If it weren’t for M. Jerry Weiss, young readers may never have heard of Amber Brown. In 1972, the late Paula Danziger was Dr. M. Jerry Weiss’ student in an adolescent literature class at Montclair State University. She’d just thrown her oversized pocketbook at a fellow student who stated he wouldn’t ever let students read a book about homosexuals. Dr. Weiss suspended Danziger from class for three weeks with these orders: “Go home. Read. Write.” Danziger returned with the draft of what later became “The Cat Ate my Gym Suit;” launching her career as a children’s author. Danziger wrote more than 25 books, including the popular “Amber Brown” series, and is among hundreds of authors whose works were discovered by Weiss.
I wrote this in 2006, for the newspaper, Education Update.
Jerry Weiss was my mentor too, when I first began my teacher training and subsequent masters’ degree. I visited him this week and was reminded how important mentors are and how lucky I am to know him.
When I enrolled in New Jersey’s alternate route program to become a teacher in 1988, I had to attend classes once a week after school and every Saturday for about a school year to obtain my certification. Dr. Weiss spoke at one of the sessions, mentioning authors and citing books, and I nearly fell off the chair. If what he was saying was education, I wanted to be part of it. He advocated free choice in reading for adolescents and campaigned for decades to introduce new authors to schools.
The genre of young adolescent literature, or YA, was still new and many educators resisted books kids might want to read, insisting instead that heavy, hardback anthologies were the only way to teach. Authors like Danziger, and Robert Cormier, Lois Lowry, Paul Zindel, Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, and hundreds of others visited the college campus where Weiss taught and spoke to graduate students. I completed my entire masters’ degree taking every course I could with him, and then worked as his graduate assistant, helping with the course, introducing authors and grading papers.
Visiting this week, we talked about theater and playwriting, teaching, books and family. I shared my frustrations that schools seem to purchase scripted curricula, mostly to ensure test taking success at the expense of nurturing reading and writing and creating lifelong learners. He’s seen it all in his education career and commiserated.
He and his wife Helen edited several short story anthologies for teenagers; I used to have them in my classroom. When I’ve visited over the years, he’d send me home with a box of books, either for my classroom or my children, and then later, grandchildren. I come away not only with books, but with inspiration.
I promised to send him my plays to read and to visit more often. He encouraged me to keep writing, suggesting essays about all sorts of topics, including friendship.