Once upon a time there was a public school in the Elmora section of Elizabeth, New Jersey that was built to look like a castle. It was named after a local beloved doctor, Victor Mravlag, and it was the top-rated school in the city of Elizabeth. That was saying a lot, since Elizabeth had a huge school system, but our school was ranked #1 in achievement.
I wasn’t a resident of Elizabeth myself. I was a Roselle kid, but my mother, Mary Quinn, was the Kindergarten teacher at School 21, and the grandmother that took care of me during the day while my parents worked was getting a little too old for the job. So my mother got permission from the school authorities to pay tuition for me to attend the school where she taught because she knew I’d love it – and I did.
I entered Victor Mravlag School in 1970 in the fourth grade. A year later, when the top song was Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and Smiley buttons were all the rage, I was in the fifth grade and got to be in Mr. Michael Stephan Cohn’s classroom. It was the best school year I ever had.
It was also the benchmark by which I measured all other teachers, college professors and any and all seminar speakers or other instructors whose classes or workshops I ever ventured into for fun, because Mr. Cohn ran the most effective and professional classroom I’ve ever seen. That man, above all, respected us. He gave us quite a list of rules on the first day of school – and enforced them. We were expected to do our part in the smooth running of that classroom by paying attention, talking in class, and to fulfill our assignments. If you messed up, he assigned an essay and would determine how many words it had to be. Nobody wanted to get stuck writing an essay. It was like a disgrace. The idea of having to do one as a punishment turned us into one almost perfectly respectful, attentive class.
Mr. Cohn was organized in terms of our studies. He wrote the notes on the blackboard that we would need for any tests and we’d copy them down and study from them. If you memorized the notes, you passed your tests. It was all very logical and well-organized. Material covered in that phenomenal teacher’s class saw me all the way through not only middle school but high school and even some college classes. I never had to study anything I was taught in Mr. Cohn’s class ever again; he gave it to us correctly the first time. It was due to Mr. Cohn that years later, in English, geography, history and even some science classes, I rarely had to work too hard or crack open a book.
But there was more. Mr. Cohn was always in a good mood. He always, unfailingly, encouraged us. He played the referee every day during our recess kickball games – when he could have been inside with the other teachers having a coffee break. He let us have our say any time there was a school issue. He taught us about freedom of speech and our rights. He asked us to bring in current events articles every week and present them to the class. He had us do reports on states and present those, too – my three were Connecticut, Wisconsin and Oregon – and tested us on all 50 states in the union. We learned about the explorers who discovered America and other lands when we weren’t studying the states. We also made dioramas of Native American traditions. It was all handled by Mr. Cohn in a way that got the kids excited and enthusiastic; on the day those dioramas were due, I thought I’d burst with anticipation.
Mr. Cohn knew how to bring out the best in children. I was astounded when, right before Christmas, 1971, I found out he’d chosen me as the second girl’s lead in the school play, which was about a boy following the example of Abraham Lincoln. My character urged the boy to stand up, be honest and not shirk his responsibility. I seem to recall we all wound up on bleachers at the end of the play singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But even better than the play, the proudest day of my life up to that point came when Mr. Cohn chose me to be on the Safety Patrol. For the rest of the year, I never took off my orange Safety Patrol belt.
The original Victor Mravlag School 21 building was torn down but reopened just this week, renovated and rebuilt, once again, to look like as much like the original castle building as possible.
Our Mr. Michael Cohn, however, died yesterday. His obituary described him perfectly by using the Yiddish word “mensch,” which, in case you may not be familiar with the term, means an exemplary, honorable human being. Hats off to whatever member of his family wrote that obituary because the term crystallizes the decent, inspirational man we all knew and loved.
I can tell you this much: there will never be another Mr. Cohn. That was one mensch who is going to remain forever irreplaceable. Former students who are connected on the Victor Mravlag School 21 Alumni Facebook page are hoping that the Elizabeth Board of Education will give us the chance to be able to honor him, perhaps by planting a tree, on the rebuilt grounds of our fabulous school – the one that he helped to make so wonderful for us in the first place. Rest in peace, Mr. Cohn, and please know that you did right by us! You were a true class act.