“Teachers are so important – they can see things that you can’t see in yourself.”
Harriet Jean “Jeanie” Berg was born December 6, 1924 in Detroit, Michigan, and she never left. We met at the Wayne State University Farmer’s Market, where we were regularly interrupted by those who knew her. Harriet grew up during the Depression in Detroit, but didn’t realize the hardship until later. She said her parents shielded herself and her siblings from what was happening by always providing a good meal, and not speaking about what was happening.
Later, she discovered her father had started the Street Car Union in Detroit in response to the mistreatment of workers during the Depression years. Her parents were Socialist, and she can recall having dinner with Norman Thomas (who ran for President five times with good response) regularly when she was young. Her parents were very active in the community in that way. Indeed, Walter Reuther, another prominent figure of the Detroit Labor movement, met his wife at such a dinner. May Wolf was a friend of Harriets mother, and was helping to peel potatoes for the dinner. Walter sat down to peel them with her, and that was that.
“The only thing that gets me in trouble is that I always am about to leave and I see something I want to read and then I’m late!”
Harriet loved to read as a child, and that love has only grown as she aged. She began to tell me about the books she had just purchased, which transitioned us to her other passion. The book in particular was about Misty Copeland, the first black ballerina. Harriet spoke about Misty for some length, finally revealing that dance is her own passion, too. Every year she went to New York City to study in addition to attending Wayne State University. From there she became the Director of the Dance Workshop at Wayne State University due to the encouragement of a teacher she’d had, there.
“I had the hardest time [planning lessons] – I really don’t know what I want to do until I see the kids.”
In the 1950’s, a College of Creative Arts was planned at Wayne State, and Harriet was encouraged to obtain a Masters Degree in order to qualify as the Director. Unfortunately, the President who was starting the program, Dr. Hilberry, died suddenly, and his replacement wasn’t interested in creative arts, and killed the program. Instead, Harriet went to the Jewish Community Center and developed a dance department which she ran for 50 years. Harriet remains conflicted about the move of the Center out of Detroit, and to West Bloomfield. That decision was eye opening for her, because she believed the community was centralized in Detroit. It was then that she realized that she and her family were some of the only white people left in her neighborhood and that the Jewish community truly had moved. Throughout her career, her husband, also a teacher and a GI, provided support by watching the children if needed, and encouraged her.
“We don’t know what war is here in the United States… It’s always over there.”
Harriet feels that President Obama has helped the peace effort by removing troops from the Middle East. Today, she sees the war being fought with drones, which she notes hit more than just their targets which catalyzes some of the overseas hate for the United States. She also worries about the polarizing that has occurred in this country. During the Depression and World War Two, she believes the country worked together, despite their political standing.
Harriet questions whether or not children are as removed from their elders as we suppose. Did they ask questions in previous generations? Were they living together or apart? Did that make a difference? Harriet admits her grandparents didn’t speak much English – they were from Austria. She couldn’t talk to her grandparents about their experiences, and she’s not sure she would have if she could.
“Like every other technological advance, you can use it for good and you can use it for evil.”
Harriet has a love-hate relationship with technology. She is sad that people don’t know how to fix their belongings anymore. And she was shocked when her local library took away the card catalogue system, forcing her to use the computer system. But she also thinks it’s amazing that she can Skype chat with her grandkids often. Despite their distance from her, they know her presence in their lives.
It was Harriet who told me about the New Yorker magazine cover story called “Playdate”, which I posted to social media last week. She wonders about the affect of computers on children and how they’re coming up. She did notice, when she ran a dance camp, that the foreign children were much more open and communicative with the older directors than the American children. It’s not something I’m studying at this point, but it was an interesting point.
“If they can figure out fracking, why can’t they figure out how to put cartilage in my knees?”
Harriet is pictured standing with a statue of Walter Reuther at Wayne State University.