Hey, it’s me. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m very pleased to introduce you to a man who knows that life is a learning experience. Jerome Garfunkel, sometimes called Jerry, also known as Dr. COBOL to some of his contributions to a computer programming language, Common Business Oriented Language. Jerome Garfunkel is also an educator, calligrapher, lecturer and technologist.
How are you, Mr. Garfunkel?
I’m fine. A little chilly today. It’s at one degree right here in Woodstock, New York this morning.
What is Woodstock, New York like?
It has leftover remnants of its old reputation of being the hippie town. It’s a quaint, small town. There are kids that come from all over the country to play guitar on the center green, it being a tradition of Woodstock. But of course, it’s much more than that.
Besides music, it’s a large center for Buddhist monasteries. There’s a few of them here and it’s also a very popular art community. So, it attracts quite a few different people from different realms.
Tell us a little bit about your early life. Where are you from? What was life like in your early days?
I grew up in Kew Garden Hills, Queens, New York. Interestingly, I always look back now as an adult and realize I grew up in a very vanilla environment. Nothing terribly radical about where I grew up. I was in primarily a Jewish neighborhood. The first time I left New York City, I hitchhiked across the country at 18 years old. It was the first time I realized the whole rest of the world was not Jewish and the whole rest of the world was not white. It was an awakening for me.
My family was a wonderful, loving and supportive family. There was not much trauma in my family and therefore I grew up thinking that the rest of the world was like that. Of course, I learned in real life the rest of the world was not like that.
So, I became grateful for the upbringing that I had. I had parents who were very supportive of their three boys. Education was an important part of the values they wanted to teach us, and education is what their three boys got, a very good education.
That’s what life was like in Queens, New York. I went from kindergarten to a bachelor’s degree, all within walking distance of the house that I was born in. It made me realize, later on, why I had this wanderlust to explore the country, to explore the world. I was kind of sheltered for most of my growing up years until I realized there was much more to see outside of Queens, New York.
You mentioned education being very important to your parents. Where do you think that came from?
I have an interesting theory and perhaps it’s not a new one. I think the Jewish value system in Jewish families that may have come from Europe and settled into America, those values filtered down to my generation. My brothers and I were the first in our family to go to college. It didn’t come from my parents’ own experiences in college. It came from my parents’ own experiences of not going to college and being frustrated by that, recognizing the value of education. To this day, education for me is an important value that I pass on. Every time I hire an employee or as a secretary or an assistant and so on, while I pay minimum wage or a little bit better, I always also pay for their education. I always offer them night schools or if they want to continue education, I offer them that option if they would like.
That only can come from my value that was passed on from my parents.
What else did you learn from your parents? What do you think has been the greatest application to your life, that your parents passed on to you?
I can point to a few specific things. From my father, who was an analytical mind, my brothers and I learned analytical skills. Two of us became mathematicians. In college, that was my major, in math. I went into computers and to this day, I have a love of mathematics. Some of my old college friends and I, we still pass these mathematical puzzles back and forth to each other.
So, from my father, I think we inherited or at least certainly I inherited this analytical side. From my mother, the best I can say I inherited from her is sweetness, kindness, love. She was a compassionate, sincere human being and that passed on to me for sure. Not that my father was uncaring or in any way not empathetic. It was my mother who I can remember the sweetness and the kindness that is in me. That came from her.
You don’t meet many people named Garfunkel. Tell us about the background, your ancestry.
Well, that happens to have an interesting twist that I will tell you about in a second. My grandparents were from Europe. Both sets of my grandparents were from Europe and in fact around the same area, they were Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, not too far from Odessa and Kiev and Romania and Ukraine.
I believe they immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s. I’ve seen records of this ship – manifest is it called? The names of the people who came and I see that some of my grandparents and my very oldest aunts came over in the late 1800s. I think it was 1898 and like many other people who were immigrating to America in that time, they settled in the closest place they could find.
They entered at Ellis Island and they settled in Brooklyn, New York and that’s where they raised their own families. That’s where my father and my mother grew up, in Brooklyn, and then later Queens, which was considered the suburbs and pretty far out from Brooklyn and from New York City, of course. That’s where my parents eventually moved and that’s where I grew up.
I’ve just learned from my sweet nephew, who was over in Romania not so long ago and went to the town that we came from – Iaşi, Romania. It’s in Eastern Romania. He befriended the mayor, and they began to look up the records of the Garfunkels coming to America. What we discovered was that we were not Garfunkels. I believe our name was Mokav. I may be mispronouncing it or misspelling it. My grandfather, in order to increase his chances of being accepted into the United States, changed his name from Mokav to Garfunkel so that he would have a more German-sounding name because, apparently, America was accepting Germans more easily than they were accepting Russians or Ukrainians and so on.
I only learned this not so long ago. So that’s how we became Garfunkels.
Very interesting. My last name Leslie was originally Leisel and it was the same exact thing. Trying to sound more American was what I heard.
Yes, that apparently that was a trend in those days.
So, this nephew of yours, what has he reported to you? What did he tell you about this time he spent in Romania?
Well, it was a short trip. My nephew James (Arthur Jr.) has been living for some time in Europe. He lives between Germany at times and in Siberia at time. I believe he has an apartment there. But he comes to America pretty often.
He is exploratory. He was the one who had the guts, I would say, to find out more about the Garfunkel family. This apparently is what he uncovered.
I want to get back to this love that you have for technology, this interest in computers. What was it that fascinated you about computers?
Well, first of all, there’s a natural migration or connection between mathematics and computers. Computer skills are very much about deductive logic. A computer programmer, his or her main skill is deductive logic. That’s what the art of computer programming is all about. That to me comes right out of a mathematical analysis. This is what we learn in geometry. This is what we learn in trigonometry. This is what we learn in algebra. This is all about deductive logic.
So, there is the connection first of all between my love of mathematics and my going into computers. It was in the late 1960s that the opportunity came about to go into the computer field.
I knew nothing about it, but I was fascinated by it. I remember I had an after-school job when I was in college. I was working at a bank in New York City, in Manhattan, and I worked in the computer department doing some menial jobs. But in the middle of this room, this data processing room, there’s a fishbowl room, completely surrounded in glass. When the door opened to that room, there was a rush of cold, pure, clean air that came out. It told you there was something very special about that room and only certain people were allowed to go into that room.
I suppose that’s what gave me my initial fascination with computers. What is there about that special place? I want to be there. I want to know more about that.
Sure enough, when I left college, I took one course in computer programming. It was a language called Fortran. I still knew nothing about computers for real. But then an opportunity presented itself just when I finished college.
My oldest brother worked for Honeywell Computers. Honeywell, in those days, was in the Pentax camera business. They were in the thermostat business and they were also in the computer business. At his suggestion, I went in to take a test to be a computer programmer. I wound up very proudly being the first person who got a perfect score on that program or aptitude test. I was hired on the spot and in those days, they hired people without background, willing to train the brand new employees, something that changed later on. But in those days, they were hungry to grow computer programmers.
So, I started learning computer programming, which was a very low level programming back then. You may have heard the term of “machine language” or “assembler language”. This is what I was learning. These low level languages that were connected to the particular brand of computer we were working on.
I became an assembler programmer for Honeywell. I did very well. I kept getting promoted and encouraged to do more and eventually I went into learning COBOL just as a novice COBOL programmer.
I started doing very well with COBOL, well enough to begin to teach it to other people in my own company. I kept getting better at teaching COBOL and eventually went into the teaching department of Honeywell, teaching COBOL and that’s when my life changed forever actually.
I fell in love with teaching. I had always been in love with teaching. I earned my allowance, if you will, in high school and in college as a math tutor, high school math tutor. The skill of teaching was already being tested in me. I found I had a natural instinct for it. I loved it as much as the subject. I loved the skill of teaching and figuring out how to teach better, how to improve that.
When I went into the Honeywell teaching department, I was now for the first time mixing two big loves of mine – teaching, of course, and computer technology and I shined and eventually outgrew Honeywell. I have a theory. Large corporations don’t know how to deal with exceptionally poor employees or exceptionally good employees.
They have guidelines that they must follow. You know, in the rule books of employees, they don’t know how to deal with people who are outside of those guidelines. Well, I clearly did eventually get to be outside those guidelines. My job was to help install these computers at Honeywell’s customers and help them set up their accounts receivable systems, their payroll and banking systems, all of their business systems. That was my charge from Honeywell at the time.
At some point, the customers kept asking for me when they would hire Honeywell or their services and at some point, I began to realize Honeywell is making a lot more money than I am and they’re making that money based on my talent. It was a decision that I made after some time with a lot of difficulty, whether or not to leave Honeywell and start my own business, and I did. Of course, I never looked back after that and I had a wonderful career soon after that.
How did it feel to go from being someone who was under the control of a big company like that to being the boss yourself?
That was all about the reason I did it and the thrill of that changed. Doing what I was doing for someone else versus doing what I was doing for myself taught me a very big lesson. First of all, when I left Honeywell, they were about to send me to Europe for some assignments.
I love traveling. I had been traveling all over America during my last couple of years at Honeywell, teaching workshops in classes around the country. But I always wanted to travel beyond America and here Honeywell now was offering me three new assignments. I remember this very well. In London, in Paris and in Rome, and here came this decision. It was becoming a very propitious time for me to leave Honeywell and start my business. But I kept asking, “Am I really wanting to leave Honeywell? Here they are about to give me assignments to places I really wanted to go to.”
I remember saying to myself, “I am not going to start my own business unless I can build in my business my own needs to go to London and Paris and Rome. If I can’t, maybe I should think twice about leaving Honeywell.”
Well, I remember thinking at the time, if I am going to start my own business, if I’m going to create my own need to do this traveling, why pick out London, Paris and Rome? I could now pick out anywhere in the world and if I can’t build a business that lets me do that, I should think twice.
With that in mind, I left Honeywell and I set my sights and the first place was China. This was 1979. The Cultural Revolution was just ending. Mao Zedong had just died the year before and China was just now opening up. We were in the midst of establishing diplomatic relations with them.
I set my sights on China and in fact, within a year from that point, I was invited to join a delegation of computer scientists, invited to Peking. This was before it was Beijing. We were invited to come to China and help the universities that were now reemerging, to help them catch up. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, you may remember it was very anti-intellectualism and many of these professors and these intellectuals were sent out into the countryside, into the paddy fields to work a hard labor. Now, that the Cultural Revolution had just ended, these professors, these brilliant people were now pouring back into the city, going back into the universities they had left and they were starting up or restarting all of their technology departments and scientific departments, et cetera.
Well, these universities and these professors had a lot of catch-up work to do and they turned to the West of course to help them catch up to the technology that they had been missing all that time.
That’s how this delegation of computer scientists was invited to China, to lecture and to chat more or less. We weren’t lecturing in terms of sitting – standing at a podium and giving a lecture to a large audience. We were always sitting around in comfortable, conference environments, comfortable chairs with pots of tea next to ourselves and it was that environment that I went to China to provide my particular expertise to the Chinese in their attempt to catch up to the modern technology.
I remember when we were at these universities and we visited their libraries on campus, we found Xerox copies of all of our own books that we had published and we had written, this American delegation. Xerox copies of all those books were in their libraries as well as Xerox copies of every scientific American magazine. It was interesting, of course, that they didn’t care about rights in those days, writer’s rights.
To this day, as you know, that persists still, 40, 50 years later as a thorn in the side of our relation between China and America, which is respect for copyrights. But certainly, there it was. We saw it firsthand and since it was our own books and our own writings, that would be stolen if you will and it hit home hard.
But in those days, we weren’t so annoyed. I remember feeling instead more proud that this was how the Chinese were catching up to modern technology, by reading our books and by inviting us over to lecture, lecture them.
From the places that you have been, is there one in particular where you feel like you had the most profound experience?
My first instinct is to say no, there is no one place that is so outstanding. There were so many places that were outstanding. Certainly, that first Chinese visit stayed with me for the rest of my life. The circumstances of being there and the experiences that I had were wonderful.
I befriended a man on that trip, one of the other members of my delegation, a man named Wes Clark, who stayed a friend of mine for the rest of my life. He just passed away not so long ago.
Wesley was considered – by the way, he received an award in Washington – the inventor of the first personal computer, a project that he worked on at MIT called the LINC Project. It was the predecessor to all technology that evolved after that. That led to the personal computers that we know today.
Wes and I became close, tight friends. I don’t know if I ever knew anyone more intelligent or with better sense of humor than Wes and of course we got to know each other’s families and we stayed close through all of those years.
So, China certainly stands out as one of those highlights. But there were so many other places. In America as well. I started this traveling by having not seen much of America before that, other than that summer that I hitchhiked across the country. I didn’t get to really see America that much. I only got to see the strip of America that I traveled on going to and coming from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again.
But when I began to teach for Honeywell, every week I was in a new city and not necessarily big cities. They were small cities and I got to love those trips. In each one of those trips, each week, I would usually be teaching a workshop, a three-day or a five-day workshop, working with students, maybe 15, 20, 25 students at a time.
I got to know those students. We got close. A teacher gets close to the students when you see them day after day after day, even after a few days. The experiences I had of visiting these exotic, I will call them, places in America was augmented by the friendships, the long-lasting friendships that I formed in each one of these cities and still to this day, as before, I am friendly and in touch with some of these students because they left impressions on me.
I certainly love the European travels. I began to go to the Netherlands frequently as one of my frequent teaching places or lecturing places. By that time, I was no longer teaching. I was now giving speeches and lectures, and I fell in love with the Netherlands. I fell in love with the Dutch people. So many of my memories, my best memories, come from the Netherlands. But certainly, exploring Paris for the first time and then exploring Paris for the 18th time. Stayed with me always as a thrill. I never got tired of Paris. London, the same way, although I began to explore outside of London more often because I had friends who lived outside of the city.
I traveled a lot through England and up into Scotland and Wales, as well. Even outside of Paris and France, I took a few motorcycle trips with my then wife and with my brothers at the time. We traveled by motorcycle across Europe and I have wonderful memories of those motorcycle trips, renting a motorcycle in London, driving down to South Hampton and taking a ferry to Cherbourg and then traveling through the Normandy Peninsula and all over France. Those memories, those trips are wonderful.
You were inspired to write a poem at one point called Airports Visited.
Yes, I’m not sure if I told you the premise, so what that poem was really about. All my life, being a child of the ‘60s, I was a pot smoker, a weed smoker, a marijuana smoker on and off. I was a social pot smoker and I remember one trip on my way to Maui from having left Queens, New York the day before.
We had a stop, an interlude in the big island in Hawaii and I always remember looking for hidden places where I could smoke a joint. Forgive me if I’m saying anything incriminating now where the police might come and get me for this submission. The poem was about my looking for secret places out of the way. There was a little thrill of taking the risk of smoking.
Well, I don’t think it’s incriminating or maybe it is. I don’t know.
I hope not now. I hope I pass the statute of limitations. What’s the word I’m thinking of?
Yeah, statute of limitations. Tell us about these motorcycle adventures that you’ve taken. What got you interested in motorcycles?
I remember my very first motorcycle. So that might be the place to look back to. When I was in college, in Queens College, I moved into an apartment in Manhattan and I had inherited a Lambretta motor scooter and I’m not sure if you know about motor scooters and motorcycles. Motor scooters have very small wheels. Motorcycles have larger wheels.
Motor scooters are the very worst things you can drive on the Long Island Expressway, filled with potholes and other things. But being either naïve or stupid at that age, I used to drive my motor scooter from Manhattan to Queens and back again every day.
That was my first experience on a two-wheeler and I loved it. I don’t think I was ever without a motorcycle since that point. I must have been 18 or 19 years old. I was never without a motorcycle until these last two years when I had not been on a motorcycle, but that’s about to change. I’m about to buy the other motorcycle as soon as the weather experience is good again.
The motorcycling for me has two phases. One was the communication – the transportation, just back and forth. It was a great way to commute. But in the late 1980s, I bought a large touring motorcycle. It’s called Gold Wing. You may be familiar with it and it’s one of these motorcycles that rides like a Cadillac. It’s smooth. It has stereo in the front and in the back. It has all the amenities of a very comfortable car. Well, I bought my first large motorcycle. I came home to my wife, I’ve just been married and I didn’t tell her I bought the motorcycle. I told her I’m thinking of buying the motorcycle. When she saw it, she said, “Oh, please do buy it. I will polish it every day. Please get it!”
Well, right then and there, I knew I married the right woman and within a month from that point on, she and I were on our first trip cross-country to the Canadian Rockies. We took a ride from New York to the Canadian Rockies. It was a 31-day trip. That was glorious. We just loved every moment of it.
I lived in Manhasset, Long Island at the time. We were home for about two weeks and we got restless. We missed being on the motorcycle. So, we got right back on and we took a trip up to Canada, to the Gaspe Peninsula in New Brunswick and another three weeks of the trip.
It stayed that way forever. All my bikes from that point on were always large, touring motorcycles. I’ve had a number of them. I cross the country quite a few times on large bikes, trips down to Florida to see my parents living there in Tamarac, Florida at that point.
I got married later on again to a woman who lived in Texas. We did frequent trips back in Texas to New York. I loved the idea of touring on a motorcycle. It was just a beautiful way to ride. I was wise and intelligent enough to know that I was on an extra dangerous machine, therefore requiring extra caution and sanity when riding.
One cannot get into a fight with another car who cuts you off. You have to eliminate all that stuff and it was just getting back at people and so on. So I’ve had a nice, safe career on motorcycles, putting on hundreds of thousands of miles and that transferred over into Europe. There were quite a few occasions in Europe where I rented a motorcycle. I had my favorite place in Paris to rent a motorcycle. I had another favorite place in London to rent motorcycles.
I did quite a few trips throughout Europe on motorcycles, but a couple of those trips were with my brothers. Both of my brothers were motorcycle riders as well. So the three of us would rent motorcycles and we would go on these brother trips together. Sometimes we would invite someone along with us on these brother trips. But we did about five or six trips, the three of us, somewhere in the world. Somewhere in America. But not always on motorcycles. Sometimes in cars. But we had these wonderful, exotic trips.
We usually have a patience level with each other of about four or five days. When you are traveling with your brothers, you bring with you all the silly arguments that you had when you were kids. Just now they’re an adult version of those problems. So you deal with them as adults. But the old annoyances eventually crept in, especially when you’re in a car, a cooped-up car for three or four days. There’s only a certain limit how much you can take of each other.
We rarely finished those vacations as a threesome. We started as a threesome, but always we wound up less than a threesome where one of us just decided they had enough and they left to go up on their own.
Another one of your passions is calligraphy. Your website, JeromeGarfunkel.com, is kind of dormant, but all the listeners out there can check it out.
Yes, I could tell you where that came from. It’s interesting. It starts very distinctly in my mind. I was working at Honeywell at the time. I remember coming into my office one day and as I was passing the receptionist, I looked down and on her desk, and she was practicing the letter I because she had been taking a night school class in calligraphy. Well, to see a whole page of collective Is, about 40 of them on a page, it attracted me. It had a very nice appearance just as the shape of this letter, one after another, after another. It was that that caught my interest in learning what she was doing.
So, on my own, I began to practice calligraphy. I didn’t take any books out yet. I never took any courses in calligraphy. But I know that was a starting point for me to learn using a special calligraphy nib, a pen that has a chiseled edge nib at the end. One can write beautiful letters if one knows what the strokes are and how to connect the strokes and if one is determined to write perfectly.
That’s the idea of calligraphy, to perfect each stroke that you do and the more perfect each stroke is done and each stroke connects to the next stroke, the overall look of the letters that you write begins to look beautiful.
From there I just practiced and practiced and practiced. It became my form of doodling. Whenever I was bored anywhere – my committee meetings. I think I mentioned that I was a member of many different computer committees and at these committee meetings, I would sit around the table for a week, doing lots of discussion. But some of that discussion would go into my ears while my hand was still practicing calligraphy.
Mixed in with all of my technical notes were these calligraphy pages that I had saved. After the years of doing this, I began to look back and I see I have a lot of very pretty note papers that I have been doing.
That’s where my love of calligraphy came and it has never stopped since. To this day, I always have a calligraphy notebook by my side. I have about 80 pens on my desk almost always to be choosing from and I practice. I practice and I practice and I practice. By the way, I became fascinated in the history of calligraphy – not the history but all forms of calligraphy. In my library are beautiful books of Chinese and English calligraphy, books of hours, illuminated manuscripts, just books that that have been celebrating calligraphy for a long time that of course I learned to appreciate.
Are you a music fan yourself?
Yes, I’m a big music fan. Not a big music performer. Like many other people of course, I sing in the shower and I sing to myself at times. But no, I’m not a public performer.
What kind of music do you most enjoy?
I would say probably classical music is my favorite. Sometime ago when I grew up in my house in Queens, my father was a lover of classical music and one piece in particular, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D. I used to hear that a lot growing up.
When I became an adult, I too was loving classical music and loving that particular piece as you might imagine, having heard it so many times, I went on a learning journey.
I was anxious to learn, in a beautiful piece of symphonic music, how much does the soloist contribute. How much does the orchestra contribute and how much does the conductor contribute to a good piece of music?
So I went out on a mission over the years and I purchased and listened to about 80 different versions of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D. Each time I differed either the conductor, the soloist or the orchestra, trying to learn if I can discern the differences between – I can’t say good and bad performances, but certainly great and not-so-great performances and along the way, I got to love even more Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. I’ve spent many hours while nobody was watching, conducting a full orchestra and I know this piece very well.
I love that I did in fact begin to discern a good soloist from not-so-good soloists. I hate saying that, not-so-good soloists, because some of these not-so-good soloists were people like Isaac Stern and Jascha Heifetz and others. But I did finally latch on to my two favorite which by the way turns out to be Itzhak Perlman playing the Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Zubin Mehta and the Israeli Philharmonics Orchestra. It turned out to be my very favorite, which was kind of strange because it was a live performance, and live performances of any kind are generally not as good as studio performances. But this particular one, with Perlman and the Israeli Orchestra, turned out to be my very favorite.
Going back to the website, JeromeGarfunkel.com, one of the things that really piqued my interest was the NPR essay that you did, Living a Long Life. I’m hoping you can tell us a little bit about that and your outlook on, I guess you could say, a person’s later years in life.
The inspiration for that first of all came from my 93-year-old mother whom I had tremendous respect for. I determined some time ago, way before I wrote that essay, that a person’s age has a lot to do with the respect that they deserve. I’m 72 years old. I look back and I see I’m wiser now than I was at 62. I just know more about how the world works and how people work and relationships.
I know more now than I did 10 years ago and then I realized at 62, I was wiser than I was when I was 52. If you extrapolate from that, every 10 years or so, I was growing wiser as I aged.
Well, to go the other way around of course, I look now at 72 and I expect and I hope I will be here at 82 and I expect I will be wiser. It made me appreciate and respect the 93 years that my mother had at the time I wrote that essay.
I respected age tremendously and all that comes along with it. My mother was healthy and she was fine at the time. Mother’s Day was coming up and I wrote this essay to express that admiration that I had for her and my love for her. That’s how that essay got written.
I was encouraged by a literary agent friend of mine to submit that to NPR and I did. NPR came back to me and said they would love it if I can come to the studio and read it. I was more than happy to do so. So I recorded that essay on air. I made a recording of that essay when it was aired eventually and I gave that recording to my mother on Mother’s Day that year. It was 2005 and of course she was thrilled. She cried a lot and she was thrilled.
I remember she played it for all of her friends, whoever was around and would listen. Then she died about a month and a half later. I was so fortunate to have that opportunity to have her go out knowing the love and respect that I had for her. It meant a lot to me. I know it meant a lot to her.
What is the best thing about being Jerome Garfunkel?
Oh, of course the obvious answer is so many things. I have a sweet, wonderful daughter. That’s another one of those things you learn in life. You go through all the trials and tribulations of children when they’re young. You sweat like crazy during their adolescent years. You wonder if you’re ever going to make it through their teenage years. It just gets to be so difficult.
But I became a firm believer in something that I always pass on to others, including my brother, who also obviously went through teenage years with his first son. That was after my experiences. I used to tell him, “Hang in there. Just hang in there.” You will see that after these – I call them “awful years” of adolescence, of rebellion, of striking out. After those years, there comes a period in our children’s lives where they begin to change. They begin to settle down more. They lose their need to rebel and to punch back and to argue.
It’s at that point in your early 20s, I used to tell people, that you will hear your child for the first time maybe look at you and say, “I love you. Thank you.” Thank you for what you went through and thank you for hanging in there during those lives – during those years rather. That’s a wonderful thing to hear from your children.
In their 20s, they’re still not finished bouncing around and being crazy. Gail Sheehy wrote a book called “Passages” many years ago and I think she was writing primarily about women, girls growing up. But I found it absolutely equally true about men, boys and men as well. In your 20s, our children start to be on their own now very often. They are not living home. They are living elsewhere. They are bouncing off the walls. They are trying all kinds of experimental things and getting bruised and learning lessons from all of these bruises.
If you can just keep them contained from not going too far off the wall, like getting into legal problems or health problems and so on – I used to tell people, if you put your hands around your child, you hug them, but you hug them as loosely as you possibly can. Give them as much room as possible to bounce off of the walls of your arms or the limits of what they must stay contained in. They will do all the bouncing, all the learning. Hopefully if your hug is closed enough and strong enough, they won’t go off the deep end.
Then comes the next most exciting part of life, the late 20s, your early 30s. When our children become young adults, they’ve learned lots of lessons from those 20s. I think it’s during these years and the early 30s that children or young adults are likely to become most entrepreneurial. If they ever have a time where they would have the guts to go out and strike out on their own with what they’ve learned in their 20s, this is when they will do it, in their 30s. In my life, sure, I was a living example of just that. I knew my own personal experiences of going out.
For anyone who’s listening or reading this interview, what would you say to them? Very open-ended, just to give you the stage.
Well, one of the main advantages of the worldwide web is that it is worldwide. I’m a very big believer in people learning empathy, learning respect for other cultures, for other people, for other feelings.
There is little better for teaching empathy or for learning empathy than there is seeing firsthand other people living other lives, lives that are not familiar with us but are very familiar with them and to not see those lives, these other lives as funny or odd or difficult or strange, but simply different. Of course, to those people’s lives, we look or appear exactly the same way. We seem odd, alien. Perhaps there’s something wrong with us.
It is this notion of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and view the world from somebody else’s perspective, that the worldwide web is wonderful for enhancing. It is giving us multicultural understanding all around the world about how the world works.
This is a theme of mine that I have believed in for a long, long time as an educator. I will always believe that there are two very important subjects that are missing in much of education. One is morals or ethics. The other is empathy. These are two subjects that should be introduced to students beginning at age two or three, whatever, preschool. They should be dilemmas, challenges that are presented to children that challenge their moral thinking, that challenge their empathetic thinking, to be able to think in somebody else’s shoes and act accordingly.
It is very easy if schoolteachers and school curriculum writers were to ever want to do this. It is very easy to build these empathy with empathetic challenges into their schoolwork, into the curriculum.
I usually use a silly example of morals I guess and of empathy, of a person going through a supermarket checkout and finding out that the cashier has accidentally given them an extra $20 bill in their change that was by mistake. They weren’t supposed to get that.
Now the moral dilemma comes. What do you do? Do you take that $20 bill and you give it back and you say, “Here,” or do you very quietly get away with it because it was probably easy to have gotten away with it?
There needs to be a lesson about what is good about giving that money back and what is bad about not giving that money back. This is an example that needs to be presented to children at every age, in an age-appropriate way. It’s not always going to be a cashier with an extra $20 bill. It can be blocks that children play with that for some reason one child gets an advantage over another. What does that child do?
I think that this is something that’s missing in the world today. The worldwide web certainly provides the platform to change that. I’m not yet sure that it is being taken advantage of. Learning other cultures from connecting – one of my projects that I wrote about some time ago was connecting classrooms in Brooklyn, New York with a classroom in Bucharest, Romania and having these students interact with each other. There needs to be a carefully-developed curriculum for this interaction between the two classes. There are loads of logistical problems of course – language differences, time zone differences. But they are all workable, those problems.
It does give children and people a platform to see how others perceive the world. I think that’s missing in education and I strongly believe it should not be missing. For me, empathy and kindness are two of the most important values that need to be explored and presented to children and adults at every chance that we have.
Well-spoken. Thank you very much for spending time with us.
Jerome Garfunkel: Oh, I am more than happy. I’m very glad to have this opportunity to talk to you.
Transcription by Prexie Magallanes as Trans-Expert at Fiverr.comSemnat de Paul Leslie