Tots bring beautiful footprints into teachers life

It would be easy to say that Meies Matz's job supervising happy 2-year-olds at Oakland's Gan Mah Tov Preschool is a piece of cake, compared with her years working with children recovering from physical abuse and prenatal addiction.

Or even that working with troubled children pales in comparison to her own painful past as an abused and frightened child.

But Matz, 31, who is a new co-teacher in the preschool at Beth Jacob Congregation, does not believe in looking at life in terms of comparisons.

"When I look around my classroom all I see is a room full of Jewish children who bring beautiful footprints into my life," said Matz, an African-American woman who, more than a decade ago, left the Baptist Church to convert to Orthodox Judaism.

These days, her mornings with 2-year-olds in the Chaverim Tovim classroom begin with a routine of classical music followed by prayerful chanting and rousing tunes.

"My childhood was one of the main reasons I converted to Judaism," said Matz, a member of the Orthodox Beth Jacob and a former kosher caterer.

As a girl, she picked up a copy of Anne Frank's diary and felt an "instant connection" to the young author's plight.

"I knew what it was like to live in constant fear, to always be looking behind your back," said Matz, noting that the book piqued an already growing interest in Judaism. In fact, she read the book at around the same time she got kicked out of Sunday school for asking too many questions.

Now married with three young children, Matz said she was born to an impoverished mother who repeatedly married "abusive, alcoholic men," and a father she barely knew who ended up in prison on charges of involuntary manslaughter.

She grew up in both San Jose and Oakland with a constantly changing stream of stepfathers who physically abused both her and her siblings. To this day, she suffers from chronic pain as a result of the repeated physical blows and trauma endured when young.

"Sometimes the only place I got to eat was school, where the lunches were subsidized by the government," she said.

From an early age Matz loved school and excelled at her studies, yet she got beaten up by other kids after being placed a grade ahead of her class.

Eventually, things finally did turn around for Matz when her mother married a "wonderful man."

This time the stepfather — who was one of the first black lawyers in San Francisco — became a role model for Matz. She and her family lived with him for many years in his Victorian home in the Fillmore District, and "read, took piano lessons — even learned how to use silverware"

Sadly for Matz this marriage also resulted in divorce, but she continued to stay close to the man she now considers her father until his death a few years ago.

"He always encouraged me with my studies," said Matz, adding that school continues to be one of her passions. This June she will graduate from Hayward State University with a degree in medical anthropology, with plans to continue on to graduate school in the fall.

It was after working with abused and drug-addicted children at Florence Crittenton Services in San Francisco that Matz decided to enter junior college in Portland to get a certificate in early childhood education. Her specialty was dealing with families and coping with stress.

She then returned to working in child care. For a time she also opened her own in-home day care center.

Those who know her story say they look to Matz as a source of inspiration and hope — much in the same way she looked to her beloved stepfather. But looking back over her life, Matz simply states that the "statistics say I shouldn't have made it."

Now, working in a Jewish classroom, she said she finally feels as if she's come home.

"Sometimes I like to come and sit in the synagogue after school is out, when everyone has gone and it's all empty," she said. "I feel like I am surrounded by holiness."