Friday, January 29, 2016

Kaddish for Deven Black

I am grieving for my friend, Deven Black.  I met Deven on Twitter back in 2009.  At that time he was a Special Ed teacher.  He came to teaching later in life than most.  We would often kibitz late at night about things that mattered to us.  We talked about our families.  We talked about how things were for us growing up.  Like me, Deven was of Slavic Jewish descent.  Like me, he cared about social justice.  We both wrote about Special Education. We both wanted to turn our small corner of the world into a better place.

A few years ago his principal urged him to train to become a school librarian and modernize the library they had at the school where he taught.  Even though he was no longer a Special Ed teacher, that still mattered to him.  He wanted those kids at that Bronx school to have a chance.

When I wrote about wanting to start a movement towards education equality, Deven told me to sign him up.  Well, I never got that off the ground, but I think he liked my idea of somehow building the educational equivalent of the underground railroad.  I wanted to create an organization and call it something like, "Follow the Drinking Gourd."  Or, at the very least, incorporate that theme into the quest for education equality.

I often felt out of my depth in discussing education.  Although I have a Master's in English and spent several years as a part-time instructor at several community colleges, I never thought of myself as an educator.  I had never taken education courses, and so I never felt qualified to speak about educational practice.  What qualified me to talk about Special Education was the fact that I have two daughters who are in Special Education classes.  I have roughly seventeen years of advocacy under my belt.  While other teachers would tell me to go play on the freeway, Deven took me seriously.  He was one of the few educators on Twitter and in "meatspace" who respected my experience, and, to him, my lack of knowledge in educational theory was irrelevant.  To him I was an equal.  

When I flew to Philadelphia to attend EduCon in late January 2011, Deven took me under his wing.  As soon as my plane landed, Deven was calling me on my cellphone.  He waited for me at the hotel we were staying at, and then whisked me off to a nearby restaurant and bar where teachers were gathering informally to grab a meal and schmooze.  Deven introduced me to people.  He saw to it that I felt at ease.  

Deven accompanied me on a tour of HMS School, a residential school for disabled children, graciously arranged for us by Dr. David Timony, another Twitter friend.  When David dropped us off at SLA, where EduCon is held every year, I didn't see that much of Deven after that.  

Deven and I continued to tweet at each other, but it seemed as if he was around less frequently.   When I was dealing with my cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment in 2014, I don't think it occurred to me that I hadn't seen him in quite some time.  When I emailed him in 2015, he never responded.  I assumed it was because he was busy.  I am now thinking it's possible that he never saw my email, or, if he did, that he was too depressed to care.  

According to this New York Times article, Deven Black went from being a man who, in 2013, was honored by the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences for his exceptional work as a school librarian" to being reduced to being  a substitute teacher in 2014.  And then in 2015 he ended up suspended without pay because of being arrested for grand larceny.  I imagine this is what ultimately caused him to end up homeless and a murder victim.  

The article describes in detail how a mentally ill young man savagely murdered Deven Black.  And concludes with a quote from this resident, Mr. Ricks, "“We lost two,” Mr. Ricks said. “We lost a young man who needed help and an old man who didn’t need to die.”

And that is at the crux of the matter.  The young man, who, ironically, is Mr. White, has a history of mental illness, and needed help.  And, Mr. Deven Black, who lost his life, also had something go wrong.  Both men were failed by society and "the system."  It is inconceivable to me that a man, honored one year was demoted to being a substitute teacher the next.  That is not how we should treat our educational heroes.  If Deven was guilty of the charges against him, I can only imagine that he may have been driven to that through desperation.  And, if guilty, Deven should have been given a way to redeem himself.  We all deserve an opportunity for redemption. 

I do not choose to remember Deven Black as a man who perhaps engaged in some questionable behavior towards the end of his life.  Instead I choose to remember Deven Black for his dedication to his students. I choose to remember a gentle man who nurtured others. I will leave you with this interview which gives a better lasting impression of who Deven Black was and what he cared about the most.  His comment, "I like that I had to learn so much to be able to do this job—learning is really what I like to do most of all," is what made him a valuable member of my Twitter circle. 

Thank you, Deven.  May you be at peace. 


  1. Read this - very sad story - I was just checking his Twitter account since you brought it up. and it looks like someone is still posting spammy stuff as him. I tried to report it, but wanted to let you know as well. I do not want to see someone denigrating his name after all that has happened.