Eve Silberman Special to the Jewish News
Reunion of Oak Park school recalls its rich diversity.
Shortly after the Paul Best Elementary School opened in the fall of 1954, a dispute broke out over placing a Christmas tree in the lobby. Some Jewish parents (many had moved to Oak Park to avoid anti-Semitism) expressed discomfort and brought up church-versus-state issues. But working together, the parents reached a compromise: The tree would have a home at Paul Best, but its decorations would be essentially secular, including artwork by Best students.
A willingness to seek compromise and, even more important, the promotion of tolerance, characterized the former school, which closed in 1976. On Saturday, Aug. 18, Best grads will gather to share their memories. (Details below.)
Mary Baroff of West Bloomfield, whose two sons both attended Best, hopes to attend.
“Who hears of elementary schools having reunions?” she marvels. “But that was a very special school.”
Not only were its academics and art programs outstanding, she recalls, but the school emphasized “diversity” at a time where the word didn’t roll of everyone’s tongue.
Baroff remembers that first- and second-graders regularly put on a play called The Churckendoose, about a bewildered barnyard animal who doesn’t look like any other creature in the barn. At first suspicious, the other animals accept the Churckendoose. “That play taught tolerance,” Baroff says.
During its first decade, at least, the Best enrollment was about 40 percent Jewish. While some kids went to Hebrew school and others to catechism sessions at nearby Our Lady of Fatima, most Best grads say religion rarely came into the conversation.
While all the reunion guests will join into the school song with its unforgettable first lines: “Best School is the best school/in the good ol’ U.S.A.,” the reunion may be especially sweet for its Jewish students. After they left Best, some recall their shock and hurt when they encountered the occasional anti-Semitic comment at their middle and high schools.
The concept of tolerance was broad. In 1958, in a highly unusual act for the era, Best kids did a school exchange with the all-black Grant Elementary School. Later, Best became the first elementary school in the Ferndale School district to hire black teachers. It also “mainstreamed” two children with developmental issues at a time when most schools refused to accept such kids.
Before his death a few years ago, former principal Larry Sophiea recalled that teachers and principals at other schools were jealous of the Best name. Paul L. Best, a former Ferndale principal and administrator, was crucial in putting the funding together to build the new school (now Ferndale Upper Elementary School) serving a big crop of baby boomers.
Best grad Sally Kotler, now known as Shira Chai, regrets she can’t make the reunion — she lives on a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee — but hopes to connect to her Best friends by Skype during the event. Chai says she still occasionally hums a song played frequently in her second-grade classroom: “I’m proud to be me/but I also see/you’re just as proud to be you.”
The Best school reunion will be from noon-4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 18, at Farina’s Banquet Hall in Berkley. Students, parents and teachers from 1954-1976 are welcome. No charge; food will be served. Building tour at 10:45 a.m. Contact Jonathan Nachman at (248) 390-3768. A meet-and-greet will be held from 6-9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17, at CG’s Upper Deck in Waterford. Contact Eve Silberman, (734) 663-8756 or firstname.lastname@example.org.