AUGUST 2, 2018 – If this area has a modern-day Gabe Kotter it is Bernie Kravitz. The Georgetown man, who grew up in Swampscott, went on to lead high school science departments in Beverly and Swampscott. Kravitz believes in experiential learning and on any given day for the last 34 years, he could be found in the classroom teaching kids how to build solar ovens and wind turbines, or leading environmental science trips that took students canoeing on the Ipswich River or waist-deep in a murky pond to measure the depth of the waterhole.
But in June, Kravitz attended one last graduation at Swampscott High and bid adieu to his alma mater. Kravitz usually spends part of the summer tutoring other teachers or preparing for the academic year, but on a recent afternoon in his Georgetown home, he flipped through the channels on his TV and watched a back-to-school ad, and sighed. “It’s going to be different in a few weeks when kids go back to school. That’s when I think retirement is going to set in,” said Kravitz, who has taught thousands of students over the years and can’t walk down a street in Swampscott without being recognized by a former or current student, or parent, or old friend.
Kravitz spent his early years in New Jersey and Ohio before his parents, David and Amelia, moved the family to Swampscott. Once there, Kravitz – along with his brother, Arnie, and his late sister, Cyndy – became fixtures at the former Temple Israel in Swampscott and the JCC in Marblehead. For the family, Judaism was a bond that helped ease the transition. His bar mitzvah party was held in the family’s modest living room, and much of the food came from neighbors who cooked special recipes for the occasion.
“Judaism was a big part of my growing up. We had Friday night dinner together, and my dad would do the kiddish. On Shabbes I went to shul and was in the junior congregation, and later in the regular congregation,” said Kravitz, who is 59, and resembles the late Beatle George Harrison.
He met his wife, Patty Clark – now the music director at the First Church in Swampscott and a music teacher at the Glen Urquhart School in Beverly – when they were undergraduates at the University of Puget Sound in Washington. Seeking a post in marine science or wildlife biology, he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Hartford. As part of the graduate program he was assigned to teach undergraduates biology and anatomy courses. That’s when he realized he connected to the students. “I liked the human part about teaching,” he explained. “I liked being present when a kid said, ‘Oh, I get it!’”
Soon, he found himself back on the North Shore, teaching at Beverly High School. After 13 years in Beverly, he rose to department head and seemed content. Then the offer to teach science came from Swampscott High School. By then, his late father, a retired General Electric engineer, had become a fixture at the school – volunteering to tutor kids in math, and also working as a substitute teacher. “I thought, how cool would that be, teaching at my old school! And I would be closer to my dad and back in Swampscott,” he explained.
For the last 21 years, much of his daily routine has been the same. He’s up at 4 a.m., sipping his first coffee in the quiet of the dawn, and by 5:30 in his car, going over the daily lessons of his five classes, as he heads to school. By 6:30 he’s one of the first teachers in the building, continuing his class preparation.
“It’s probably one of the only jobs where you’re dealing with many individuals in blocks of time and you have to keep track of all of the students,” he said. “The most rewarding part about teaching is knowing you’ve helped people along the way.”
The biggest difference he sees in students is just how scheduled they are compared to previous generations. Still, most want feedback, guidance, and a mentor who will listen to them. “They want to know there’s someone there for them in their corner, and for some, it’s so important. Kids have a challenging day – a day in the life of a kid now is very different from when I was a kid in the 1970s. There’s a lot more pressure on kids now,” he said.
Over the years, Kravitz also immersed himself in afterschool projects. For 16 years, he was a class adviser; he organized senior proms and senior talent shows, and for many seasons stood on the sidelines and took photos of Swampscott Big Blue football games.
Kravitz is unclear of his next step, but like his late father, it will probably be in a volunteer role. He’ll continue to photograph high school football, and may return to college and get a PhD in Wildlife Biology. He also would like to volunteer to drive elderly residents to the morning minyan.
“A group of men used to drive my dad to the morning minyan,” said Kravitz. “It was a vital part of the day for him. So to drive a couple of seniors to the minyan would be cool to do. A few might be parents of classmates.”