In continuing my stroll down GDS’s memory lane in preparation for our 75th Anniversary, I have been soliciting essays from alumni, hoping to capture their memories of GDS. One of our first submissions came from Professor Arthur (Pat) Goldschmidt. Arthur who attended GDS from 1945–51 was among the first children to enroll in GDS. In those early days, GDS was nearly a year-round enterprise, as Aggie O’Neil, our first director, had a summer place up in the Catskills where many of those early students would go when the school let out for the year. In his essay, Arthur shares his deep love and decades-long devotion to Aggie and makes very clear how central an influence she was on shaping his principles. One anecdote in particular seems key to understanding what lies at the heart of GDS. Arthur tells his story from one such summer this way:
One day I was playing in the sandbox, unattended, with three-year-old Karen, who was African-American, playing near me. Suddenly she stood up and declared that when she grew up she wanted to marry me. Startled, I replied, “But you’re a different color than I am,” and resumed digging in the sand. A few minutes later Ag came by and asked me to come to a private room. Kneeling to talk to me at my eye level she said: “Pat, I don’t care if you’re white, brown, or polka-dotted, I love you. But when you told Karen you couldn’t marry her because she was a different color from you, you hurt her, and she came crying to me. I don’t ever want you to say anything like that again.” I never have.
This was an unusual conversation to be had in 1945 (and it’s still an important one today); yet, it speaks to almost everything we believe at GDS. Arthur was right that (in many parts of the United States) he couldn’t marry Karen. It was not until 1967 in the case of Loving v. Virginia that the Supreme Court struck down all state laws banning interracial marriage. Aggie, though, wasn’t talking about the law, and along with Dr. King, she felt strongly that some laws were meant to be disobeyed. As Dr. King defined it, a just law was one that lifted up the human spirit and an unjust one demeaned it; we are, according to Dr. King and Aggie, morally obligated to resist unjust laws.
More than that, though, in this episode Aggie (Ag) showed how, at our best, GDS thinks children learn and should be treated. First of all, she took Karen’s feelings seriously; it didn’t matter that she was only three. Second, instinctually, Aggie knew that children learn best in an atmosphere where they feel safe. You don’t shame them and you do not scold them publicly. Aggie invited Arthur into a private meeting. Then in keeping with GDS’s belief that the child’s dignity is equal to an adult’s, Aggie knelt so she could be at Arthur’s level. She made sure that Arthur felt emotionally safe himself, even as she was calling him to task. She made sure that he knew that her love was not conditional and that it transcended race. She loved Arthur because he was worthy of love, just as every child of color was worthy and deserving of love. Finally, in having that conversation, Aggie demonstrated her belief in Arthur’s capacity for growth. She spoke simply and directly with no doubt that he would listen, hear, understand, and make all necessary improvements. And he did. How wonderful if we all followed suit.