Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Changing the world

Last week I had the honor and privilege of presenting a scholarship award to a graduating senior at St. Paul (Minnesota) Central High School. Each year our class awards $5,000 scholarships to anywhere from ten to thirteen well-deserving students, all of whom we feel are worthy of that extra financial boost to make their dream of a post-secondary education become a reality.

This year we had thirteen scholarship recipients. Twelve of them were presented by another committee member. But I presented the thirteenth - a special award given in honor of my very dear friend and colleague, Laura Singher Turner.

Laura was a classmate in high school. Being a graduating class of over 600, she was someone I knew by name and face, but I didn't really know her as a person. After both of us played a small part in organizing our 40th class reunion, she invited me to continue being involved by joining the Scholarship Committee. I wisely took her up on it.

From then on, we became great friends, talking on the phone at least three times a week, meeting for lunches, and sharing scholarship duties, as well as our personal lives.

Laura took her scholarship committee role very seriously. Over the twenty years of our efforts resulting in over 100 student awards, Laura followed every single student personally.  She was the students' main point of contact for dispersion of their funds and so answered their questions, listened to their concerns and sometimes mini-crises, met them at computer stores to purchase a laptop, went to their homes if they needed an immediate check, got to know their families, and was often invited to attend their graduations and open houses.

The students loved her. They loved her emails of encouragement and wrote back of their progress and achievements, all of which she proudly shared with all of us committee members. In short, she was their Den Mother - or, quite literally, since she was Jewish, their Jewish Mother!

Laura Singher Turner

Sadly, we lost our friend and colleague very suddenly a month ago. Our program, our high school, our students, indeed our world, is less without her. We're not sure how to go on as she was truly irreplaceable, but we're trying very hard, as she would push us to do.

So we had our award ceremony as part of the school's "Senior Honors Night" last week where all scholarship awards are given and recognized. Laura's husband, sister and brother-in-law attended. We carried on, but were all acutely aware of her absence.

The special award I presented was the Laura Turner Scholarship Award. It was given to the student who best represented the ideals of equality and social justice Laura worked so hard to promote. Indeed, as applications from students were received, she always had her eye out for that student who wished to right all society's wrongs and change the world. And then she advocated strongly for that student.

We feel she led us in choosing just the right person, a lovely young woman headed to Hamline University majoring in social activism and nonprofit management. I'll be interested in following her as her mentor.

We all thank Laura for the great legacy she left for us, and the impact she had on the lives of countless young scholars.  She changed the world for them.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Fifty, you say?

Fifty!  Fifty years!

Fifty is half of a hundred. Fifty is a half-century. Fifty is a ridiculous number. Fifty is scary.

No, I am not turning fifty. That happened long ago and it was scary enough.

Yes, this is the year of my fiftieth high school class reunion. Ridiculously unbelievable.

Last week, I spent a day at my Alma mater, St. Paul (Minnesota) Central High School. Being a member of the Class of '63 Scholarship Committee, formed right after our 30th reunion to lend a helping hand to college-aspiring students in need, about 8 of us interviewed 22 well-deserving high school seniors who qualified out of 150 initial applications for a face-to-face interview. Of those 22, our task was to select 13 of them for a $5,000 scholarship award each.

Believe me, this was tough. Recounting their academic experiences, as well as their community involvement and their future goals, they made me feel like I've lived under a rock for the past 50 years. They are smart, mature, driven, and know where they're going. This in spite of the fact that some are helping to support their families.

That certainly wasn't me as a high school senior. A far cry from it, in fact.

I was the first to arrive that day, so I had time to get settled in and then watch out the second story window as the students began to arrive for the school day. Some were dropped off in cars, some emerged from an orange school bus, some were simply walking, others roller-blading, Heading toward school for another routine, perhaps ordinary, perhaps memorable, day.

St. Paul Central, ca. 1920. But it actually looked the same in 1963.
Today, it has been renovated and looks nothing like this.
Some original rooms (the assembly hall, the band room) remain the same.

As I watched them, it was me coming up those many steps infamous to Central (steps that I once sprinted up daily and now take me an eternity to mount one-step-at-a-time) to begin another school day.

Perhaps I took the Special (a direct bus) from the corner of Cleveland and Lincoln; perhaps I walked all the way to save bus fare for spending money; perhaps Mary Kay got her mother's car and drove me; perhaps Rosie's boyfriend, Bob, drove us. But it was, in my mind, clearly yesterday.

Nostalgia took over. All of a sudden, the bell was ringing and I was bustling through the hallways to get to my locker, to get to my next class on third floor on time, and, most important, to meet up with Mary Kay to pass last hour's notes between us.

No, not class notes.  Notes we wrote to each other during class, notes that contained urgent and vital information: What was she wearing Saturday night? Who was that seen with Jane at Sandy's Drive-In after school yesterday? What did my mother say when Mike brought me home an hour after curfew? Should we meet at Merriam Park library tonight and tell our moms we have research to do there? Sharing the drama of our teenage lives in notes.

As I listened to the students we were interviewing, it was difficult to imagine their life when compared to mine; indeed, all of ours in the Class of '63. It was a different time, to be sure.

And as a high school senior, had someone mentioned I would be involved in later years discerning who was most worthy of a college scholarship; that I would be attending my fiftieth class reunion this coming August, I'd have been totally mystified at what they were saying.

As we ended our day of interviews and selected the thirteen, with some agreement, a little disagreement and always negotiation, we all agreed wholeheartedly on one thing:

The world is in good hands with these remarkable individuals. Let them go forth and lead.

But a universal truth prevails: Their fifty years will go by quickly.