From Mother To Daughter, The Dedication To Detroit Children Continues

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Flo Paterni likes to visit her daughter Lydia Paterni’s kindergarten class. Flo taught in Detroit for more than 35 years.

Flo Paterni of West Bloomfield may have retired from teaching violin in the Detroit Public Schools in 2012, but that doesn’t mean she lost touch with some of her previous students and their parents or grandparents.

For many years, Paterni, an instrumental music teacher who started teaching in Detroit in 1975, invited students and their families for a picnic she hosted in the summers. One grandparent became a traveling buddy. And a brother and sister came to play for her at her home when she was recovering from cancer.

“I wanted to teach in Detroit because I went to school in Detroit,” Paterni said. Her family, however, moved to Livonia in 1965, two years before the rioting in Detroit in 1967.

“My parents never told me why,” she said. “I wanted to go to Cooley High, but things were happening. The year we left, someone’s hair was set on fire. My parents wanted to be near Jewish people, and there was a significant amount in Livonia.”
Still, Detroit was the only place Paterni applied for a teaching job. In her job, she floated from school to school. And she had to find instruments for her students because they were not in the budget.

At one point, she started Suzuki group violin classes for preschoolers whose parents would commit to coming to lessons. “No one had this in the Detroit schools,” she said. “I got to know them and became invested in the whole family.” That’s when she started her picnics.

“I had no fear of being in Detroit,” she said. “Most of my students were black. I taught in schools in the previously all-Jewish area. There was one principal who got rid of every Jewish teacher in his school, including me, but the school I went to is the place that changed my career forever because it’s where I started the Suzuki program.

“I did feel racial tension from paraprofessionals and the assistant teachers because I was white, but not from students or parents.

Teacher Lydia Paterni and author Jackie Urbanovic with Paterni’s Coleman A. Young Elementary School kindergarten class from last year
Teacher Lydia Paterni and author Jackie Urbanovic with Paterni’s Coleman A. Young Elementary School kindergarten class from last year

“I really know that teaching in Detroit was what I was supposed to do; it was a good match for me. I feel I had a positive influence on the children and they on me. I talked about Jewish holidays and did Chanukah songs, and I created a Christmas song CD they could play with at home.

“I was involved with the families, and some of them are my best friends now,” she said. “They absolutely became part of my life, too.”

Paterni’s daughter, Lydia, 27, is keeping up the family tradition. She’s a kindergarten teacher at Coleman A. Young Elementary School, rebuilt on the location of a little schoolhouse called Stratford that her mom used to attend as a child.

“When I was younger, I used to go to work with my mom during vacations and breaks,” Lydia said. “I always really felt at home and very invited. I felt comfortable. When I decided to be a teacher, I always wanted to work in an urban setting. Once I did my interview at DPS at Coleman Young, I instantly felt at home like when I went with my mom to work.” Lydia just started her third year at the school.

“It was a valuable experience when my mom’s students would come out to our house,” she said. “It was interesting to see a different culture on a more informal, personal level. We went to their homes and birthday parties and different functions and they to ours. It was very cool to see.

“I think it’s easier for my generation, but in reverse — people in Detroit accept us as teachers. Black history is a very big deal in February, and there are times when I’ll have my black teacher’s aide step in and talk. It’s cool to have it from both sides.

“In kindergarten, we have to talk a lot about race,” she said. “The kids mention it all the time. My hair, my skin. I’ve also had a couple little girls say, ‘I wish I was white like you.’ I tell them ‘I’m not white, but more peach like a beach. You’re more like peanut butter.’ It’s cool to talk about this because they are so little.”

Lydia says a lot of things are changing now as DPS has become the Detroit Public Schools Community District. “There are new policies and teachers are struggling; but within my school, we have a passionate principal, and we all decided we would stick together for the kids.”

But the job hasn’t come without some hassles.

“I have been pushed by parents,” Lydia said. “I usually can de-escalate things quickly, but it is scary. There are times when parents have not been dealing with discipline in a good way. I’ve talked to the principal in tears, but there’s only so much you can do. But it feels rewarding, especially when I can help parents learn ways to discipline. Parents 100 percent want the best for their kids. This is a different culture, and it’s built on respect. They will respect you if you respect them.”

Lydia says she believes she’s giving her students a good foundation. “I incorporate art and music in the classroom. I have little instruments — xylophones and maracas. My mom comes in and teaches songs and tells stories. They call her Mama Paterni.

“I think I’ll stay in Detroit for a while,” she said. “I love my school.”

By Keri Guten Cohen, Story Development Editor

For a look back at the Jewish influence in Detroit Public Schools beginning in the 1960s, read “Dedication To Education,” written for the Intersection Project, which looks at the effects of the 1967 riots on modern day issues.

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