March 22, 2001
My Best Teacher
There will be one empty seat at our seder table this year. Blanche Wadleigh Bettington, who has helped us celebrate the Jewish people's liberation from Egypt since my college-age daughter was a baby, passed away on March 1. She was four months shy of her 100th birthday.
Bettington was a high school history and government teacher, and she firmly believed there was no job more important. Those of us who knew her at Canoga Park High School (1924-1950) and Hamilton High School (1951-1966) agree that she opened our eyes to the American political system, both at its best and at its worst. She bombarded us with her opinions and never ceased prodding us to develop our own.
Hundreds of former students kept in touch long after she retired in 1966. Many visited her Brentwood home, where the walls were covered with proclamations in her honor, and a family Bible shared space on the coffee table with Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses." The dozens who showed up to see her laid to rest included judges, attorneys, teachers and a much-decorated military man who cheerfully introduced himself as "Mrs. Bettington's pet fascist." One graduate of Canoga Park, class of '49, recalled telling Bettington, "You made me a Democrat." "Oh, no," she countered. "I just got you started thinking."
Also among the speakers was Renee, a young African American woman who not long ago had nursed Bettington through a broken hip. Fighting back tears, she remembered Bettington giving a tongue-lashing to a bigot who had called Renee a cruel name. Then Bettington turned about-face and lambasted Renee for her meekness in the face of oppression.
Reared in rural Quebec, Bettington was primarily of English and Welsh descent. But recently she surprised me with the news that she had one Polish Jewish grandfather. She knew little about him, but took pride in the family legend that his distant ancestor had fought in the American Revolution. Whatever the truth of this, she too was a fighter. Because her life was so long and her devotion to civil liberties so fierce, she was in the thick of every decade's big battles.
In Canoga Park, then a farming community, she was popular with students even though her liberal views made her something of a rarity. During the dark days of World War II she took a Japanese American youngster under her wing and helped chase a Nazi propagandist off the campus. Her bleakest hour came when student Lyn Nofziger, later a top Nixon aide, accused her and a Jewish teacher of being subversives. Few took Nofziger's side, though one parent testified that he found it disturbing that his teenaged daughter knew far more about the workings of the U.S. government than he did. Nofziger's charges eventually reached a California legislative committee. Both women were cleared, but the school district chose to transfer Bettington to Hamilton High School in West Los Angeles.
Hamilton, in my own era, was fondly known as "a closed corporation of good-hearted liberals." Most of those liberals were Jewish. Bettington immediately felt at home at a place where students shared her commitment to civil rights and her fondness for John F. Kennedy. Adopting the Bill of Rights as her textbook, she marched us off to the UCLA law library to read up on the nation's most controversial Supreme Court cases. It is hardly surprising that many Bettington alumni ended up in law and politics, among them Gerald Chaleff, former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills). Others among Bettington's "kids" joined the Peace Corps. Some soon-to-be '60s radicals doubtless found their inspiration in one of her favorite essays, Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience."
It was not only in the classroom that Bettington worked her magic. She quietly befriended students with family problems and kept the secrets of those struggling with their own sexuality. Stu Bernstein, now a respected educator, made it through high school only because she intervened on his behalf.
One of her major projects at Hamilton was a lanky fellow named Errol Horwitz, an exchange student from Bloemfontein, South Africa. When Horwitz arrived in 1963, he had never questioned the racial assumptions upon which apartheid was based. Bettington instantly went to work. Horwitz says now, "She challenged me, and I reached my own conclusions based on those challenges." After being introduced to what he calls "the miracle of the U.S. Constitution," he returned to his country a different person, one no longer comfortable with the status quo. He switched his focus from pre-med to law, worked toward political change in South Africa, and finally took up U.S. citizenship. Horwitz admits that Bettington was "the embodiment of what my late father feared would happen to me" in the United States. But he himself has no regrets. And he still recalls how "it was a thrill to come to her class."
Though Bettington always stood her ground, she was funny as well as fierce. She specialized in outrageous statements, and I remember chuckling out loud during her final exam, in which we applied the Bill of Rights to a series of wacky test cases she'd invented. Even when old age weakened her eyes and made her unsteady on her feet, she never lost her zest for living. Last year she was spotted at the Million Mom March, hoisting a placard in favor of gun control. Though married for many years, Bettington never had children of her own. And yet her "kids" number in the thousands. All of us will miss her.