Kids inspired West Babylon art teacher through highs, lows
Editor's note: This story is part of an occasional series on the careers of retired Long Island teachers and where they are now. If you are a retired Long Island teacher and would like to share your story, click on the link below.
Most people spend their honeymoon with someone they love at a special place.
Holly Gordon did just that, even though hers was no typical honeymoon.
A week after marrying her husband, Saul, in August 1964, Gordon wasn't enjoying a relaxing vacation. Instead, she and her husband began their respective jobs; Holly teaching art at Nokomis Elementary School in Holbrook, Saul teaching industrial arts at Edmund W. Miles Middle School in Amityville.
They could’ve moved their wedding up earlier in the summer, but that would’ve just meant “honeymooning” during Saul’s summer job as a Boy Scout counselor.
“I didn’t want to spend the first two months of my marriage at Boy Scout camp,” Gordon, 73, said. Instead, she went “from being a kid to an adult in one swoop.”
But she didn’t mind she was still with people she loved — her students — doing something she loved — art.
She made sure each lesson had a tangible purpose. A project on building a replica of the Statue of Liberty became an exercise in math and problem-solving. Her students measured the size of the classroom and determined how they could build the statue to scale.
“So many people think of art as something fun that doesn’t have substance,” Gordon said. “It has substance. It’s a matter of how it’s presented.”
The lessons resonated with her students, whom Gordon, a mother of three, jokingly refers to as her many hundreds of children. And at Gordon’s lowest moment, her “children” returned the favor.
When Saul died in 1996, Newsday columnist Ed Lowe wrote about him. Saul gained notoriety among friends and family during college for a distinctive orange sweatshirt he often wore. His wife loathed it at first, but came to like it. Eventually, the couple developed an affinity for all things orange, so much so that their children’s friends called their house “the pumpkin patch.” At his funeral, Saul was buried in an orange casket wearing an orange sweatshirt similar to the one that started the craze.
At the time, Gordon was teaching at West Babylon Junior High School. Three eighth-grade students there read the story and were inspired to show their support. With Gordon’s approval, the students made 1,000 felt orange hearts to distribute.
“I’m normally not at a loss for words, but I was so dumbstruck that the article was read by them and had such a profound effect,” she said.
When Gordon left teaching three years later, orange hearts were still visible on backpacks and lab coats throughout the school. Gordon found comfort knowing she was leaving behind a compassionate group of students.
“As teachers we’re always planting seeds. We don’t know if they’re going to germinate,” she said. “I knew when I left, I planted a lot of good seeds.”
Art provided Gordon with a natural escape after her husband’s death. Teaching gave her a sense of normality in those first few years, and when she retired — or “graduated,” as she puts it — the world became her classroom.
Six months removed from teaching, Gordon celebrated the turn of the millennium in Antarctica. The trip stemmed from a desire to be in an interesting place at a significant turning point in time. Her friend who went with her expressed technological concerns with Y2K looming, but Gordon wasn’t fazed.
“If there’s going to be a computer glitch, our trip will be longer,” she said she told her friend at the time. “So what?”
From her visit, Gordon produced “Antarctica: Journey to the Extreme.” The photo exhibit has been on display several times over the years and will be again in November at the Alfred Van Loen Gallery at the South Huntington Public Library.
These days, Gordon is bringing her artwork to life, having teamed up with painter Ward Hooper, of Northport, to create the Brush/Lens Project in 2014. The project combines Hooper’s paintings of nature with Gordon’s photos of the same locations. She said Hooper grounded her after all her travels, including trips to France, China and the Galápagos Islands.
“What I’m creating now is so far from what I’ve done,” she said. “In some respects, what I’ve found right here at home is most important. You don’t have to go to an exotic garden, look and see what you have growing in your own.”
She hasn’t given up on seeing the world entirely, however; in December, Gordon will visit Cuba. Beyond that, though, she’s not sure what’s next. Not that it bothers her.
“It’s OK not to have a preplanned itinerary,” Gordon said. “I’ll go where the wind blows me.”