Monday, August 01, 2005

Marilyn Elise Powell Berns 1931-2005

This post isn't about writing. Not exactly.

I went to Marilyn Berns' funeral today. She was the mother of my good friend, the artist Leslie Berns Richman. I last saw Marilyn and her husband Norm when they came to my book launching party at Book Soup. I lived with Leslie in San Francisco in the late '70s and we've been friends ever since, though since '81, at least, we've lived in different locales.

Her mother Marilyn died last week. She had lung cancer that progressed into her liver. Her passing was rather quick. She had two daughters, Lisa and Leslie, and was married to Norm.

I was moved by the talks everyone gave in remembrance of Marilyn. Over and over people said how Marilyn was generous and loving, and quick to tell you if you weren't doing your best. Marilyn is the sister of Colin Powell, former secretary of state. While I was moved by everyone's talks, I was most moved by what Colin said.

He talked about how they grew up in a Bronx, New York, tenement with their parents, Luther and Ariel. Colin said Marilyn always pushed him to do his best and while she got into a good college--Buffalo State Teachers College--the one of her choice, he kept getting turned down by colleges. But he kept trying, and ended up going to City College. His sister went to college and so he had to, too. I found that moving--here was one of the most respected politicians in recent history, and he was saying it was his sister who made him want to do better, who prompted him to go to college and do all he could.

She was his sister, and she was a teacher. Marilyn was an effective teacher. That same quality, wanting the people she knew and loved to do their best, carried over to her students. Marilyn was charismatic and had an infectious laugh. She was self-assured and she wanted her students to have confidence in themselves, too. I've been thinking about that, about teaching and how you help a student believe in him or herself when that belief in self is lacking. Should a teacher never take no for an answer, when a student says, "I just can't do that," or does a good teacher persist?

I almost quit high school but there were a few teachers who wouldn't let me. Who knew I could do better, if only they could find the key. And they did.

I wish Marilyn were here to discuss teaching (too often it takes someone passing to remember what we meant to do with that person, what we meant to talk about) and if you ever take no for an answer. Yet, I imagine she would have said, No. You never take no for an answer. You always expect more and hope for more. And sometimes the best happens.


Rocio said...

For some reason I googled Marilyn Berns tonight. She was my 5th grade teacher some 17 years ago. I will never forget her, and have never forgotten her. She will always be one of those key people in my life who changed my life for the better. You described her perfectly, right down to the infectious laugh that I remember all too well. No real reason for my comment here except that I remember her fondly.


Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

That's interesting! Are you in Southern Cal still? There will be a dedication to her on Nov. 15, I think--a building at a school, or a school, named for her. If you're interested, I'll list the details here.

Thanks for commenting!

Rocio said...

I didn't check back here before today! But I was at the Dedication today at Martin School. It was beautiful! I still live in Santa Ana. The Library and Media Center at the school where she taught (and my elementary school) was named for her. I remembered your blog when the Principal quoted it in her speech. I can't help but think Marilyn is definitely smiling tonight.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I met Marilyn and her husband while waiting for a table at a restaurant in Palm Springs. We had a wonderful conversation when we realized that we both had grown up in the same part of the Bronx and that we were both teachers. I mentioned the name of my High School and Marilyn said that her brother went to Morris High School. I said, "How interesting. Colin Powell went to Morris High and C.C.N.Y. where I went to college." Then this charming woman with a lovely husband said, "My Brother is Colin Powell." Wow! We talked about our children and decided to break bread together. The evening was sparkling and I thought that she was probably as remarkable as her brother.
I thought then that she must have been an awesome teacher and was delighted to hear her students comments.

Ruby said...

Mrs. Berns was an amazing school teacher. 17 years later also like Rocio, I still remember her, my 4th grade teacher. I was blogging about the time she invited her Brother Gen. Colin Powell to visit our elementary school and how that event is something i can share with my children now about Black History. Mrs. Berns will forever live in my memory tho i am sadden to find out about her passing I am honored to have known her.