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10 year old Betsy

My second grade teacher, Elaine Zeve, first engenderd and fostered my desire to act as she read “Charlotte’s Web” aloud, doing all the voices and soon discovered that I had a flair for imitation and imagination myself. She came to see me in my high school plays and we were in touch until her death, aged 42 from stomach cancer, my senior year in high school.

Mrs. Zeve

So it was not surprising that in 5th grade (1962-’63), classmate Michael Nanes and I were chosen to represent our school at a multi-week, city-wide acting program for the elementary school children of Detroit, held on Saturday mornings at WTVS Channel 56, the Detroit Educational Television Foundation. It grew into the PBS station in Detroit. Public TV was in its infancy and we were thrilled to be involved. I was subsequently in one radio play, but my moment of glory came in early January, 1963.

The station put on a program commemorating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. They had an actor dressed like Abe Lincoln read the text, various other segments about slavery, including a classroom scene with the “teacher” speaking about the evils of slavery and its aftermath that I was part of.

They chose several “students” to have speaking roles. I was one. My line was: “But we are only children. What can we do about this?”

Each of us with speaking parts raised our hands and were called on by the teacher, then stood to recite our lines. I had rehearsed my line to make sure I spoke it clearly, with proper emphasis, concern and empathy. I thought I did well and was pleased with my line-reading.

As I looked around the green room where we gathered before going onto the set, I remember thinking they had chosen a diverse group of children to speak. I was the dark-haired, short kid with glasses. There was a blonde, an African-American (though that term hadn’t come into the lexicon yet), and so on. We represented the melting pot of America. Diversity may not have been a “thing” in 1963 but I do remember mentally ticking off the different types sitting around the room.

PBS (both local and national) has always been about teachable moments, whether on “Sesame Street” or “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood”. That was the first instance for me and has stayed with me these 57 years. It would seem America, this great melting pot, has been slower to learn.

 

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Tags: PBS, Channel 56, Detroit, Emancipation Proclamation, slavery
Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy, What a wonderful memory and what great insight you had as a child.
    And as always I’m amazed at your recall!

    I know a young woman, the daughter of a dear friend., who worked at Sesame Street for many years . I’ll send her your story!

  2. Marian says:

    How fun to be involved with PBS, Betsy, and I am impressed about the diverse casting. It was a lot of years before Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers caught up in that regard.

  3. Suzy says:

    Great story, Betsy! I love that you still remember your lines. And you got two whole sentences! I can just imagine you saying them so earnestly. I wonder if there is still a copy of that program somewhere at Channel 56.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, Suzy. Yes, I was a very earnest little girl (not too much different today, but more fun, I think). I have no idea if the station still has a copy of the broadcast, but I agree – it would be fun to go back and look at it now.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    I love this story, Betsy. Your line makes me think about how today’s kids are so upset about the future of our environment but also powerless to do much about it. My grandkids have also wondered, “But we are only children. What can we do about this?”

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Good point, Laurie. We all feel small and powerless in the face of huge obstacles. I guess we can only do what we can…join a larger group to feel empowered, or feel that we lead righteous lives (though these days that doesn’t feel like enough to cancel out all that goes on around us). But we have to take that first step forward.

  5. John Shutkin says:

    What a great story, Betsy! Most of us can only write about watching kids’ TV shows — or, at best, being in the Peanut Gallery — but you were actually in such a show. Beyond that, not just the sort of dumb show that I typically sat in front of, but a truly educational one — indeed, ahead of its times. And, as always, we are the beneficiaries of your terrific memory.

    Finally, thank you PBS for being out there for us both then and now.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes, thanks to PBS for being at the forefront, even back then. It is a fun memory to share with all of you, John.

      While going through my mother’s albums to find a photo of myself at the appropriate age, I came across one of some of my cousins in 1949, before I was born, which I snapped and sent to them all. It was a nice chance to communicate with them too. Another benefit from writing this story!

  6. John Zussman says:

    I remember Channel 56 and I love this memory—your (first) moment of fame! Pretty neat that, as early as 1963, that station was taking a stand on the nascent civil rights movement, and that you were part of it. Of course, like you and others, I would love to see a videotape/kinescope or whatever they had back then.

  7. Betsy, I’m moved by your tribute here to Mrs. Zeve. Is this a photo you took of her at one of your plays? You were so fortunate to have had such a meaningful relationship with her until her untimely passing. I had an art teacher, Gladys Black, in junior high who, some time after I went on to high school, sent me a brief but very sweet letter along with her photograph (which of course I still have, as I still have every letter I’ve ever received). She made such an impression on me, not in regard to art because I don’t remember that being part of our relationship, but just that of a genuinely caring teacher. She is one of only two teachers that I remember actually relating to me on a personal level, and I remember both of them with such fondness now because of that.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      My father took this photo, Barbara. I zeroed in on Mrs. Zeve’s face, but she was part of a grouping that included me and some relatives who had also come to see me in the play. Her birthday was two days before mine and we exchanged cards every year. I knew something must be wrong in December, 1969 when I didn’t hear from her. She died two months later and I was just heartbroken, as you can imagine. I remember we’d had her over to dinner a year or two earlier and she already had some issues with certain foods. She was SO kind to me and SO supportive. She was one of my earliest role models, like your Gladys Black. Teachers who reach out can truly make a huge difference.

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