Classes and Beyond

       Recollections of specific classes can be sorted into four kinds: Biology, Nature Study, a cluster I call Body Matters (Hygiene, Gym, Physical Education), and Cooking. Strict about her syllabi, Mrs. Lilienthal felt free to discuss, to explain, and to demonstrate anything that might be useful to the girls. Since she was also a homeroom teacher, some recollections of discussions of current events probably happened at the start of a day.

       Students comment also on extra-curricular concerns, such as their curiosity about Mrs. Lilienthal's personal life, and what their Hunter experiences mean to them.  Some say that their memories of  her remain vivid even after fifty years and more

Ruth in 1945
Mrs. Lilienthal in 1945


       Mrs. Lilienthal’s biology and science courses are recalled vividly, even by students who would later work in unrelated fields. Previous comments by respondents also featured many descriptions of RSL teaching scientific topics.

       Laurel Levine, 1942, speaks of the lively classes that made Biology her favorite subject, and comments that: “mens sana in corpore sano was her motto—and a good one it still is.”

       Remembering a laboratory class, Gladys Balbus Lipkin, 1942, tells of a moment that shows how unflappable Mrs. Lilienthal could be: she was "so engrossed in teaching . . . that she accidentally hit the end of a ruler on the lab table." When it spun up and hit her in the face, her " response was a chuckle and continued explanation of her material. What a teacher!"

       Although Susie Puderbeutel Schulman, January 1944, rates RSL among her favorite teachers, “a warm, kind and lovable person,” she struggled with her lessons. “I hated biology, and almost failed the course. Finally, in the last quarter of the year we studied sex chromosomes, which to me were very clear.” As she passed Mrs. Lilienthal in the hall after taking the exam on chromosomes, her teacher asked, “What happened to you? How did you do it? You had the best mark in the class.” As an excellent math student, Susie found genetics “very logical, so that at last it all made sense.” And when she explained that, Mrs. Lilienthal “gave a big smile.”

       Harriet Whitman Aufses, 1944, describes Mrs. Lilienthal’s invigorating style of combining work in the schoolroom with exercise and nature study. “She would often revive our flagging interest in the science lesson by opening the classroom windows wide and having us all breathe deeply and do some impromptu calisthenics.” Harriet speaks of the brisk pace of walks to Central Park, adding that Mrs. Lilienthal “was the first one to connect the outside world of nature to the classroom study of science and thereby awakened my scientific curiosity.”

       “Biology was the one class that I looked forward to each week,” writes Selma Golub, January 1945, her classroom was “filled with all kinds of wonderful 'stuff' . . . jars, bottles, posters and anything else that could contain any kind of specimen.” She pictures Mrs. Lilienthal in “less than chic outfits . . . striding into the room wearing what we then called 'old lady shoes' . . . clunkers.” Never raising her voice, RSL held her students’ attention easily. Selma describes the challenge of hands-on work in the lab:

Dissecting was not something that every girl could stomach, but I remember her giving me an animal kidney and asking me to describe it. All I could think of to say was "this stinks of urine". I sure learned the function of the kidney.

       In summary, Selma praises RSL as a “great teacher who gave me my love of the subject” while “ultimately helping me score some of my highest grade marks.”

       When Ruth Misheloff, 1951, wrote to Mrs. Lilienthal in 1990, she described the excitement she felt about biology and comments that she "would gladly have studied more of it."

When I was in your class, for example, . . I made a verisimilar copy of a slender book on bacteriology that I found in the school library -- copied everything in the book including the diagrams. I liked learning about how things worked, especially living things, and I certainly admired you. Still, I don't think I was a scientist at heart.

       Judith Gorenstein Ronat, 1952, took two courses with RSL, one in general science “heavy on biology,” and another including “something like preparation for life/ birds and bees.” Students were assigned Margaret Mead’s Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, which Judi found “really an eye-opener: the places society pushes us into are not inherently innate.” Dr. Ronat, now a psychiatrist, comments that Mrs. Lilienthal taught books like Mead’s not to dictate ideas to students; instead she “exposed us to information which enabled us to conclude on our own.” Judi’s years at Hunter took place “in the post WWII period, when all the media were busy putting women back in the kitchen and nursery.” Yet Mrs. Lilienthal “gently gave us convincing information that we, as women, had many more options.”

       Some moments from her biology class 55 years ago also remain clear for Toni Farinella Rey, 1952.

Mrs. Lilienthal strove to impress upon us that penicillin was a mold and very helpful. She produced a moldy piece of bread, quite green, as I recall and ate it. This definitely had an impact upon her somewhat skeptical students.

Toni also remembers learning that frogs put into boiling water would jump out but would "not notice if the water was slowly raised to boiling, and would be cooked."

       Describing Mrs. Lilienthal as “a wonderful but demanding teacher,” LaVerne Lane Prager, 1952, says “I know that I was ALWAYS prepared when I went to class.” One demand was to learn “certain phrases by rote.” Then LaVerne quotes a line she memorized about germs, claiming that she recites it often:"All respiratory diseases are transmitted by the direct or indirect contact with the droplet spray of a patient or carrier." LaVerne observes "That seminal truth, is still not universally understood despite her best efforts.”

       Remembering incidents from her 7th grade science class, Anita Valente Mule’, 1955, writes about episodes that eventually made her a more focused student. In class, Mrs. Lilienthal used a wristwatch to show the differences between “looking, seeing and observing.” Then she told her students to look at the water going down the drain, to notice what direction it takes. Anita looked, but didn’t see and analyze sufficiently.

I was frustrated. Why, it goes down, of course! I never did observe it. The next day I found that it goes down in counter-clockwise direction. Oh. guess I should have done as she instructed and observed.

       A more serious lapse jarred Anita into better study habits:

As is true of all Hunter girls, I had never received a "C" in my life, much less failed anything. On the first report Mrs. L gave me an "F!" I was shocked into reality. Although other teachers who graded me harshly turned me off, that didn't happen with Mrs. L. I was determined to redeem myself and although I was never an "A" Science student, I certainly improved a lot with her guidance.

       Anita mentions some of RSL’s distinctive traits. “She reminded of a bird, tiny but full of energy.” Also she spoke precisely. “She pronounced every syllable of every name distinctly. Joan became Jo'an. I was not Uhneeda in her class, but AnnEETah. “And she gave unpredictable advice, telling her students “never to stand when we could sit and never to sit when we could lie down.”

       Speaking of her gratitude and “enormous respect” for this memorable teacher, Anita concludes “She taught me the value of being focused and precise. She made me prize intelligence even more than I already had.”

       Remembering RSL as "truly amazing," Karen Stein Gladstone, 1958, says

Mrs. Lilenthal taught me home-ec and, poor student that I was, enough biology to enable me to knit through college biology I, raise horses, become the master of a registered pack of basset hounds, run a farm, slaughter animals for food, feed a family . . . and become a pastry chef.

       Studying eighth grade science with Mrs. Lilienthal, Israela Gorin Meyerstein, 1966, found her one of the best teachers at Hunter; she kept high standards, inspired a love of biology, and conveyed her "passion for the subject [in ways that] made us want to do our best in her class." Israela particularly recalls the Parent's Visitation Day when her father, a physician and a clinician who taught residents, found Mrs.Lilienthal's teaching methods outstanding.

       Anne Helen Greene, 1967, recalls “an amazing amount of what Mrs. Lilienthal taught, even the difference between monocotyledon and dicot.” She notes that RSL’s long-ago science course helped her to talk with her sons about their Biology and Biochemical studies in secondary school and university. Also “I understand newspaper articles about diseases, discoveries, museum exhibits and the medical articles I translate” for CONTACT, the magazine of Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors Without Borders.

Editor’s note: When I entered Hunter in the fall of 1939, I was assigned to Mrs. Lilienthal’s biology class. I recall some of her teaching strategies, using demonstrations and stories that made points about scientific caution. Once she held up an expensive looking perfume bottle with a cut glass stopper.

“What’s this?”

Replies were quick and similar: “ritzy perfume,” “Chanel Number 5,” “Shapiarelli,” and other well-known brands of perfume. She put the stopper on her desk and passed the bottle down the first row.

“Smell it, but don’t name the odor until all of you get a whiff.” The yellow liquid inside was urine.

Another time she told us about a scientist visiting a rural friend in springtime.

As they’re driving, they pass a flock of sheep grazing in a field. The friend says, “Look, they’ve just been shorn.” The scientist looks and replies, “On this side, anyway.” That joke gave us an extreme instance of taking care not to make assumptions.

Mrs. Lilienthal referred us to books about putting science to practical uses, such as Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters and Hunger Fighters; she told us about some of the breakthroughs DeKruif described, featuring experiments to solve puzzles in laboratories and the ways that the results benefited medical practice, agriculture, and industry. Everyone finishing Mrs. Lilienthal’s course knew that hypotheses must be experimentally tested and that many patient retrials of varied hypotheses may be needed to find a solution—as many as six hundred and six. In Rats, Lice, and History Hans Zinsser traced the spread of infections diseases, dramatizing the way epidemiologists struggle to understand and prevent them. I certainly read those three books but can’t recall whether they were assigned or just recommended.

Mrs. Lilienthal, Mrs. Chase, The Misses Benedix, 1942
Mrs. Lilienthal, Mrs. Chase, The Misses Benedix--1942


       Students describe Mrs. Lilienthal’s emphasis on close observation of leaves, trees, and plants. They recall enjoying these sessions, usually outdoor ventures, and then struggling to meet their teacher’s high standards for exact drawings. Some students connect these lessons on intense attention to nature with lifelong benefits.

       Anita Valente Mule’, 1955, recalls taking tests to identify plants and learning to recognize “sycamore trees, ginkgos and horse chestnuts,” all nearby on Park Avenue.

       Reporting on 7th grade Botany, Amy Sheldon explains that both classroom instruction and ventures outdoors taught her to observe and savor nature. Indoors, students had to draw growing plants, and samples they had collected on walks outdoors.

I still remember the feeling of concentrating, of seeing and of discovering what we had not looked at so carefully before, a houseplant in a pot. She took us outside and showed us the gingko trees along one of the avenues. We brought the leaves back and drew them. Mrs. Lilienthal nourished my love of seeing, of drawing, of plants and of being in outdoors in the botanical world.

       Dr. Sheldon emphasizes how much she values those lessons. Living now in Minnesota, she has “fallen in love with the prairie, a different, and subtly beautiful, landscape compared to what I experienced on the East Coast in childhood. I've been growing a little prairie in my front yard for years.”

       Other students from the 1960’s also report botanical outings. Paula Ballan, l962, speaks of an 8th grade science class that evokes “fond memories of walks in Central Park to identify trees and then draw leaves.” Ina Gravitz,, 1965, describes drawing leaves in Central Park as well as RSL’s criticism of her work: “Invariably she would tell me that I had drawn the veins in the leaves in the wrong direction!” Helen Epstein, 1965, sums up the practice: “Of course, all of us also remember her trips to the Park to draw leaves in the fall.” Indeed Marian Cohen Fish, 1955, also vividly recalls those nature study sessions:

We were all flabbergasted to hear that there were male and female gingko trees and that one (can’t remember which) smelled quite bad while the other didn’t. She’d send us out to Central Park looking for trees, and to this day, I always recognize the gingko.

       Marian adds that RSL "appeared larger than life" and praises her special skills in getting students to learn, while being "strict but caring" and "feisty."

       Shirley Meri Adams, 1967, says that her “biggest memory” of classes with Mrs. Lilienthal came about in 9th grade biology, when she was “taken to Central Park to draw leaves in freehand,” and tried “to cheat by tracing them from leaves that had fallen!!!”

       Did she fool her teacher? She doesn’t say.

       Recalling autumn field trips as part of a biology class, Susan Nowogrodzki, 1966, found that nature study with RSL's guidance could teach students far more than recognizing species.Reminding her class to “bring notebooks and pencils,” Mrs. Lilienthal would

walk us around the block between 68th and 69th, between Park and Lexington Avenues. We’d stop in front of a tree and she’d talk about the characteristics of the tree while we took notes and drew the leaves. I still remember the day we stopped in front of the sycamore tree. I'd never appreciated the beauty of this tree before.

       Ms. Nowogrodzki, now an artist in ceramics, identifies RSL as “the first teacher I ever had who taught me to really look at something and draw what I saw, rather than what I thought I saw.” She considers Mrs. Lilienthal “instrumental in teaching me to see the truth rather than what my expectations suggested.”

       Like Amy Sheldon, Susan looks back on their teacher’s insistence on looking closely at design in nature as a significant step toward appreciating the connections between seeing and savoring.

Editor's note: These reports of rambles and leaf drawings occur in the 1950’s and 1960’s when HCHS classrooms were in walking distance from Central Park,

In the early 1940’s when I was at Hunter, the Biology Club was active. I went with friends who were members on Saturday outings to collect samples to bring back to the lab for microscopic study. I recall a winter venture to Van Cortlandt Park where we dipped our sterilized bottles into an icy stream.

The club published a modest journal called Behind the Mike (i.e., microscope), simply mimeographed pages stapled together. We wrote feature articles for it that resembled class reports, but were extra-curricular, not done for grades. During some years Mrs. Lilienthal served as Faculty Adviser. Mrs. Chess was our Faculty Adviser in 1942. In that year Jolie Douglas was Editor, and I was Associate Editor.

The American Museum of Natural History was another place where we met. There I once competed in a quiz show contest that high school students could enter, and had the good luck to be asked a question I could answer; I named the small-sized ancestor of the horse, eohippus.

Behind the Mike staff, 1942
Behind the Mike staff in 1942
Jolie Douglass, Editor; Mrs. Chess, Faculty Advisor;Carolyn Hodgson, Associate Editor


       Mrs. Lilienthal found various ways to teach students to attend to sound bodies as well as healthy minds. She evidently began to discuss sexuality more explicitly after l950.

       Audrey Maurer, l951, tells of her amusement as she has continued to use one practice she learned:

Mrs. Lilienthal said the secret to maintaining one's balance in public transportation was to "widen your base and lower your center of equilibrium." She demonstrated this by standing with her feet apart, increasingly as the situation may have required.

This advice has served me well over all these years. On the New York subways and buses and the Roosevelt Island Tramway, which I take daily, in the London underground, and the metro in Paris, St. Petersburg, and Moscow, I have naturally adjusted my stance and recalled her words. The memory of when I first heard them has always brought a smile to my face.

       Stephanie Farbman White, 1955, contributes this memory of RSL: “She was always telling me to stand up straight and tilt my breadbasket.”

       A student of ther World War II generatioon, Irene Gabriel Langley, 1944, recalls that her hygiene class did not include information about intimate sexuality since "sex education was not contemplated in those days." Mrs. Lilienthal "did give us some advice about taking care of ourselves during pregnancy." Irene remembers that at the time she thought Mrs. Lilienthal "was a bit wistful, having no children of her own. But that was probably my adolescent imagination."

       Jessie Nelson Barringer, 1951, recalls one of her junior high years (7th or 8th), when Mrs. Lilienthal “taught us not to be ashamed of our bodies,” and “showed us how to use tampons.”

       Some meetings of a Health class annoyed Lisa Kurcz Barclay, January 1950. She says that RSL talked “incessantly” about menstruation, and needlessly, because many of these 9th grade students “had begun our periods in 7th or 8th grade.”

However, one day she talked about childbirth. She then demonstrated how primitive women squatted to give birth. And she went through the whole thing, squatting, panting, and pushing, in the front of the room, for about five minutes We all were astonished at this performance. No one said a word afterwards.

       Marjorie Landsberg Goldsmith, 1961, identifies Mrs. Lilienthal as “the first person I knew who maintained an exercise program” and practiced Yoga, even occasionally demonstrated “a few poses for the class.” More generally, she recalls RSL’s “attention to detail mentally and physically.”

       Monica Freund Silver, 1953, found her class in Sex Hygiene more memorable than any other course she took at Hunter. She speaks of being "eternally grateful to Mrs. Lilienthal for teaching the FACTS of human reproduction."

I had reached age 17 with no information (other than menstruation) on this important subject. Happily, I also had no misinformation to worry or confuse me. . . . We learned the anatomy and functioning of the female reproductive system forward and backwards; and I believe every young girl should be taught these basics well before puberty - not at age 17!

       Monica began teaching her own daughters "where babies came from," when they were three years old, and she comments that the very young are fascinated, not embarrassed, by such instruction.

       Recalling that RSL “advised the girls that studying modern dance is the best treatment for menstrual pain,” Judith Gorenstein Ronat, 1952, confirms that “those girls who took that advice swore by it.”

       Among the students recalling problems with menstrual cramps is Mirla Mintz Morrison, 1960. When she learned that Mrs. Lilienthal taught yoga in a studio, she arranged to take this extracurricular class in hopes of easing her monthly pain. Mirla was awed by her teacher and still is grateful:

She was incredible. Her body could move and bend in ways I thought not possible, and she was a marvelous coach. With her help I got through the next three years in much better shape than relying on drugs.

       Mrs. Lilienthal’s analysis of menstrual discomfort did not convince Elizabeth Bracharach Lipman, 1963.

I remember she claimed that there was no physical reason why menstruation should cause any pain, and she claimed that cramps were psychosomatic. We feel pain because we expect it. At that time, my periods were not painful (unfortunately, things changed later), and yet I found this particular pronouncement very hard to accept. But I never would have tried to argue the point with her. Miss Lilienthal was clearly absolutely sure that she was right. In most cases, excepting this one, she was.

       Elizabeth notes that even then, in 10th grade, RSL’s statement “really took me aback and it still surprises me.” Despite this lapse, Elizabeth “always liked her” and admired her dedication: “She clearly cared passionately about her teaching and about us. She was a very strong, forceful, and caring woman.”

       Amy Sheldon, class of 1960, but attending Hunter for only the 7th and 8th grades during the mid 1950s, notes that Mrs. Lilienthal is “the only teacher I really remember.”

I clearly picture our class, in the building at 68th and Lex, in a room with wooden seats anchored to the floor, in tiered rows. "Breathe that air all the way down into your toes. First fill up your big toe, now fill up your second toe..." and so on as she talked us through a routine of breathing our way to filling up our whole body with air. But I don't think we got that far. It's hard to get into relaxational breathing when you're 13 years old and full of giggles. Yet that didn't seem to matter to Mrs. Lilienthal. Time has not erased this fond memory of sitting in a room of giggling girls trying to be serious about our breath work.

       Years after, Amy taught her children what she had learned, guiding them through deep breathing exercises after their bedtime stories. “I told them about a teacher who taught this to me. They didn’t giggle. They’re adults now and they still fill up their toes one by one with air, and the rest of their bodies.”

       Across her six years at HCHS “from 7B through graduation,” Paula Ballan, 1962, had Mrs. Lilienthal as her guidance counselor as well as her class adviser and her teacher in 8th grade science. Paula writes of a particularly memorable P.E. class, Mrs. Lilienthal's alternative-to-gym class, called Adaptive Physical Education.

She selected the oddest assortment of girls for this group – we wereusually 12-15 in number – and taught us yoga. This of course was decades before New Age culture entered the mainstream, and her involvement in Eastern teachings would account for her eternal agelessness.

       For just one class session, writes Barbara Marzigliano Cortese, 1963, Mrs. Lilienthal substituted for the regular hygiene teacher.

I remember Ms. Lilienthal substituting one day in our hygiene class . After giving a talk on the balanced diet, she moved on to exercise. She shocked us all by deftly swinging her leg up onto the desk, saying, "I am 50. You will be able to do this all your life if you exercise." This took place in the late 1950s, long before "use it or lose it" became trite.

       Most memorable for Rhoda Sragg Faller, 1964, were Mrs. Lilienthal’s lectures in her hygiene class:

I remember her so well. Short, thin, forceful woman. She taught us about our sexuality and reproductive system, . . telling us that we have 3 openings at the bottom of our body - the urethra, the vagina and the anus. She repeated it several times pointing emphatically to her own perineal area. She informed us that we had a clitoris and that it was the center of our sexual stimulation. She talked about the perineum, the vulva, the labia majora, the labia minora, the hymen and went through detailed explanations of menstruation and the hormones involved. She further explained about contraception and passed out models of diaphragms, etc., pregnancy and a bit about childbirth.

       During such lessons, students “were somewhat embarrassed—the class was quiet.” Although most of the girls “knew the basics,” few knew such “detailed information. . . . And it was important information.” Later teaching biology herself at Stuyvesant, Rhoda Faller presented similar topics to classes of girls and boys together.

       Another of the many students who comment on Mrs. Lilienthal’s advanced ways of teaching is Helen Epstein, 1965:

I vividly remember that she had the class stand up and “breathe” before exams, long before anyone else thought of doing meditation in the schools. She seemed to be psychologically attuned to the students more than most teachers of her time, idiosyncratic, independent, very brilliant.

Editor’s note: Nancy K. Miller has described Mrs. Lilienthal in her autobiography, But Enough About Me (2002), picturing her as a tiny woman with a “beautifully sculptured head” and a “pixie haircut.” Recalling her Hygiene class, Dr. Miller emphasizes the way Mrs. Lilienthal dispelled “fake feminine modesty about sexuality or body parts.” She could “with utter serenity. . . make a huge class of giggly schoolgirls repeat after her ‘pen-is,’ ‘va-gi-na,’ slowly accentuating each syllable” (20). She warned her students not to sit with crossed legs”because we would get varicose veins.”

Ruth in 1945
Mrs. Lilienthal in 1945


       Offering “an atypical memory of the beloved Dr. Ruth,” Nicola Provenzano-Genco, 1963, asks: "How many alums also recall that she taught Home Economics to 7th-graders? Yes, I mean cooking! In the basement...adjacent to the lockers. . ."

       Describing the vigor of the clean-up regimen, Nicola shows RSL managing the kitchen as she might have run a science lab.

No one struck fear into my heart as did this lovely, petite and fiery lady when she inspected the pots after we finished washing the dishes! She gave all of the pots a swipe with her fingers, trying to detect the telltale remains of grease not properly removed.

       Mrs. Lilienthal taught the best sequence for dishwashing: “glassware, cutlery, dishes, utensils, pots and pans. This order guaranteed that the sudsy dishwater would remain relatively grease-free to the end.” Thus began a lifetime pattern, just as the teacher intended. “To this day” Nicola writes, “I still wash all of my dishes in the order this dear lady dictated.”

       Helen Hoffman Santiago, 1955, also taking cooking as a seventh grader, found her teacher “very thorough and fussy, severe and funny at the same time.” RSL’s teaching style “included regular sprinklings of pepper and generous splashes of acidity.” Students were required “to know our ingredients intimately, i.e., how to purchase them, clean them and chop, mince, sauté, grate or peel them.” Cleanliness was monitored closely.

I washed and dried my grater and, during the much dreaded inspection of my group's cleaned equipment, she commented, on peering inside the grater, "There's all kinds of moisture in here" and handed it back to me as I was wondering "How many kinds of moisture are there?"

       Even now, Helen speaks with pride of one great culinary success: “I did, however, learn to make cream puffs, which, for a novice, is a miracle.”

       In Mrs. Lilienthal’s 8th grade cooking course, Anita Valente Mule’, 1955, learned to specify “10:40 instead of 20 to 11 as the time the meal was put in the oven.” More traumatically she came to grief because of the rule that students must eat whatever they cooked.

I tried valiantly although I was a picky eater. We had to make a salad with Russian dressing. It looked absolutely disgusting to me. I picked out a piece of raw pepper with nothing touching it and took a bite. Then I started to cry because I had never been forced to eat anything that did not look appetizing or taste good.

       When a classmate told their teacher “Anita’s crying,” Mrs. Lilienthal relaxed her rule. After all, Anita “did not have to eat the offensive raw pepper.”

       Mary Ann Adler Cohen, 1958, liked studying biology with Mrs. Lilienthal more than she liked cooking. For that class the teacher “insisted that we each have an apron with our name embroidered on it.” Mary Ann keeps hers and likes to wear it occasionally, she also reports mishaps:

I recall straining applesauce down the sink instead of into a bowl and accidentally splattering myself with hot oil during some effort at making something in a frying pan. I still have the small scars on my forearm from that class. It is a wonder I remember it at all.

       Mrs. Lilienthal impressed Marjorie Landsberg Goldsmith, 1961, as “very organized, precise,” expecting students to attend closely to measurements and cleanliness. The course covered a detailed introduction to “foods, nutrition and basic cooking techniques,” such as the contrast “between poaching and braising.” Marjorie recalls the basement where her class cooked meatloaf and “easy and quick spaghetti with tomato sauce,” dishes tasty enough so that some of her Hunter classmates continue to make them.

       Some of the recipes and processes from Mrs. Lilienthal’s cooking class are still vivid to Helen Friedman, 1963. The “no-thank-you-rule” required that those who prepared food could say no thanks to more “only after taking three bites.” Helen dreaded having to eat the oatmeal she made. “It looked absolutely unappealing, like mush.” She did enjoy the recipe, “Into the briskly boiling salted water, stir the oats” Somehow after “adding a little brown sugar and a little milk,” she took her three spoonfuls. Then she realized that the mush was “edible, even palatable.” For her this was another instance (like her science class) when RSL’s way of demanding “orderly follow-through,” allowing “no choice about doing what we were told” turned out unexpectedly well, so that she and her classmates became less hesitant to try new things.

       Chocolate pudding was another recipe assigned to the young cooks. Helen found the method “needlessly laborious” because it began with”hunks of chocolate that we had to shave and melt in a double boiler.” She had eaten chocolate pudding made perfectly well from a boxed mix.

       Despite her preference for short cuts on this recipe, Helen says she was delighted with both courses she took with RSL --- that whatever she taught “seemed like an exciting lesson.”

Biology Department, 1950
Biology Department in 1950
Mrs. Schussler, Miss J. Benedix, Mrs. Birsch, Miss Pitt, Mrs. Lilienthal

Editor’s note: Home Economics courses were then required for girls in the New York City schools. Boys took shop. At PS 69, Queens, in the 8th grade, I took a class in sewing. The final task was to make your own graduation dress. I enjoyed choosing the pattern (puff sleeves) and the material (pique, white and sheer), but cutting out the pieces was harder, and then came the real challenge. We had to sew both by machine (for seams) and by hand (for edgings at sleeves and neck, as well as for the hem, painstakingly rolled and whipped).

We also did something in PS 69’s large industrial kitchen, perhaps in the 7th grade. I recall the place but not the cuisine. I am sure I would have remembered more, and more happily, if I had taken cooking Hunter as taught by Mrs. Lilienthal.


       Naturally teenage girls are curious about the “real life” of any teacher who has intrigued them in their classes. Her students have happily described Mrs. Lilienthal in the lab, the gym, the kitchen, and out among the trees. Some also record her skills at enlivening the stuff of textbooks with allusions to her opinions, interests and values, as well as her concern for her student’s goals and growth.

       Some Hunter Girls (as we then called ourselves) speculated about their teacher’s married life. Shirley Dushkin Kraus, who entered HCHS in 1933, remembers that when students asked Miss Silverman whether she was eager to marry, she replied “not particularly.” Ellen Samuels, 1962, who became a friend after her HCHS years, says she was shocked “when Ruth mentioned that the most exciting night of her life was staying awake to await the outcome of her college science experiment. Wasn’t a woman’s wedding night the most important?” Judith Gorenstein Ronat, 1952, recalls Mrs. Lilienthal saying “Remember girls, courtship should begin after marriage.”

       Helen Hoffman Santiago, 1955, describes an enlightening moment after one class during Mrs. Lilienthal’s “quite matter-of-fact sex-ed course,” which included topics that were “very unusual for those days” (the early 1950’s):

I remember our rushing out of the room when the bell rang to get to our next class, and her hurrying to the door to shout down the hallway “And never have intercourse after a heavy meal!” I have always tried to follow that advice.

       Curious about Mrs. Lilienthal’s activities outside of school, students gathered that she delighted in the performing arts, especially dance, drama, and music. Shirley Kraus, 1936, named both modern dance and work in summer stock theatres among RSL’s special interests. Employment records show that Miss Silverman played the piano for NYC’s Summer Playgrounds in 1926 while attending Hunter College. Judi Ronat recalls Mrs. Lilienthal’s advice for counteracting painful menstrual cramps—“just take up modern dance.” Mrs. Lilienthal’s uninhibited comic dancing during a faculty talent show seemed both startling and delightful to Nicola Provenzano-Genco, 1963.

       Paula Menyuk, 1947, recollects that Mrs. Lilienthal attended some of the plays put on by the HCHS Drama Club, and commented on Paula’s “performance as Romeo in scenes from Romeo and Juliet.” Remembering what it was like to be at Hunter during WWII and just after, Paula mentions class discussions of contemporary events, in particular President Roosevelt’s death (April 1945).

       Concerning another national event, a happy one, Therese R. Revesz, 1963, contributes an unusual anecdote about May 5, 1961, when she thought she would be reprimanded—and she was:

I smuggled a radio into class to listen to the 15–minute flight into space of the first American astronaut Alan Shephard, Jr. When the bell rang I made an audible comment. Mrs. Lilienthal was really annoyed—annoyed that I didn’t let her know that I had the radio so the entire class could have heard the flight commentary live.

       Developing a strong bond with Mrs. Lilienthal while at Hunter, 1938-42, Laurel Levine comments “We agreed politically, left leaning.” And in retrospect she especially values the way that her teacher “engaged in and encouraged conversation about politics, health, and philosophy.” Among countless influential people and events, Mrs. Lilienthal stands out as someone who, quite early in Laurel's life, led her to join in such serious discussions and enjoy them.

       Jenny Heinz, 1962, after characterizing Mrs. Lilienthal as “an amazing little dynamo of a woman,” says “I loved that she was like a bohemian and artistic.” Even though her own family showed similar qualities, Jenny found those traits more appealing in RSL because, by contrast, “she related.”

       An incident recalled by Judi Ronat, 1952, occurred in her senior year when she revisited her teacher to ask her to write in a souvenir autograph book. “RSL asked me what my plans were. I said I was going to MIT to study Math. She said, ‘Oh, I thought you would have picked something more verbal!’ ” Judi eventually went on to study medicine at Tufts, and then became a psychiatrist. “RSL was right about me!”

       Beginning in the 1960s and continuing after her retirement, Mrs. Lilienthal turned to intense study of Japanese poetry, philosophy and rituals of meditation, eventually becoming a Zen Buddhist.

       Ellen Samuels, Mrs. Lilienthal’s student in the 1960s, kept in touch with her and observed her as she moved from the practice of yoga to zazen. Ever since Ellen was 12 years old, she has felt “lucky and privileged to know Ruth Lilienthal.” Among her memories are biology lessons on the science of animals and plants, and RSL’s earnest stress on "concepts which I could only fully appreciate later in life.”

       In conclusion, Ellen distills her impressions of her teacher and friend, a model of vitality and dedication:

Ruth Lilienthal remained young; she was ageless. She conveyed the sense of life as an ongoing process and she herself continued to grow. She had devoted many years to public service at modest pay, and after retiring in the early 60s, Ruth began a new career educating others about the mind-body-spirit connection, in the Zen tradition.

HCHS Yearbook picture, 1962
Mrs. Lilienthal's last appearance in the HCHS Yearbook--1962

Editor’s note: Comments in Mrs. Lilienthal’s letters to me at college and later repeatedly show her strong interests in theater, films, politics and current events. She mentions music and dance after attending performances and urges me to listen to records. Beginning in the 1960s she occasionally speaks of her interest in Zen Buddhism; later she refers a few times to taking part in Renzai Zen activities.


       Her students tell of Mrs. Lilienthal’s significance in yet another way: they place her among other noteworthy faculty members.

       During her four memorable years at HCHS, Elaine Rothman, 1943, found excellent teachers in many departments. She names six and also calls “our principal, Dr. Brown . . . such an extraordinary person.” For Elaine, Mrs. Lilienthal shone as “one of the stars in the firmament.”

       Judith Ronat, 1952, says that RSL was one of her three favorite teachers. “The other two were Miss Hochman, the music teacher, and Miss Allegri, the math teacher.”

       Amy Sheldon identifies Mrs. Lilienthal as the teacher she remembers most clearly from her two years at Hunter during the 1950s. Ruth Lilienthal is indeed the only one she can recall “by both first and last name.” She can picture a Latin teacher “because he taught us about gods on their lofty perches by jumping off the top of his standard-issue wooden teacher’s desk.”

       After attending both Hunter Elementary and HCHS, Mary Ann Cohen, l958, hesitates “to say who or what of that extraordinarily rich experience was most inspiring. Many wonderful teachers as well as students and friends stand out.”

       Marilyn Fitz-Gerald, 1960, told about her unforeseen success with the assignment she was sure she couldn’t do, but finally tried because Mrs. Lilienthal insisted. “RSL gave me confidence in myself and HCHS itself finished the job” Her Hunter experience taught her perseverance: “If I disciplined myself, I could accomplish whatever I needed to or wanted to do.”

       Nicola Provenzano-Genco, 1963, finds unexpected meaning in an act during a light-hearted faculty show, meant simply as a spoof, when teachers performed out of character. Mrs. Lilienthal, recalled as a tiny and at times frightening woman, shared the stage with Dr. Rose Marie Daele of the Foreign Language Department, who was “equally formidable and very substantial.” Costumed in tutus, both made “utter fools of themselves twirling and leaping to the delight of the entire student body.” The fun and ease of her teacher while engaging in that comic performance became “a very important lesson.”

She taught me to look beneath the surface when dealing with people. She taught me that things are not always what they seem to be. She taught me that humility and a willingness to be vulnerable in front of others can dispel their fears and engender sincere affection. The lesson took hold.

       Nicola went on to devote her life to teaching in the schools of New York City, eventually becoming Principal of Walton HS, in the Bronx. Looking back on her “success in dealing with students, parents and staff,” she feels that her “Hunter- nurtured strengths” derive especially from “the lovely little woman who taught me to remain open with others, and to retain a sense of humor.”

I'm sure none of her lessons were required in the New York State syllabus. But, for me, she was what made Hunter a wondrous, magical place like no other on the planet . . .

       Ina Alster Gravitz, 1965, worked first as a librarian, and now is a freelance indexer. She points out that indexing “requires extreme care for the details, but these details have to be related to the overall theme/message of the book.” Ina has come to realize that although “other HCHS teachers had a greater influence,” Mrs. Lilienthal’s teaching mattered significantly as “part of THE Hunter experience,” especially RSL’s demand for “clarity of thinking along with precision in all that we did for her” even when merely “drawing the veins in the leaves in the correct direction.”

Looking beneath the surface and trying to get it exactly correct, taking care of the details while not missing the big picture was RSL's message as well as that of many of my HCHS teachers. RSL was one of the first, if not the first, to impart that. It's a message that I've carried with me.

       Anita Cocomello, 1966, describes the way that Hunter teachers encouraged confidence and ambition in their students.

Every teacher at HCHS in those years conveyed the belief that we women were wonderful and intelligent, and should aspire to great heights. Mrs. L was no exception. I guess all the faculty could be considered feminists, since the feeling that permeated the 68th street building, the overall perception of HCHS students, was that we were powerful and could do anything.

       Some respondents point out that faith in female potential is an aspect of feminism, and so is recognizing that a thoughtful woman can chose to avoid stereotypical feminity.

       Lisa Barclay, 1950, believes that “all of our teachers at HCHS were feminists” in the sense that they dedicated themselves to teach a “select group of young women to become leaders.”

They all embued me with the idea that I was smart, I needed to strive, I needed to get as much education as possible, and I could succeed. I never learned that a woman was supposed to act dumb in order to be popular till I got to college, and by then it was too late--I had been thoroughly indoctrinated by my Hunter teachers and I was not about to sell my soul for popularity.

       Along with her gratitude to those teachers who modeled “what feminism is all about,” Dr. Barclay expresses regret:

In a way I am sad that we have lost that unique something by the school becoming co-ed. I still believe that single-sex education in a high school like Hunter with those terrific teachers was the most significant part of my whole educational experience.

       Many more contributors to this memoir probably would have been eager to name additional outstanding teachers and to offer their opinions on the faculty’s goals for “Hunter girls.” However, my questionnaire does not ask about these topics. I believe that the former students who volunteered comments represent most graduates’ views about the faculty’s high expectations.

Editor’s note: Some outstanding alumnae have published narratives that survey their years at HCHS, telling how it felt to be Hunter students. Here are two who speak well of RSL, but only one of them enjoyed the Hunter experience.

       In her autobiography, Recollections of my Life as a Woman (2001), Diane di Prima (class of 1951) speaks warmly of Hunter, telling how her years there helped her to grow in ways she valued. Reviewing those years at length (71-85) she comments on the entrance exam, her first impressions of the school building, her classmates who became friends, and five of her teachers, noting their qualities as a group, and naming four who “were the best of all at this all-women’s school.” Each one differed from the others, yet all modeled various “ways of being women,” not traditional women, but rather “being smart and saying what they knew. A whole spectrum of possibility” (73).

       Mrs. Lilienthal appears first, seen surrounded by startling biological images:

I remember walking that first term into my first science classroom ever, the world of microphotography just opening up dimensions; huge blowups, black and white prints on the walls, and stamens, stems, cells were so beautiful! Shapely—another order. ` Ruth Lilienthal, our biology teacher a small woman on a high stool, who later went to Japan to study Zen. (73)

[Indeed while RSL later went far into Japanese spirituality, I find no record of her traveling to Japan.]

       Going on to college at Swathmore, Diane finds her teachers “tired, cynical—jaded” (89). When a dean there questions her about her maverick friends, she reveals nothing about them but claims for herself the right to “experience everything possible,” (90) however unconventional.

Looking back now, I wonder if it was not my teachers at Hunter High School, those strong and improbable women, who prepared me for these encounters with Dean Cobb. No problem for me to speak to a strong-minded woman as long as she was intelligent and could listen. No fear to such exchanges, simply a mutual respect: what I had learned in the give-and-take at Hunter. (90)

       Diane di Prima’s other references to HCHS in this autobiography also express her gratitude for having attended Hunter, and for the friendships she formed there. She and her classmate Audre Lorde remained close across later years.

       In But Enough About Me, Nancy Miller (class of 1959) differs sharply. At “horrible Hunter,” what she “wanted to learn was not to be found grubbing grades in our all-girls’ school” (4). She deplores the excessively competitive grading, “constant posting quarterly averages” by name, and “calculated to two decimal points,” along with regular listings of class ranking. She found Hunter painfully unsentimental: “no one was spared. . . . It was not good enough to be good at what you were good at; you had to be good at everything” (22).

       Nancy Miller wonders why some graduates, like Diane di Prima, were so pleased with their years at HCHS. One reason she suggests is that Hunter was for them the first place where it was safe “to be incredibly smart,” and another is that Hunter was “exciting for girls whose parents were not college-educated, closer to an immigrant generation than I was, and for whom Hunter was a path to a world that had seemed remote” (23). Coming from a middle-class background with professional parents, she rejected the school’s “values and style,” finding them too similar to what she had lived with at home; Hunter felt like an “evil twin where every doubt I had about myself was publicly exposed. What my parents thought, my teachers graded” (23).

Editor's Note: Were our teachers women preoccupied with grading? Or were they “the strong and improbable women” who modeled autonomy for Diane di Prima? Contributors to this memoir recall that Mrs. Lilienthal’s demand for our best work led us to do better than we thought we could. These many decades later, we remember and admire her – for strengths and improbabilities and the tenderness we detected within her toughness.


       When they recall Mrs. Lilienthal, her long-ago students sometimes remark on the power and persistence of their memories of her. Such recognitions come up spontaneously. Like the observations about their Hunter Experiences, comments on remembering would probably have been even more frequent if requested.

       Alumnae who were Mrs. Lilienthal’s students during the 1930’s are reaching back nearly seventy years to garner their spots of time. Shirley Kraus, 1936, at first knowing RSL as Miss Silverman, has told of interviewing her about teaching biology, having been assigned to make a speech on some career she hoped to follow. Even now Dr. Kraus writes wistfully about not having kept a copy of that long ago assignment: “O for my speech.” Laurel Levine, who entered HCHS in 1938, recalls how nurturing Mrs. Lilienthal could be: “She commented in writing on every composition that I brought to her.”

       Elin McNaughton Vinci, 1942, recounts a long-remembered incident when RSL tried to alter Elin’s way of “winging it,” a practice that “Ruth Lilienthal saw through.” Early in her biology class, Elin submitted a paper with no depth, merely “what I had to do.” In addition to writing sharp critical comments on the paper, Mrs. Lilienthal kept Elin after class and told her she “did not pay attention” enough to her assignments, and could do better.

She admonished me to change my ways. Although I did not take offense at what she had said to me, I also did not follow her advice. I am sorry I didn't. I don't know what would have happened to me if I had changed my attitude at that time in my young life (14 or 15 years old).

       Elin remarks that she “was never your typical Hunter girl—studious and serious.” She could have entered Hunter College, but chose to go to business school, and then worked for seven years. “Thinking back now I should have gone to Hunter at night but I was having a good life and having fun.” In later years, settled into marriage and raising two sons, she earned both a B.A. and an M.A. She comments “Not bad achievements but I still wonder what I could have done if l had followed Ruth Lilienthal’s good advice.” Elin’s story is a rare example of regret about what might have been, rather than satisfaction with long-remembered benefits of knowing RSL.

       Recalling the wartime years, Rita Friedman Wexler, l945, writes that Mrs. Lilienthal “was an inspiration to us all,” and “I have often thought of her, even after sixty years.”

She was a superb teacher, a compassionate individual, and kept a positive attitude during the dark days of the war. (We had double daylight savings time during the war and she managed to cheer us up even though we often arrived in the dark.) . . . She was so proud of the husband's air force wings which she wore on her dress every day.

       Looking back nearly as long, Paula Menyuk, 1947, writes “I will remember her as long as I remember.”

       Although she attended Hunter for only the 7th and 8th grades in the mid-1950s, Amy Sheldon mulls over her recollections of Mrs. Lilienthal: “I have often thought about her, and for some reason, more so now.”

       Remembering Mrs. Lilienthal’s biology course in 1961, Vicki Riba Koestler emphasizes the way that “the whole experience of her class has stayed with me.”

I still enjoy observing plants and other aspects of the natural world wherever I go. Also, her class gave me a respect for the idea of carrying out tasks carefully and with full attention, which served me well as I advanced through Hunter, and beyond.

       Another student who still cherishes thoughts about some long-ago biology lessons is Therese Revesz, 1963, “Oh and I remember her classes on paramecium and amoeba with great fondness.”

       Former students who were graduated in the 1960’s knew Mrs. Lilienthal during her last few years at Hunter, well over 40 years ago. She retired in spring 1962 when she was 53 years old, having taught at HCHS for 32 years.

       Susan Nowogrodzki, 1966, recollects with pride a botanical paper she researched and illustrated for one of RSL’s classes.

My term paper was about the daisy and chrysanthemum family. (I hadn’t even known they were related.) I remember the drawing I did for the cover—yellows and oranges and white. I can’t remember my grade, but I was inordinately proud of that report.

       Susan likes to think that her botany assignment is still stored away among “important papers from my days at Hunter.”

Anita Stoller Cocomello, 1966, writes that of all the HCHS faculty, Mrs. Lilienthal had a unique influence on her life. “She made you think, and you learned, and grew up a little. It's been 45 years, but she still has a special place in my heart.”


       Thanks to Ruth Misheloff, 1951, who preserved a letter sent from Mrs. Lilienthal in 1990, all of us can be assured that our teacher remembered her students with warmth and wonder. In Ms. Misheloff's letter to RSL (6/9/1990), this former student recalls details from a l947 class, then mulls over the reverberations of that incident:

I want to share a memory that has popped into my mind many times: it was 1947-48, your freshman biology class, and you showed some slides, apropos of what I don't recall. One slide was "extra curricular"-- a photo of a gardenia (at that time a symbol of exotic luxury) next to the brown, skinny leg and foot of a child in a broken, dirty shoe. You asked what the slide showed, and I was the one in our class to answer, about the contrast between the luxurious gardenia and the poverty of the boy whose country produced that flower. I still remember my excitement at having "gotten" the point (your point), which you did not further comment on, or commend me for "getting," though I'd have dearly treasured your praise, because you were a good and demanding teacher

I always think of this memory as a kind of seed of my later consciousness, one of the innumerable little things that meshed with bigger and historical ones to create my leftist political outlook . . .

I am a teacher now myself -- of English . . . and teaching is another context in which that specific memory of you has come to mind, as an emblem of the fact that one does leave unexpected marks upon some students, marks that have nothing directly to do with the course material.

       Writing her reply (7/3/1990), Mrs. Lilienthal first thanks Ruth Misheloff for the "beautiful letter," and then asks if the images of this student that she still recalls are accurate: "a little girl-- smooth-skinned -- appealing --with a steady, serious gaze behind eyeglasses.--?--"

       Along with commenting on Ms. Misheloff's retelling of the classroom incident -- how "very particular" it was-- Mrs. Lilienthal alludes to other Hunter girls who have sent her their memories. "The students at HCHS were precious individuals. What I find fascinating is that each one who has written to me caught a different arrow."

Editor’s note: My own memories of Mrs. Lilienthal date back to 1939 when she was my Biology teacher during my first semester at Hunter. Then and after, she led me toward much of the best of the rest of my life.

Index -- Next: Topics in RSL's Letters