“I think it’s my responsibility, as an educator, to teach children about cultures outside of their own,” said Janice Oldak, who is retiring after 32 years of teaching art at Barnum Woods Elementary School in East Meadow.
School visitors can see a display of Native American pottery and other works emulating those of ancient civilizations. The walls are adorned with more student projects, including self-portraits with musical notes emanating from students’ mouths. And one of Oldak’s most valued student creations, she said, is a friendship kimono most of the school created by weaving cloth in a traditional style to symbolize Japanese-American relations.
“We have to recognize a very important teacher who’s retiring this year,” Principal Greg Bottari said as he noted Oldak’s work at the school’s annual Flag Day ceremony on June 14.
In a speech to students, Oldak implored them to take pride in their country because of its diversity and freedom. “I will always enjoy traveling abroad,” she said, “but I always look forward to coming home and seeing our flag flying high.”
Oldak was born in the Bronx before her family moved to Queens, where she spent most of her life. She studied fine arts and education at Queens College, and earned a master’s degree in fine arts and printmaking at New York University.
“As an educator, you’re constantly improving,” she said, adding that she continued taking art classes and attending seminars well into adulthood. Every experience abroad, even a vacation, is an opportunity to learn, she said. “I’m always thinking of how I could bring new experiences into the classroom.”
Oldak said that she was always a visual artist, but she wanted to share her passion with others. When she began taking education courses at Queens College, she said, “I realized I had a gift for motivating people.”
After she graduated from NYU, she taught at a public high school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. When her husband, Stan, joined the U.S. military as a dentist in 1973, she moved with him to Fort Benning, Ga., where she taught at another public school. Then, when Stan was stationed in South Korea, Janice became a general educator for service members in the Department of Defense.
In 1976, Stan was relocated to Fort Ord, Calif., and there his wife worked as a counselor at the Monterey County Youth Corps, a short-lived on-the-job training program for displaced youth whose funding was cut in the early 1980s by President Ronald Reagan.
When Stan left the military in 1981, the couple lived in Rochester for a time before returning to Long Island in September 1987, when Janice began her career at Barnum Woods.
She recalled wanting to become a public school teacher again, and said that the East Meadow School District stuck out because of its arts and music programs, which are still among the reasons families move to the community.
“We’re always looking for opportunities for the children to learn outside of the classroom,” Oldak said, adding, as an example, that her students go to see installments at the Nassau County Museum of Art as many as three times a year.
Barnum Woods is still looking for a new art teacher, she said. In retirement, she plans to continue exploring her passion for visual art.