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A generation ago, my music teacher had a sex change

By SCOTT KEELER
Published March 4, 2007


With Largo ousting City Manager Steve Stanton after his revelation that he's preparing for a sex change, my thoughts drift back to the summer of 1971 and an uncomfortable discussion around our dining room table.

My father broke the news to me. Paul Grossman, my music teacher at Cedar Hill Elementary School in Basking Ridge, N.J., would not likely return to the classroom that fall.

Paul Grossman was now Paula Grossman. Midway through the school year, he had the operation but continued to wear men's clothes until school was out. Come September, he told the school board, he would return to the classroom in women's attire and with a new first name.

I was 12 years old.

I would never see Paul Grossman, the person who taught me about the great classical composers, again in my life.

In disbelief, I asked my father, who was the high school principal and acting school superintendent, could a person really change sexes? My father explained that it was medically possible and that Grossman would probably lose his job because people in town were not yet ready to accept this change.

And 36 years later, I wonder, will they ever be? Some people are still prone to the same sophomoric jokes my grade-school buddies so enjoyed more than three decades ago. The educators and adults in my community, including my own father, let pass the opportunity to teach tolerance and acceptance, and everyone was the worse for it.

My father, William Keeler, had hired Grossman in 1957 to teach music and he knew what a wonderful teacher he was.

But he explained to me on that warm day that people who were public figures like himself had to maintain a certain moral standing in the community. Ministers, teachers, school principals and politicians, he said, had to be "like Mary Poppins, perfect in every way." But he misquoted the famous line: "Practically perfect" is what it says.

Grossman was a rotund man who wore octagonal glasses and spoke in a deep baritone. I wondered what he would look like in a dress. Would his voice get higher? Would he lose his beard? Could she now have babies?

Teachers and administrators, including my father, joked about the situation, calling Grossman "shim" or "it." "Where is he going to pee?" one female teacher asked my father.

My adolescent school friends wondered what size breasts Grossman would have or what the surgeon did with his penis.

One of my buddies even cut Grossman's picture out of the local newspaper as a joke and added it to his collection of Playboy centerfolds on the interior wall of his backyard fort.

No one seemed at all upset about losing a natural-born teacher.

Grossman was one of the finest school teachers I ever had. He was an excellent piano player and would have us humming Civil War tunes or even the latest pop song as we left his classroom.

He played Dixie and Bonnie Blue Flag on the piano, and through song and passion had me imagining what it was like to be a soldier headed for Gettysburg. I learned more about the Civil War in his music class than in all of my history classes combined.

Grossman would tell animated stories about long-dead composers Bach, Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven. With their stern-looking pictures hanging on the wall above him, he brought the music masters to life for fidgety sixth-graders. "They were the rock stars of their day," he would say.

Rather than being confused about Grossman's sex change, I was both sad and mad that he would no longer be our teacher.

School officials told the media they were concerned about how the students would deal with the issue, but they never sought our input or counseled any student. I guess they hoped that the problem would just somehow go away. It didn't.

The story made newspaper headlines and evening news shows around the world. Grossman would be a guest of talk show hosts Johnny Carson and David Frost.

The Bernards Township School Board fired Grossman in late 1971, saying that her employment as a woman would cause a sensation in the school resulting in "an impairment of the school system," according to the New York Times.

Paula Grossman lost her case in New Jersey state court and on appeal in federal court. She appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1976 refused to hear the case.

Grossman played piano in various night clubs around the New York metropolitan area after being forced from teaching, and died in 2003 in New Jersey at the age of 83. Even after the surgery, she remained married to Ruth Grossman until death and together they raised twin daughters.

Grossman would never teach schoolchildren again.

According to a 1996 article in the New York Daily News, Paula Grossman was playing piano in a restaurant when two members of the Bernards Township Board of Education came in and requested Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue and Burt Bacharach's Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head. The educators must have been enamored with her piano playing.

Perhaps that night she received the board's approval after all.

News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Times photographer Scott Keeler can be reached at 727 893-8306 or e-mail skeeler@sptimes.com.