In June, my friend and fellow teacher Jonathan Levin was murdered in his apartment in New York City. After police charged a former student of Jon’s whom he had befriended, news reports and commentaries quoted teachers who argued that educators can get too close to their students. In the August/September issue of Teacher Magazine, two teachers, Eva Ostrum and Edmund Janko, made this point in essays that ran under the headline “Killed By Kindness.”
It is disheartening to read of teachers who cite the circumstances surrounding Jon’s death as justification for their uninspired work. This rare, isolated event may be reinforcing the reluctance of weak and cowardly teachers to fully engage their students. But there is another lesson to be learned from this tragedy, one that’s drawn from how Jon lived, not how he died.
Jon and I began our New York City teaching careers together at Taft High School in the fall of 1993. Unlike Jon, I had some classroom and theoretical background, but it soon became clear that Jon’s enthusiasm and hard work were far more important and effective than my practical experience. Jon knew that a successful teacher had to do much more than what schools of education teach. He inspired me and many others through his unwavering advocacy for the students. He knew that if he did not stand up for his kids, in school and in life, no one else would.
This attitude was evident in Jon’s relationship with Corey Arthur, his alleged murderer. Although news accounts reported that Corey was a current student of Jon’s, he had been out of school for more than a year and, at 19, was trying to settle into a normal life after his felony conviction and parole for possession of crack cocaine and heroin. Jon saw Corey not as a student but as an adult in need of direction and encouragement. Corey was an aspiring poet whose potential Jon was trying to bring out. The three of us once enjoyed an evening at my home watching sports and mulling over life’s possibilities. Jon wanted to show Corey that life in New York City in your 20s does not have to feature the drugs, violence, and loosely guarded angst to which so many like Corey are resigned.
Ostrum, Janko, and many of the teachers anonymously quoted in the press argued that educators should build a strong wall between their personal and professional lives. That’s just being realistic about what you can do to help kids, they argued. Yet Jon was far more realistic in his teaching methods than any teacher I have known. His realism was based in the experience of the students. The son of Time-Warner CEO Gerald Levin and a graduate of a top-flight Long Island high school, Jon knew that his past had no relevancy for the young people of the South Bronx. He knew that desperate, uncommon efforts had to be made to teach many of his students. If Jon had walled off his personal life from his professional life, he never would have been mourned so deeply and publicly, nor would his death have been reported in the International Herald Tribune, the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, or US Airway’s in-flight magazine.
Janko in his essay says that he had no ambitions of profoundly changing his students’ lives. “I would have been content with a clearly and correctly written essay,” he writes. Such minimal expectations insult the ability of our youths. Students will rise to the challenges they are asked to face. For a teacher to be content with less is to deny their students’ vast potential and to cheat them.
Ostrum admits that “every successful teacher I admired reached out to the students beyond the limitations of the classroom.” Jon did this in a regular and respectful manner. He not only opened up to the students but also constantly attempted to engage their parents. The failure of parents to get involved in their children’s education frustrated him greatly.
Arguing against Jon’s teaching methods champions the status quo. Most parents, educators, and citizens of this country regard the status quo of education as unacceptable. This is why new strategies, new materials, and new personnel are always being urged. Jon rejected the status quo at Taft and led his students in a new, positive direction. Those who would criticize Jon’s approach to education imply that he is in some way at fault for his own death. Such a suggestion is deplorable. He was murdered in a cruel and hateful act. I know that given the choice, Jon would rather have taught in his special way for four years and died than to have taught in quiet desperation for a lifetime.
Seeing the reaction of some educators to Jon’s death, I fear for those teachers who have recently connected with their students and felt the charge that such a connection brings. They may be new to the profession, or they may be veterans, but they are experiencing one of the ultimate joys of teaching. The death of such an influential teacher as Jon, however, may make them think twice about reaching out to a student again. And I fear that the misguided words of apathetic teachers will persuade them not to teach to their full potential. That would be a shame, and against everything for which Jon worked and lived. To those teachers and their students, I would offer advice from President John F. Kennedy, who once said in honor of Theodore Roosevelt:
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best, if he wins, knows the thrills of high achievement, and, if he fails, at least fails daring greatly, so that his face shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1998 edition of Teacher as A Lesson In Life