Blitz.
Many opportunities for public service have been available. Over the years I have sung in church choirs, been a member of liturgical dance groups, served on many church committees and boards, participated in worship services in numerous capacities. Public service leads to public service.
Before I became a public school librarian, I found volunteering as a Girl Scout leader – as my mother had been when I was growing up – in Newark, New Jersey, a great help in developing skills with young people because of the first-rate and on-going training the Girl Scouts of America provided for us. At the same time I decided to become a volunteer docent at the Newark Museum. These opportunities to be highly‑trained in order to serve the community led to innumerable satisfying experiences. Those experiences led, in turn, to my decision to become a librarian in the Newark Public Schools. Both as a volunteer and as a professional, I could be creative, a catalyst for positive change in the local community, and ultimately help improve the world.
For 38 years I was a school librarian in Newark. Besides the excitement of working with delightful and resilient students, with their parents, and with other teachers during a time of adequate budgets for library books, there were many opportunities for professional and academic growth. I was a recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant for a six weeks secondary teachers' seminar at Columbia University in New York on "Classic Studies in American Racial and Ethnic History", participated in a writing seminar in Washington, D.C., through the Smithsonian Institution, and was selected to represent Newark Schools for a six-week seminar at Hebrew University in Jerusalem under the auspices of the National Committee for Middle East Studies in Secondary Education, which is affiliated with the American Academic Association for Peace to develop curriculum to be used by American secondary schools.
In the 1970's Montclair State College (now Montclair State University) developed Project THISTLE (Thinking Skills in Teaching and Learning) to provide Newark Public Schools teachers an opportunity to take graduate-level courses tuition-free in the School of Professional Studies. Classes were help on the college campus as well as in public school classrooms in Newark. The program recognized the expertise of the public school teachers in dealing with students daily and was designed to encourage us to incorporate the latest education research in our classes. I was in the group of "First THISTLElonians," some of whom went on to become high school department chairs and one of whom even became the Newark superintendent of schools. We were encouraged to participate in conferences, write articles, and teach in-service courses. What I especially appreciated about THISTLE was the sense of collegiality it nurtured among us in an increasingly challenging school system.
Later, the New Jersey Council of the Arts sponsored an Artist-in-Residence program, also to include a Writer in the Schools (WITS) program. My applications were accepted and, for several years, my students and I had the chance to work with several professional poets, a dramatist, a dancer, a video-maker, and puppet makers. Students were able to take advantage of these great resources to create their own poetry, plays, dances, videos, and puppets (just imagine what The Odyssey would look like performed by huge puppets!). We created anthologies of written work, video diaries, original poetry, sharing all of it with teachers and other students and even to the community at large.
Not only do schools provide ample opportunities for public service and improving the local and global communities. In the 1980's, for example, Olympia Dukakis's Whole Theater Company in Montclair developed a program for women called The Gathering to showcase their writing by public readings of their own poetry and short stories. The Gathering was made up of young women and older women, women of diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds, all come together to share their writing with each other and, eventually, with the public. Six of us even went to San Francisco to present our original program of poetry and music "Lessons in Life" for Leadership America. The Gathering lasted nearly a decade, until the closing of the Whole Theater Company. Yet friendships and serious support for writing continued long afterwards. I had served on the executive board of The Gathering, and afterwards I led a monthly writing seminar for older women for several years.
Since 1977 I have served on the Montclair Adult School curriculum committee. Begun in the early 1930's this vital school, which serves adults from many towns, has been a significant factor in the quality of life of northern New Jersey by catering to the diverse needs and interests of the local well-educated and -trained population. The number of people involved as volunteers, as students, as teachers has created a core of awareness of what is possible when there are opportunities for intellectual and artistic challenge, good mentoring, and high expectations for the love of learning.
Finally, during 2005 and 2006 I attended Landmark Education in New York City. Landmark helps its students analyze and develop those parts of their personal and professional lives which they consider most important. I took the introductory course, Landmark Forum, and then went on to the Advanced Course and ultimately to the Self Expression and Leadership Program (SELP), partly as preparation for my retirement. As part of my SELP project, a friend and I created and performed "Elizabeth & Robert: The Love of the Brownings," a piece incorporating the poetry and letters of the English poets. We presented it initially to the Friends of Barnet and their British counterparts, the Friends of Montclair, and subsequently in other public venues. My love of poetry and my love of public service have merged wonderfully in that dramatic piece.
Volunteering as public service involves participation, involves leadership, involves values and passions. It does require opportunities, as well as the mentoring and training to give those opportunities significance. The result is a life that is rich with experience in a better world.
Wordsworth was wise. My early years nurtured and revealed what I wanted to become, and volunteering for service to my fellow human beings has made my life Life.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Baker Jefferson is a retired Newark School
librarian. She was married for 43 years to the Reverend Kim Jefferson
(1931-2000), an ordained United Methodist minister. They have three daughters,
Nancy Gilletti, Judy Jonsson, Susan Murphy, and seven grandchildren, Joshua,
Justin, and Joseph Gilletti, Kelly and Jaime Jonsson, and Kyle and Michael
Murphy. Her many interests include photography, theater, travel, poetry, music,
reading, and actively participating in community activities. She has served as President of the Montclair Chapter of the United Nations Association of the U.S.A.
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