Remembering Betsy Gimenez July 15 2021
Glimpses of Betsy’s Life from Colleagues and Friends
Betsy Gimenez, Waldorf teacher and advisor, member of the First Class of the School for Spiritual Science and the Pedagogical Section, crossed the threshold on June 29, 2021in Boston, with her two sons at her side. For the past couple of years Betsy had been fighting cancer, only to be diagnosed a few weeks ago with Leukemia.
Betsy was extroverted, brilliant, articulate, loud, funny, outspoken and controversial. She was easy to notice, and, for some, easy to judge and even dismiss, a reaction that upset her deeply. Not one to flee a challenge, she would, after a suitable period of fuming, find a way to reverse such people’s superficial first impression. Key to such reversals was her honesty and directness, and her steadfast devotion to Waldorf Education and the success of the schools. But most importantly Betsy was warm-hearted and deeply sensitive to others, be they students (especially young adolescents), colleagues, parents, friends or opponents. She was a true artist of education.
While Betsy took her study and inner work seriously, she always balanced it with an irrepressible joie de vivre that appeared in a variety of fun-loving ways. She was one of the pillars in the temple on the Acropolis of Waldorf Education. She would have laughed heartedly at this image, then just as quickly warned against retracting it, revealing with a clever wise crack how much she appreciated being acknowledged.
Betsy Tabakman was born on March 13, 1954, and lived most of her childhood and youth in the Jewish neighborhoods of northwest Baltimore where her parents were grocers. Like many in the post WWII generation her early life was lived in a period when the old certainties that characterized American life gave way to rapidly changing social and cultural perspectives. For a brief period in the early 60s the family moved to Dallas, TX, where she remembered that one day while she and her brother were playing hooky from school and indulging themselves on daytime TV, the regular daytime broadcasting was interrupted by the announcement that President Kennedy had just been shot. Upon their return to Maryland the Tabakman family settled in Pikesville, an adjacent suburb of Baltimore to which almost all the Jewish community had moved. It was there that Betsy lived her teenage years and met Waldorf Education, the calling that was second only to family in her life.
One defining characteristic of Betsy’s life was that the conventional path, either because of money or life circumstances, was usually not available to her. She told one story of when, as a girl, she was sitting on the steps of her synagogue while her brother was taking his Bar Mitzvah preparation class. The rabbi engaged her in a conversation, and she could answer all his questions. Recognizing her as one of the most brilliant children he had ever met, he asked her parents if she might join the preparation class. But, alas, it wasn’t possible, financially or otherwise.
Pikesville High School and Betsy were not a good match. But fortunately for everyone, then and for the next fifty years, there was an alternative high school in town which she was able to attend. This school appears to have been a pretty extemporaneous and improvisational operation, certainly not “college preparatory” or “outcomes-based” in any conventional way. One of the learning experiences available was working in an early childhood center of choice. The then sixteen-year-old Betsy was drawn to a drug-free, celibate community called Savitria which had a tiny kindergarten, the seed of what would later become the Waldorf School of Baltimore. There Betsy met Joan Wolfsheimer (later to marry Clopper Almon) and other young spiritual seekers who were modeling their little school on Waldorf Education.
Upon graduation from high school, Betsy enrolled at Werner Glas’ Waldorf Institute in Detroit. Betsy had met her destiny. She was seventeen years old, the first and last student so young to attend a Waldorf teacher training program. Having no money, she cleaned the building in exchange for her tuition. Although Betsy never took notes, forty years later she could still quote Werner Glas and other teachers in that program.
After completing her Foundation Year and Teacher Training, Betsy first worked in the kindergarten at Beaver Run near Camphill Kimberton Village. From there she moved to Camphill Aberdeen in Scotland. Aberdeen was a very difficult experience for Betsy, and the soul wounds she received there pained her, sometimes bitterly, for the rest of her life. Yet as was characteristic of Betsy, she did the inner work needed to transform her bad experiences into an understanding of their meaning in her life.
When she left Camphill Betsy was in her mid-twenties. She returned to America and closed the door on that period of her life. She married, moved to Boston, opened a natural foods business with her husband, and had three sons. Then in the early eighties, the family moved back to Baltimore to be near her family. Betsy needed work, as well as a school for her children. Not having a college degree, she faced very limited opportunities. So, one day in early 1984 she stopped by the Waldorf School of Baltimore (WSB) to see if there was work in the kindergarten. There was nothing. But a couple of weeks later, the lead kindergarten teacher, Yanni Kuypers, suddenly passed away and the school was in desperate need of a teacher. They called Betsy, and she jumped right in, working at WSB until her husband’s work took them to Charlottesville, VA.
Once in Charlottesville, Betsy immediately contacted the fledgling Crossroads WS and, after a short period during which she volunteered in enrollment and started the school store, she went to work as a kindergarten teacher. Recognizing in this very young school a high quality of teaching, as well as a strong desire to be a “real” Waldorf School, Betsy reached out to her contacts in the wider Waldorf World. Soon, experienced teachers and administrators were visiting the campus, and mentoring the staff. Betsy’s experience, strength, courage, and analytical abilities were instrumental in the school’s development. Although her early work was in the kindergarten, as necessity called, she took up more responsibilities: class teaching, faculty leadership, campus searches and relocations, full membership in The Association of Waldorf schools of North America (AWSNA), a school name change, and securing a permanent campus in the city of Charlottesville.
Unfortunately, during this time, Betsy and her family suffered the most horrific loss a family can experience—the death of their sixteen-year-old, middle son. There is no returning to the life before such an event; and while it eventually contributed to ending her marriage, it profoundly deepened her relationship with her two remaining sons. Betsy, however, did not withdraw from life and work. As was integral to her whole being, she regained her footing, and, after a period of mourning, moved forward: into class teaching, a divorce, single parenting, AWSNA first delegate, accreditation team member and leader, regional leadership, and eight years as a founding member on the AWSNA Leadership Council.
Eventually, Betsy realized that she had to move on from Charlottesville, both for herself (her sons were building careers elsewhere) and to ensure that she ‘walked her talk’: that school founders must step aside and make room for new leadership or a school could stagnate. So for a short while she returned as mentor and subject teacher at the Waldorf School of Baltimore while toying with a lifelong dream to live in NYC. She told the story at a Leadership Council meeting of how she had applied online to the Brooklyn School, got cold feet about changing schools to move to New York City, and did not submit her application. Next day, the Brooklyn School accepted her submission, which she thought had not been submitted. She took the nod from the universe, aided by technology somehow, and moved to New York. Betsy became the fifth-grade class teacher at Brooklyn Waldorf School. After five years in Brooklyn she took a sabbatical year (self-supported) and lived in Manhattan with a lifelong colleague and friend.
Betsy now entered the final phase of her long and devoted Waldorf career. She joined the Princeton Waldorf School, where she served for three years as a class teacher and college chair. Just as her final year at Princeton was coming to an end, she received her final diagnosis of Leukemia, following two years of management of a cancer which had recurred after many years. Betsy was determined to teach to the end, and did. Once this last diagnosis came, she told the friend with whom she had lived in Manhattan that in the T.V. shows she had watched as a child, “Dr. Kildare” and “Ben Casey,” “Whoever got a diagnosis of Leukemia was dead by the end of the episode.” This friend encouraged her to remember that things had moved forward since those shows and that much was now possible. But upon reflection, the friend realized that it was simply that Betsy accepted that it could be her time to pass. So in a great irony of being a Waldorf educator, her childhood days of T.V. watching and her encyclopedic knowledge of T.V. shows of every kind gave her not only insight at the end but the most mainstream imagery for expressing it.
In all Betsy’s teaching, as in her personal life, her skill as an artist permeated her work. She was a courageous experimenter in different mediums, both in color and in black and white. She was a master doll maker. Loving theater and drama, she did gargantuan musicals and Shakespearean tragedies with her classes, undaunted by class sizes large and small, or by illusions of limits of any kind. She even dared to do an updated production of the Shepherds’ Play. She also kept an eye on the world before her and brought what she observed inventively to her teaching. What could be better than making cosmetics with an all-girl class in eighth grade chemistry?
For years Betsy was a delegate to AWSNA for her school. Not one to simply sit and listen and agree at the delegates meetings, she was a tireless worker for the Association itself, becoming an essential member of key committees and ad hoc groups. She was a devoted supporter of the development of accreditation, was a member of countless accreditation teams, and a leader of teams later on. She served on the task group that rewrote the Path to Membership. She helped to facilitate the process of bringing the Camphill Special School into full membership, making a cogent case for its inclusion, and then serving as team leader for the school’s first accreditation team visit.
In 2004 she was selected by the delegates of the new Southeast/Atlantic Region to serve as their Leadership Council Representative. Her region had previously been part of the Eastern Region and, as such, included Kimberton Waldorf School and the Waldorf School of Baltimore. These two schools felt they ought to belong to the Mid-Atlantic region, as they had been active members of the old Eastern Region for decades. However, those who had determined what school was in which region recognized that the new Southeastern region had only one mature school and needed the experience, maturity and strength of these two schools.
It was in this work, emancipated from the internal workings of any individual school of which she was a faculty member, that Betsy shone in ways new to all who knew her. She gently gathered all the schools, old and new, together into the happy, cooperative work of supporting each other and the movement as a whole. She helped to organize a number of conferences, always making sure that the fun of being together was balanced with serious study and contemplation.
Socially gifted, Betsy was the life of the party at the Delegates and Leadership Council meetings. She worked hard and played happily in the glory of seeing her colleagues beyond the schoolyard. She loved to sing and knew the lyrics to just about every Broadway hit from the last century. It was Betsy who introduced David Barham’s rock and roll band to the entertainment roster. With Betsy present, no dull moments were allowed! She refused to fit the “Waldorf teacher mold” and was known to teach adult education classes with a can of diet coke in hand.
Always alert to the latest trends in fashion, Betsy never allowed any female in her presence to appear wearing socks with sandals. In fact, she appointed herself the fashion guardian of the leader for outreach and development in the early Leadership Council. “You can’t go to D.C. looking like that! It’s not some Waldorf school out in the woods.” A Betsy-led power suit shopping trip followed, a regular outing at AWSNA meetings for decades.
Like the pillar she was in a structure of beauty and wisdom, she saw many events that threatened her uprightness. Death and dissolution came to her in genuinely devastating forms. These events changed Betsy and in the last phase of her life, she became more reserved and inwardly attentive, without ever losing her innate sense of gladness for being here on earth at this time, or ever losing her preoccupation with fashion and interior decorating.
A few days after her passing, a small gathering was held in her memory by parents and colleagues from every phase of the Charlottesville’s school’s history. Time and again, former parents remarked on her compassionate insight and understanding of their children. “She saw my child and accepted her for who she was.”
June 29, 2021, is the day we lost her! She leaves a space that will be impossible to fill. Forging a new relationship with Betsy shouldn’t be difficult. Any time one of us goes out in public dressed badly, we’ll be sure to hear Betsy’s lovingly outraged admonishment. With such an ally on the other side, how can we but succeed?
Submitted by Arthur Pittis and Patrice Maynard with help in factual details and memories from Lucy Schneider, Vivian Jones-Schmidt, Betty Staley, Sam Glaze, and Charlotte Landgraf