When They Fired My Father
by Ruth Horowitz
Of all the experiences in my childhood that gave shape to the person I am today, the McCarthy era and the firing of my father from his teaching position by the NYC Board of Education were perhaps the most significant, both having altered my child-life completely.
I grew up in Sunnyside Gardens where my parents owned one of the attached brick row houses that bordered a common courtyard. Both school teachers, they provided a materially comfortable and culturally rich life—everything I needed to flourish as a child. I was given lessons—piano, dance, art. We attended concerts, the ballet and theater. All kinds of books filled the living room bookshelves. We summered together on Long Island, and my brother and I went off to camp as well. And we always had a car, albeit a used one. We were clothed, fed, loved. Yet the pervasive cloud of McCarthyism, with all its attendant fear, hung over us, creating difficulties I could not negotiate and from which my parents could not entirely shelter me.
Blanche and Phil Horowitz met in the 1930s through their membership in the Teachers Union and much of their life together was dedicated to improving life for teachers and their students. My mother taught typing and stenography at Girls' High School in Brooklyn, and my father, English at Seward Park HS. I was always a little jealous of their devotion to their work and to the kids they taught; they often stayed after school hours, my mother most memorably to work with her students on presentations for Negro History Month.
A red diaper baby, I was aware very early on of workers' struggles and of the suffering of Black Americans under Jim Crow laws. I easily absorbed my parents' ideals on an emotional level, if not with any sophistication intellectually, namely, social justice for everyone and a world in peace. Throughout childhood, I had an adult-sized concern about things kids at school didn't think about. Considered mature and sensitive by adults, I was actually very confused and scared. I realized that our family was different, that my parents held unpopular views, and that there was some element of risk to holding those views. I lived in constant dread that something I'd say outside the home would have dire consequences for the parents I adored; I became extremely diffident.
In the fifties, so great was the fear of a Russian nuclear attack, we elementary school children were issued dog tags, and were periodically made to crouch under our desks during air raid drills. My best friend's dad was a political prisoner and my own family harbored friends being followed by the FBI. In great consternation, I asked my mother if she and my father would be going to prison too. Her answer was less than reassuring; I realize in retrospect, she really didn't know. That kind of unknown threat permeated my childhood. When my father and his colleagues began to lose their jobs, I worried about my own future, inviting laughter when I said I wanted to be a teacher but, if I was fired, I would become a harpsichordist. Funny as that was, I was completely in earnest.
Phil Horowitz was first and foremost a teacher. I was always aware how completely he loved the English language and its literature, and how connected he was to his students. At home, he'd regularly recite aloud lines of poetry and Shakespearean plays, discuss grammatical issues, do crossword puzzles, read to us, and help us with our English composition. Homework done, he played games with us the evenings my mother attended meetings. He was the sunshine in my childhood. My father had taught English for 28 years when he was fired in 1953.
When my father lost his job, I was ten years old. Robbed of his ability to provide financially for the family, and robbed of much of what gave his life joy and meaning, my father despaired, and a pall settled over the house. I remember the deep sadness I felt coming home daily from school to find my father, asleep on the living room couch, the house dark and quiet. Seeing the toll the investigations were taking on him, my mother left her teaching job on a disability retirement. Our live-in housekeeper, whose care for me had been strong and constant, was let go because there was not enough income to pay her salary. Seemingly overnight, my world changed: I cried all the time, ran away from school, and had to be transferred out of my 5th grade class.
I'm not sure how long it took, but my father eventually became employed again, first in a Christmas card production shop where the camaraderie of his fellow workers helped him regain his spirit, and finally at the private Hawthorne Cedar Knolls School as remedial reading teacher, returning him to his real vocation. But that period had left its indelible stamp on me.
I write to dispel the notion that Communists were evil people determined to destroy America. My parents worked tirelessly to make the world a better place to live in for all people. They were caring parents, good neighbors and good friends. They contributed to their community in many ways and through work in all kinds of organizations. I am proud to be their daughter.
Sunnyside Gardens, though not racially integrated, was home to people of different ethnicities, political affiliations and world views. It was like a small town: neighbors were generally friendly and helpful. During the McCarthy era, however, lines became sharply drawn between American Legionnaires (rabid anti-Communists), Social Democrats (whose kids I somehow knew I wasn't supposed to play with), and Communists. But there was also a close network of progressive people—not all of whom were Communists—who made life liveable: those losing their jobs were not entirely isolated during the worst of McCarthyism. I am grateful for the values and for the sense of safety they gave me in an otherwise precarious world.
I do not consider myself a political person—my activism is confined to voting and signing e-petitions—though I continue to follow the struggles of peoples all over the world fighting for a better life. I hold firmly to the values my parents instilled in me, especially the underlying principle that everyone deserves respect.
The Horowitz Family 1952
Ruth Horowitz has lived in the Canadian backwoods for the past 40 years where she homesteads with her husband. This article was originally printed on the website Dreamers and Fighters which discusses the history of the New York City Teachers Union.