Diamonds from New York’s East Harlem

Jody Hart, a retired teacher from Utah, handed the aged book to me. “You are going to identify with Leonard Covello.” I took her word for it as well as the book, The Heart is the Teacher, written by none other than Leonard Covello, copyright 1958.

Later that day, I started to read the first chapter, riveted to page after page. The biography of a nine-year-old youngster immigrating from Italy in the late 1890s with his family. Against all odds, he became a beloved teacher and principal in the teeming poverty-ridden melting pot of New York’s East Harlem. His anecdotes as an educator in a crime-ridden area captivated my imagination and my own passion to reach the most difficult students. That was Covello’s legacy. For half a century, he reached out to incorrigible delinquents from impoverished homes where little English was spoken. He changed most of those wild teens into productive citizens.

Covello believed in the power of the immigrant family. As both teacher and principal, he visited the homes of his students and walked the alleys and streets they claimed as playgrounds. Over a plate of spaghetti, he spoke the Italian dialect of the father and mother, explaining how an education could benefit their son more than an entry level job after eighth grade. He helped the fathers to understand that beating their sons did not make them into men, but only accelerated their anger. In the evenings, Covello taught English classes so the parents could assimilate into the culture. He did this despite personal losses and pain.

In the big-city slum of East Harlem in a tiny apartment called the Home Garden, Miss Ruddy, a home missionary, reached out to Covello and other ragamuffins of the neighborhood. Under her direction, they read books, put on plays, sang songs, and learned about the love of Jesus Christ in a personal way. “Mother of the Italians,” as Miss Ruddy was called, helped the immigrant families in times of sickness or disaster. She brought comfort to bewildered people in a strange land. Covello stated, “Of all of us who went to the Home Garden, not one, to my knowledge, ever became a criminal.” The influence of Miss Ruddy cannot be underestimated as she labored in a tough mission assignment.

“I am one who has suffered the degrading insults from racial slurs. I have known the hunger for food and the much greater hunger for knowledge. I have known fighting and stealing and the life of the back alleys and the city pavements, and also the life of the spirit at the mission house. I have known all these things, and if I had it to do all over again, it is hard to say what change, if any, I would make.” I read these words from Leonard Covello and knew that all the drama and trauma in my life had fashioned me into the type of teacher I would become. Like Leonard, there isn’t a thing I would change.

Thanks, Jody Hart, for introducing me to two diamonds in the tough New York East Harlem neighborhood.

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