SILVER SPRING – For one local substitute teacher teaching history may just involve remembering significant events from her own life.
Florence Binstock Avigan, a 90-year-old school teacher, has several stories to tell about growing up during the Great Depression and her formative teenage years during World War II – not to mention her 49 years of substitute teaching for Montgomery County Public Schools.
When she and her brother were in elementary school during the Great Depression, they had no reason to think anything was missing from their lives.
“I was a sheltered child, and it was just my brother and I,” said Avigan. “I don’t think we really realized what was going on.”
She said she was not aware when millions were being killed overseas. Binstock Avigan recalled she was not informed about the Holocaust because children at the time were shielded by their parents.
“Unfortunately, we (kids) really didn’t know everything that was going on,” she said about the Holocaust.
When she was a teenager, no one told her about the horror that was occurring during the early- to mid-1940s.
“In those days, kids were more sheltered; parents shielded their children from what’s going on in life,” she said.
Binstock Avigan said she did not remember who first told her about the Holocaust or how she found out about it. She added that she may have shielded her own children from knowledge of violent events as she raised them, but she couldn’t think of an example.
She later had a personal connection to that period in history. Her second husband Joel Avigan, whom she married as a widow in 2010, had lost his immediate family to the Holocaust while he was studying abroad in Israel. His family lived in Poland and his father enrolled him in the Hebrew University. Sometime later, he received word that his family was gone.
“They all perished,” she said. “They were killed in the camps.”
His brother was 12 years old and his sister was 17 or 18, Binstock Avigan said.
Joel Avigan would talk about the Holocaust “every once in a while…It’s a hard thing,” she said.
She remembered the time she heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and shared several memories about World War II. For example, during World War II, one of her high school classmates used his curiosity about the conflict to avoid history lectures. He would ask the history teacher a question about the war at the beginning of each class, and the teacher would then talk about the war for the entire period.
“He would go on and on, and we didn’t have a lesson,” Binstock Avigan said.
She said she also remembered having food rations during the Second World War. Everyone had to use ration book stamps as well as money to purchase food items such as meat. Canned fish counted as a meat and was rationed as well.
“We always had enough (to eat),” she said.
Rationing affected the way her father acquired merchandise for his Pennsylvania shoe store. In addition to meat, butter and sugar, gasoline was rationed. Her father had to reduce the number of trips he made to Pittsburgh to buy merchandise to sell because gasoline was rationed, too.
Her graduating high school class was one-third the size of her freshman class perhaps in part because a number of her male classmates joined the armed services to serve in the war. Her freshman class contained 68, and she was valedictorian of her 22-person senior class, 18 girls and four boys, when she graduated.
She remembers that when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, her friends were emotional.
Some girls were “really crying they were so upset,” said Binstock Avigan, later adding, “(Then) Truman was a great president.”
She moved to Philadelphia, Penn. after marrying her first husband Leonard Binstock on August 29, 1948.
She served as a substitute teacher for a year early in her first marriage, but when she became pregnant with her first child, she was let go. Once the “baby bump” was visible, women would be dismissed during pregnancy, she said. Her family moved to Maryland in March 1960, where she directed her energies into being a stay-at-home mom. She resumed her job as a substitute teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools in 1967, when her children were a little older.
Binstock Avigan was a witness to events before and after the integration of Montgomery County Public Schools, a topic that most current MCPS staff wouldn’t remember and others rarely mention. When she began substituting at Springbrook, it was an all-white school. When she stood in the hallway at Springbrook between classes this year, however, her impression was about 50 percent of the students who walked past her were African-American or other ethnic groups, maybe more.She said she disagrees with the concept of segregation.
“Everybody should be treated equally,” said Binstock Avigan. “It’s not fair that some kids are discriminated against.”
Despite having lived through historic moments in American history, Binstock Avigan says her knowledge of where she teaches means more than her own life experiences.
“I’ve had teachers tell me it’s more important to have someone that knows the school rather than someone who knows the subject,” said Binstock Avigan.
She said students she has taught seem to be much more aware of current events than she was at their age. Cognizant of news though the classes might be, they are not without a number of students who choose not to listen to lessons in the classroom.
Binstock Avigan always had students who had difficulty focusing in class since she first began as a substitute teacher. However, the advent of the cellphone has created an additional challenge.
“It’s hard to say (how you persuade students to focus),” said Binstock Avigan. “Sometimes they don’t pay attention at all. (Now) everyone has a cellphone, which is a bane for me.”
“They can’t put any (cellphone signal) jamming mechanism in the (school) building because it’s illegal,” she added.
Twice widowed, Binstock Avigan has three kids, 15 grandchildren, 32 great-grandchildren and three great-grandchildren “on the way.”
Her daughter Karen said her mother’s substitute teaching spans three generations.
“My granddaughter is in 11th grade. When (my mother) first started, I was in 11th grade. I wanted to hide under the desk,” recalled Karen, who is now retired.
Binstock Avigan attended Penn State University and attained a Bachelor of Science in secondary education, majoring in social studies.