Rest in Peace, Jay Spitz.
Jay was an original. I met him in 2002, when I first started the New York City Teaching Fellows program that summer. I remember entering a room, probably at St. John’s University, and meeting what would become, essentially, my middle school math teaching cohort. Jay was an interesting dude. Here was this middle-aged guy, in my mind he was wearing a sports coat or even a suit, with two earrings in his left ear, and super organized. I remember seeing him rock binders, dividers, notepads. He was on top of staying organized. I respected that a lot, especially as I was someone who always struggled with organization.
I was 24 years old, two years away from college graduation, and had already started and left a career in the start-up world. I think I was a little shocked at how old all the other teachers were in the Middle School math cohort that I was a part of.
From the beginning, Jay was a natural leader. I remember he was constantly asking logistical questions that would benefit us all. Will we have a bathroom break? Where can I get lunch during break? Who can help us study for our content exam? Can we form study groups? He was good at looking at immediate obstacles and figuring out that they needed clarification.
He was also extremely generous, both with his time and his money. He was transitioning from being a Manhattan-based accountant. I remember his office was around 34th-street, not far from Madison Square Garden. He drove a BMW SUV, something he leased, I remember him saying. And he also, didn’t drink.
I would find out later that he was a 12-stepper, someone who had to confront his addictions. This only made me respect him more.
I remember he was always happy to give us rides in his BMW. He and Keith were basically the shuttle service for our cohort, driving us from our summer sessions at I.S. 318 to our other meetings at the St. John’s campus. Driving us to Manhattan for NYC Teaching Fellows meetings we had there. I have this distinct memory of sitting in the backseat with him as we drove down 14th street into Union Square and him pointing out everything, restaurants he liked, pointing out hot women walking on the street (For real, this was part of summertime culture in NYC), and places that he had worked.
I remember the study groups he organized at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, where we basically reviewed the entire run of math content from 6th-12th grade. I remember being a little shocked at how hard it was for him to comprehend the basics of Calculus and Computer Science. I remember being in awe of how good he was with arithmetic and mental math. He had a lifetime in accounting as a CPA after all.
I remember his devotion to his dogs. He loved his dogs. And raising dogs in NYC was probably not easy. But he had special leashes that fit on top of his dogs faces, always explaining that they were NOT muzzles, but enabled him to help control his dogs in a more natural way than yanking on their necks.
I remember he was an eater. Always dropping knowledge about the great restaurants of NYC, always wanting to celebrate by going out to eat. City Grab, the steak house in mid-town, even the Diner near St. John’s. He loved to eat with company. And he almost always tried to take the tab, for our entire cohort of 8 people! I often brought Jeannice, my significant other at the time, to these events too, and he was happy to pay for her too.
I remember Jay immediately connected to his students. He talked about a child he met with every week as a Big Brother that really inspired him to make this transition into teaching. He shared, in his first year, that one of his students confided in him that she was pregnant.
I remember Jay loved children. He loved his wife and mentioned that they were unable to have children biologically. At the time, I didn’t realize how much of a pain this was for him. As a teacher, someone who is surrounded by children, I sensed also how proud he was of working with and connecting to children. I also sensed that he really craved to start a family of his own. He wanted to have children. He wanted to be a father.
We talked about a lot of things in those first few years of teaching. I was going through a lot myself. Transitioning to a new career, one that made much less money. Getting married and then getting divorced. Learning to navigate the Master’s degree. Figuring out how to teach and drop the deficit framework about urban schools that I had been taught all my life.
And in these conversations, I learned so much about Jay. His love of alcohol, weed, and cocaine that eventually led to him joining a 12-step program. The daily struggle and clarity he needed in order to live a sober life. The work it took to build a strong marriage, especially one in which both spouses are extremely busy. The affordances that money can buy to make your life more manageable: parking spaces in NYC, good food, leasing cars so you’re not putting money into assets that depreciate.
Jay, to me, was like a big, loveable dog. I say this with the most respect. I remember him exuberantly jumping up, shaking his whole upper body, and hooting when he got excited about something. I remember the emotion that was always apparent from his facial expressions. I love that he didn’t deny the temptation that alcohol was for him. I love that he said what he thought, whether it was off color jokes, pointing out a beautiful woman on the street, or frustration over the way the lack of support in our schools.
Jay, I love you. I met you at a time when I was becoming the adult I am now. Thank you for being you, for helping me learn how to navigate this world of teaching, adulthood, and manhood.