In Honor of Twitter’s Thank a Teacher Tuesday

Okay, so it’s not about dogs. This is the “…and more” part of the blog:

Color of Life

 Dr. Opitz, teacher.  Hair too black not to be gray at her age and red cheeks the color of rouge.  The old fashioned kind that comes in a jar.  Lips to match.  Perpetually dressed in black long-sleeved sweaters, white blouses, long black skirts, dark stockings and black shoes, she was an aging vision in black and white.  And red.  A spitfire who never stood still, I remember Dr. Opitz dancing around my tenth grade French class like a female Einstein, desperately trying to reach the gray matter of spoiled teenagers from Pacific Palisades.  We thought Dr. Opitz was the weirdest person to ever hit surf city.

I remember her defensive posturing, always facing her students, never turning her back — not even to write vocabulary words on the board.  Dr. Opitz must have been ambidextrous.  She would reach up high over her head, writing words upside down on the blackboard, never once taking her darting eyes off the kids.  Especially the boys.

Dr. Opitz didn’t trust a soul.  When we approached her with our papers for help she’d back up and keep us at several arms lengths using the yardstick she kept at her side, proclaiming her need for air, but looking at our papers at the same time — spotting all our mistakes and answering all our questions.  Even the ones we hadn’t thought about asking yet.

Dr. Opitz cited Freud, Nitzche and Sartre and all other literati who popped into her brain like they were her friends.  We were amazed by her and thought she was brilliant, smart and crazy.  Some of the boys would tease Dr. Opitz about her Gertrude Stein rose-red cheeks, and she’d snap back before they had a chance to shut their mouths.  “Und zo vot’s wrong mit a little rouge, ein bischen color, a little life?” she’d challenge.

If anyone knew anything about life, I knew Dr. Opitz did.  She was old, she had wrinkles, she spoke with an accent.  She was from Europe. Dr. Opitz had an answer for everything and a suspicion of everyone.  Behind her big, dark, darting eyes, I could tell she knew more than all the white-bread, generic, middle-class teachers at Palisades High and probably more than the one black teacher there, too, who by coincidence also taught French.

Dr. Opitz never stopped moving or talking and was already whittled down to such a spindle of a woman, that I knew the reason she never came back for a second semester was that she’d used up all her energy and made herself disappear.  Vanish.  Only it was just the opposite, Dr. Opitz had become indelible in my mind.

Years later, when I began to write seriously, I tried to track her down because with age and study, maturity and dreams, it suddenly hit me — who and what she was and why I was so riveted by her in high school, drawn to her, and years later, obsessed with finding her.

Dr. Opitz is a survivor of the worst kind of horror.  She plied red, red rouge on her cheeks and lips to prove she was alive.  But she dressed in black to mourn the part of her that had already died. The darting eyes, the ever-ready defensive answers, never turning her back to her students — not even once.  Her brilliance, her knowledge, her frailty.  All I wanted to do was find her and tell her how sorry I was for what she went through.  And ask if could I do anything to help her now.

I called the teacher’s union and the retired teacher’s association.  We don’t keep those kinds of records, they said.  But I just want to tell her something, she was the best French teacher I ever had.  Sorry, we don’t keep those kinds of records, the voice repeated, this time with a certain finality.

There’s a bag lady in Santa Monica who dresses in all black and rouges up her cheeks and lips bright red.  The first time I saw her she was pushing her belongings across Wilshire Boulevard and Fourth Street to the sound of honking horns and the flashing of the Don’t Walk sign.  Dr. Opitz?  My heart raced, but a closer look revealed the bag lady’s age to be nearer to thirty than eighty, which is probably what Dr. Opitz would be by now, if she were still alive.

Dr. Opitz would never have become a bag lady, though.  And she surely would have, finally, allowed her black hair to go gray with age.  As for her cheeks and lips — I can’t say.  But when I close my eyes I imagine Dr. Opitz living in an elegant retirement villa for aging Jewish French teachers from Europe — her yardstick at her side and red, red rouge on her cheeks and lips just to show everyone she still has color, and to prove she still has life.

Jacqueline Hirtz

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4 Responses to In Honor of Twitter’s Thank a Teacher Tuesday

  1. Fay Goldenberg says:

    I had Dr Opitz for German at Pali High (class of S-68) here are the things I know and remember.
    Dr. Opitz taught at Uni High and was forced to transfer when Pali opened. If you took her class you were given an automatic C but if you were the Secretary or President of the class you got an A. I was secretary. Every day she would send me down to the attendance office to turn in the official attendance (second period) she would also give me $1.00 to get her coffee…which when I returned she would take the plastic top from the coffee rip it in half..open her empty briefcase…clip the two halves to the inside to show her brother Willie…who did not believe you could buy made coffee…the coffee was 10 cents and she would refuse to take the change…she also had surrounded her desk with chairs because she was certain that people held her responsible for JFKs death and that the chairs would stop any attacks. Dr. Opitz also had a student escort he down the stairs when she was leaving …for the same reason. The only thing her students were required to do during the school period was to copy the text book..in case we lost it ! She never checked to see if we were doing it. However she did have a thing against ballpoint pens or I should say the click the made and if she heard that click all of a sudden she would say Clickeeeeee who has the Clickeeeeee and everyone would have to hold up what they were using to write with. There are other things I remember…if you wish to know I will be happy to share them with you.
    Here is what happened to Dr Opitz…when I was in the A12 her brother Willie died Pali forced her to take time off and would not let her return. I went up to her house to see how she was and also return all of the money that I had collected for 2 1/2 years from my coffee excursions…she would not take it… I then took the money to the administration who would not take it..sooooo back to Dr Opitzs house I went one day and put the envelope in her door. Dr Opitz died shortly there after
    basically from loosing the only two things she had….. Willie and her Job.
    P.S. she did tell me a few stories of her life in Germany with Willie

    Fay

  2. Jackie Hirtz says:

    Hi Fay,
    Thank you so much for your remembrances of Dr. Optiz. It’s heart-breaking to hear about her life at Pali, but fascinating, too. I would love to know her life story. She was quite a character… and a person I will never forget.
    Best,
    Jackie

  3. Dennis H. Redmond says:

    Oh my God! Dr. Opitz! I remember her from my A10 German class at Pali High. Yes, her behavior was definitely strange. I recallthat on every Friday the air raid siren up the hill was tested and when that happened she would go under her desk and it took a great deal of coaching to get her to come out. I also remember her style of dress. A black beret, a wool tweed over coat and wool mittens.
    She said she wore thest clothes because she didn’t want to freeze as she nearly did when she was at
    Auswitz. This is the only time I am aware of that she actually referred to her experience. I do not remember any student ever gossiping about her in a bad way or speaking ill of her for her odd behavior. As young as we students were, we seemed to all be aware of her for who and what she was and she commanded love and respect. I am 63 years old now and have experienced most of the ups and downs in life as most ‘baby boomers’ like myself have endured. But everytime I think of her my eyes moisten and I get a small lump in my throat. May God Bless Dr. Opitz.

  4. Scott Tepper, Pali '63 says:

    I took Dr. Opitz’s French class at UniHi in 1959-1960. She was a horrible teacher with bizarre behavior. When Pali opened I transferred there for the 11th grade, but I do not recall Dr. Optiz transferring at that time.

    My fellow students and I thought she was a misfit. She wasted our time and did not teach us anything. So while I certainly have compassion for the hard life she led, I do not have fond memories of her.

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