Miami Stories

Teacher used alligator to connect with students and city

Judith Rutkin in a childhood photo with an alligator.
Judith Rutkin in a childhood photo with an alligator. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

I was born at Victoria Hospital in Miami, which is still there.

When I was a kid in the 1930s we didn’t wear shoes, no matter how hot the streets were. I think the bottoms of our feet turned into something else. We would race from one patch of grass to the next. We couldn’t afford to wear shoes because nobody had any money.

My family was living in an apartment in downtown Miami when the great hurricane of 1926 struck. After that my father decided we needed a house and bought one in what is now Little Havana.

My bedroom was in the back of the house and under my windows my father made a beautiful pool and put in koi fish so I could look out and see something pretty. And then, when he saw I was making friends in high school, he made a barbecue out in the back so I could have friends over.

My father had a jewelry store in downtown Miami in the Capital building. We had a fox terrier that would walk from our house in Little Havana all the way to my father’s store downtown. It would cross the bridge and everything. We had no idea that little dog could take that walk all the way downtown until he was sitting by the door waiting for somebody to let him in.

During World War II my father kept two things: a gun and land he had in Tampa. I knew if something happened in Miami he would be putting us in his car and heading for Tampa. And I was really frightened because I think he would have killed us all before he’d let them take us. We were Jewish and the Nazis wanted to get rid of all the Jews in the whole world. Luckily nothing like what had happened in Europe ever made its way to Miami.

For fun we used to go watch movies or go to Bayfront Park to watch the boats come in. The Orange Bowl was right by my house. Celebrities came in all the time. All the kids in the neighborhood would stand there looking pitiful and they would let you in.

We saw some very important people and movie stars. I remember going to see Sonja Henie ice skate there once. I went with my brother, but he didn’t stay with me to make sure that I got in and I was left behind there alone at night. I went home crying all the way and my brother was in deep trouble.

I loved my neighborhood. And it was near a good school, Citrus Grove. I just loved it there. The teachers would use me as a second teacher in the room. In the second grade I used to read to the class when the teacher had to go to the bathroom.

I had been called names by some of the kids, but the teachers made it clear that they loved me. They would also buy groceries for the children who couldn’t afford food. It made all the difference for me. So I wanted to be an elementary school teacher when I grew up, and I was.

I went to high school at Miami High and then went to Florida State, which was an all-girls school then. The men had to come up from Gainesville to date us.

I was later pushed into a marriage. The only good thing about it was my two children. I got divorced from my husband in the early 1970s.

When Norman, a man I dated in college who became an attorney, found out about my divorce, he contacted me, we dated and got married. He was a second father to my children and we were married for 35 years until he died five years ago.

I got my master’s back home at the University of Miami. They didn’t have many buildings back then and they were all wooden. And it was so hot because there was no air conditioning.

My first teaching job was at St. Thomas Episcopal, where I was treated like family, despite my being of another faith.

But they paid next to nothing, so I finally decided if I was going to be a teacher I might as well be in the public school system. I went to Whispering Pines in Cutler Ridge. I was there for about 25 years, from the 1960s into the ’80s. Then a friend of mine asked me to teach with her at Avocado Elementary School in Homestead.  

I loved teaching. We had the children who really wanted to learn and I always thought teaching was fun.

I was also teaching children who didn’t speak English and were learning the language. I taught the children in my class to be helpful to these new children. I never had a problem with it because the kids liked each other and they were proud to teach and learn from each other.

The school system changed so much throughout my time as a teacher. They never thought you had to do anything different for a child who had a really high IQ.

A lot of the children that I got would be labeled as “rowdy” and “lazy.” The truth was they were bored to death. So when they sent them to me they thought they’d been dropped into heaven because I realized they needed to be challenged.

My oldest teaching partner was Allie the alligator.

It was my daughter’s puppet that I brought into class one day to play with the kids. He suddenly became very important to my lesson plan. I think children learn a little bit more when they’re also having fun. Also, an alligator is something they’re likely to see outside of the classroom.

So that connects them, in a way, to where they are, Miami, Florida. The place that’s given me everything.

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