Marytė Sandavičiūtė Newsom

Director of St. Casimir Lithuanian School in Los Angeles, educator

Photo credits: Tom Keller

A good leader serves. A good leader recognizes the expertise and talent in others and invites them to be part of the team.

Marytė Sandavičiūtė Newsom

I was born in Munich, Germany during the time when my parents were displaced persons after World War II, awaiting sponsorship to America. I was just a few weeks old when we emigrated. An uncertain future loomed while a homeland was grieved.

It is my job to honor my Lithuanian heritage and legacy using my skills and talents as the director of the St. Casimir Lithuanian School of Los Angeles. In daily life, I am a junior high teacher of English and literature. Someone once said, “God has marked us with one language.” That is such a striking statement. I am deeply appreciative of the beauty and power of language.

My early memories of Maironis School in New York remind me of the many Lithuanians who, like us, came to N.Y. determined to keep the Lithuanian language, traditions and culture alive in a welcoming but foreign land. The school used the facilities of an established Lithuanian parish, Apreiškimas, which became the hub of cultural activity for the new émigrés. It was the place where, as a child, I had the priceless experience of being surrounded weekly by highly qualified individuals who brought their expertise in music, dance, drama, history, linguistics and many other areas from Lithuania. Cultural events were of high quality: accomplished choirmasters led choirs, actors staged dramas, artists created scenery, political activists sought ways to keep Soviet-occupied Lithuania in the public eye, and organization leaders and clergy encouraged youth to work for God and country. In retrospect, it was a very fertile and culturally rich ground for sowing the seeds of a life-long commitment to Lithuania.

Education is the awakening of the mind to an awareness of the fragmented knowledge that one already possesses, and guiding one to continually add to it, to evaluate it, to synthesize it, to transform it into something that benefits oneself and the world.

Each day I learn to appreciate my fortune in doing work that is, hopefully, meaningful. As a teacher, you never know what concrete impact you have on your students, although your efforts pay off when students return to boast of their successes.

St. Casimir Lithuanian School is a second home to many Lithuanian families living in Los Angeles. The children come to learn the language, see their friends, sing, dance, eat Lithuanian food, and to feel that in a large, impersonal city such as Los Angeles, they can find a haven filled with like-minded people. It is place where we celebrate our culture. Throughout the 65 years of its existence, the school has become a place to share joys and sorrows, celebrations and accomplishments. It boasts a past association with illustrious Lithuanians: Mykolas Biržiška, Bernardas Brazdžionis, Bronys Raila, Alė Rūta, and many other famous writers, political leaders, and clergy. We are proud of our famous graduates like Archbishop Gintaras Grušas. Visitors from Lithuania make it a point to visit our school and are moved to tears during the flag raising ceremony, when even the youngest child sings the Lithuanian national anthem and says a prayer. It is a place where you will be unceremoniously reminded to speak Lithuanian and do your homework!

A good leader serves. A good leader recognizes the expertise and talent in others and invites them to be part of the team.

The day I was appointed director of St. Casimir School, I was filled with trepidation. To one of my very supportive colleagues urging me to take the position, I said that this was not a convenient time for me to take on such a responsibility because I was expecting my third child. She said, “Maryte, there’s never a convenient time.” In life you are called to take action at inconvenient and unpredictable times.

Thirty-seven years spent at the school have taught me to never give up on any student. Several waves of students, parents, and teachers have passed through the school. In the early days, we believed it was our mission to keep our language and love of country alive and in the forefront. When Lithuania regained its independence, we had to shift our perspective. One child asked, “Now that Lithuania is free, do we still have to go to school on Saturdays?” These days we celebrate the linguistic and cultural treasure we possess. I have seen scores of students – some showed very great promise, others struggled. Interestingly, not all the promising ones kept up their involvement in the community, while many of the more mischievous ones became respected professionals, created beautiful families, and brought their own children to the school. I have learned to always look for the potential in every person and never to dismiss anyone.

When interacting with teachers and students, I try to meet them on their terms with respect and humor. However, I do not suffer fools lightly. Disrespect and arrogance anger me.

My biggest joy comes from my family, my husband and children, and from working with my extended Lithuanian school family. My adult children have internalized cultural and spiritual values that are most dear to me. They graduated from our school’s twelve-year program, speak Lithuanian fluently, and are involved in community activities. One daughter spent several years teaching in Vilnius.

There is nothing more meaningful than working for something greater than yourself.

The Lithuanian community here in the U.S. has become very diverse in its goals. At one time, we all knew what we were striving for: to maintain our culture, to speak the language, to know Lithuania’s history, to inform others. Goals have now been rearranged. Heritage is not a priority for all Lithuanians. Parents who speak the language freely don’t always make a concerted effort to speak it with their children. A sense of working for the greater good is not always the motivating factor in community life. To some extent, cultural activities that once were almost mandatory are now competing with other forms of readily available entertainment.

If we solve our petty differences and work together, we can be a strong, influential unit in the countries where we live, as well as an asset to Lithuania.

My heritage is important to me because it is who I am – unequivocally, undoubtedly, unashamedly. People who persevered in the face of oppression throughout history are our foundation. From the first independence of Lithuania in 1918 to its reinstatement in 1990, we see countless examples of heroism. I am smitten by those who worked for the good of their country.

The annual Lithuanian Fair in Los Angeles, Lietuvių Dienos, started many years ago by Msgr. Jonas Kucingis and redefined almost thirty years ago, is a throbbing, colourful feast of experiences that appeal to all the senses: food, beautiful people, handcrafts, hot sun, music, conversations, dancing, krupnikas, kugelis… It is an opportunity to display our ethnic pride to others.

In my opinion, those who have had the greatest impact here in the American-Lithuanian community were those who had the foresight to create parishes, to buy campgrounds (most notably Camp Dainava in Michigan, Neringa in Vermont, and scout camps in several states), and to establish enclaves where Lithuanians could gather and promote their culture. Especially important is the attention paid to children and youth. With the passage of time, however, there is the threat of these establishments falling upon indifference and lack of monetary support, which is why it is so essential to keep parishes, schools, organizations and foundations vibrant.

It is important to know where you came from because it grounds you and gives you a starting point for the rest of your life. You are like a house with a solid foundation as opposed to one that is built on sand.

I think Global Lithuania is an inevitable phenomenon, but it is one which I approach with some resignation. Because of the spread of the Lithuanian diaspora, especially after 1990, this concept of a global Lithuania seems to be an attempt to consolidate all Lithuanians into a virtual country. I suppose you need to do that, but why, when there is a perfectly good and beautiful real country with enormous potential? Why leave it?

When Lithuania regained its independence from the Soviet Union I was caught unawares, as were many other Lithuanian-Americans; in Los Angeles, we scrambled to find spokespersons and to inform the media. It was difficult to explain to Americans why we were so happy, and we all wanted to help in any way we could. In our midst we had the poet laureate of Lithuania, Bernardas Brazdžionis, who urged everyone with his words, “I am calling the nation…light a new fire in your hearts!” We heeded his words then and hopefully continue to do so now.

One man cannot do it all…but maybe one woman can! One person can be the spark that sets others on fire. There’s a Lithuanian saying that translates as, “One word does not a conversation make; one person cannot do it all alone. But when two come together, much can be accomplished.” Speaking of women, if you look at the most actively involved and most productive members of the Lithuanian-American community, you will find women heading organizations, schools, political movements, charitable foundations and the like. Lithuanian women are a powerful force.

Lithuanian song and dance festivals are astounding! The sheer number of participants who manage to sing and dance in unison are a testament to the enormous talent of the teachers, participants and organizers. Looking out at several thousand performers, your heart swells with the beauty and pride of it all. Los Angeles hosted a folk dance festival in 2008 that drew thousands of participants and spectators, and the next dance festival in the U.S. will be in the summer of 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.

My biggest dream is to live in Lithuania for an extended period of time, and I’d also like to see my children continue their cultural legacy. In the educational arena, I’d like to see more social studies textbooks in American schools include the history of the Baltic nations and more literature anthologies include Lithuanian writers. American students are woefully ignorant of that part of the world. I have even approached National Geographic, asking them to include information about Lithuania in their student contests.

Every day I challenge myself to add beauty to my surroundings.

I will never understand why people who have the gift of a second or third language do not pass it on to their children.

Every time I come home I am reminded that, in fact, we all have several homes – one of our childhood, one in the present, and one of the heart. My spiritual home is my Lithuanian language. Like a turtle, I take it with me everywhere.

I am thankful to my parents for instilling faith and culture in me. They gifted me with a strong work ethic and a dose of common sense. There is much to be gained from following folk wisdom and sound reasoning.

My children claim that I have told them that God expects them to do their best…but that I expect a little more. I could have possibly said that…maybe.

A memory that I will never forget is my first visit to Lithuania in 1976, when it was still under Soviet rule. I met my grandmother and relatives who had spent fifteen years in Siberian exile. I thought I would never see them again. But I did.

There is an old saying: “Give a fool the right of way.” It helps keep things in perspective. Actually, there are so many Lithuanian sayings that have informed my life. My mother lived by them.

I feel the happiest when I am surrounded by young, vibrant people who are engaged in creative work, such as in the performing arts, writing or designing. Their infusion of optimism is infectious. Pursuing creative work keeps you young.

As a teacher you are called upon to be constantly engaging. In Lithuanian school, innovation and re-imagining the old are required to keep the academic program vital.

I get inspiration from simple people of deep faith, from those who achieve greatness but do not brag, and from those who don’t complain.

People can take offense quickly.

I did not learn to be an athlete, but I admire the self-discipline of those who are.

The better you are at something, the more humble you should be.

My only regret is that my father, having come to the U.S., worked too hard and died too soon. I did not have the opportunity to lighten his load in life, something I could have done as an adult. I regret that my children did not know him. I also regret that I have not danced enough. But…there’s still time for that, don’t you think?

True commitment is doing something not because it will make you feel better, but because it will serve a greater good.

At some point in life I would like to organize the archives of our school. We are celebrating sixty-five years of existence. I believe we are the oldest Lithuanian Saturday school in the United States. A film or a book about the school would encourage other fledgling schools not to give up in their journey of heritage education.

It is hard to read all the books you would like to read.

I Thank God that he is so creative and always surprises me, especially when I think I have the answer. They say – man plans, God laughs.

We will all be unsettled by the changes in our world due to wars and turmoil. Our complacency will be challenged.

To me, freedom, whether in a personal sense or in broader terms, is the ability to follow your own path and to have self-determination, yet to know that it is tempered by self-discipline and sacrifice.

I want to be remembered kindly.

My home is my heart, which stores all the traces of people who have made me what I am. It is my faith, my family, America, Lithuania. My home is our beautiful Lithuanian language, which conjures up spiritual comfort, joy, and a world-view created by those who have come before me.

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