I got to know Sylvia Schwartz when I enrolled my son Jed in the preschool of the Jewish Community Center, which had just moved from downtown to Zaban Park. He was a curious, bright, strong-willed 3-year-old who was lucky that Sylvia was his first teacher.
What made Sylvia an excellent teacher was her ability to recognize the unique nature of each child. Many teachers demand conformity, which makes their jobs easier. But not Sylvia. She was both friend and ally to all her students, helping them learn who they were and encouraging them to grow and develop into their best selves.
I’ll give you an example.
Three-year-olds do a lot of free play with blocks and other toys. In Sylvia’s class, when free play ended and it was time to clean up and get ready for the next activity, my son would often be in the middle of a building project.
Instead of insisting he put his blocks away, Sylvia understood that finishing what he was doing was important to Jed. She marked off an area in the classroom just for my son, allowing him to complete his project.
Sylvia understood and respected my son. She treated him with warmth and wisdom and intuitively understood the proverb that you should educate a child according to his way (Proverbs 22:6).
She was like that with all her students. She loved them, and they loved her.
Sylvia played many roles at the JCC.
She wasn’t only teaching preschoolers. She was also a source of guidance to the parents of those preschoolers.
Children don’t come into this world holding a “How to Parent Me” manual. Parenting is one of those learn-as-you-go jobs, and sometimes on-the-job training doesn’t work. Figuring out how to bring out the best in your children sometimes requires learning from someone with more experience.
Sylvia was willing to share her experience and make suggestions that made sense.
She taught students and guided their parents for decades.
Her love for children was something you could feel. She was genuinely interested in her students.
What was remarkable was that her interest in those 3-year-olds didn’t end when the school year was over. It lasted forever.
Sylvia taught my children more than 35 years ago. But whenever I saw her, she wanted to know what they were doing. She remembered them as 3-year-olds and celebrated their accomplishments throughout their lives.
I was lucky to be able to maintain a relationship with Sylvia for almost 40 years. Sometimes we went out for lunch, and sometimes she came on my boat. She was also a fan of my husband’s and made it her business to come to his concerts. Whenever he sang at Hammond Glen, I went along so I could sit in the audience with Sylvia.
Her curiosity about my entire family made me feel good. I enjoyed talking to her and know I was fortunate that she took an interest in me. Because she came to Dan’s concerts and my three children were always there, she maintained relationships with them, watching them mature and always remembering what they told her.
A few days after Sylvia died Wednesday, Oct. 4, I asked Jed, who is in the education field, how he thinks of his first teacher. This is what he said:
Sylvia Schwartz was a natural educator who always had her heart in the right place, who always put the individual needs of her students first. She was an empath. She paid attention and tried to understand her students in order to better accommodate their needs. She was excited about the growth and development of her students. She invested herself in their outcomes and celebrated their successes, which gave her satisfaction and brought a smile to her face.
Although I will miss my conversations with my friend Sylvia, I will always focus on the gratitude I feel for having known her.
She was one wonderful woman. I loved her. She leaves a legacy of love.