by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
When our children, Rebecca and John, were younger, we definitely did some labeling of their friends. We knew them well: Who would never make it through a sleepover and have to be driven home in the middle of the night? Who could not stop talking? Who was scared of our dog? Who would not eat any green food? Who would never take off those red rubber boots?
Later on, when my son, John, and his friends—including Billy pictured above—played baseball, their identifiers morphed. Who was headed for town baseball, then the “travel team,” then high school baseball? Who would really rather be playing soccer? Who could always make that catch in center field? Whose parents complained to the coach—and whined to all the other parents—when they didn’t get enough playing time?
This crew of young men, who met when they were in elementary school—many of whom have stayed fast friends ever since—have done a lot together over these past two decades. They’ve stayed close even after graduating in 2008 from high school and setting off on their “adult” journeys: to college and other postgrad programs, embarking on an incredible range of careers in the military, dentistry, acting, law, beer brewing, medicine, education, business, consulting, and public service. Their paths were not always linear, but they are always inspiring in all kinds of ways.
And today, even though it sometimes feels surreal, we are grateful to be celebrating their professional accomplishments, attending their weddings, and buying baby gifts (complete with the best children’s books, of course!). We do all this with a powerful mixture of nostalgia and wistfulness for those days of no-sleep sleepovers, along with tremendous pride for the amazing people they are always becoming.
You will find John’s great good friend Billy Levering in all of these photos. He and John met in fifth grade and since then, they have been playing baseball, fishing, camping, hanging out, and—along with Billy’s longtime best friend, Buddy Christovao—even living together as roommates (with Bora Goekbora) in an apartment in Brooklyn.
While I always felt Billy would listen to his heart and find his own amazing path in life, it was literally thrilling to get this email invitation to a party celebrating his graduation from the Academy of the Fire Department of the City of New York.
Billy’s route to the FDNY included graduating from the FDNY EMS Training Academy.
This past week, Billy graduated from the Fire Academy on Randall’s Island. He is now a full-fledged New York City firefighter.
On the eve of Billy’s graduation party, I asked both Buddy and John to reflect on their friend.
“Billy and I traveled across the world together as young men. There were days, maybe weeks, when he may have spoken only a word or two. Billy prefers to be a man of action. Behind those actions are a strong moral compass, pride in family, fearlessness, and, of course, an innate wit.
“When we returned from abroad, Billy told me he was going to be a fireman. For five years straight, I’ve witnessed Billy’s strict discipline and laser-like focus to see through his personal mission of becoming a firefighter.”
“Billy was and will always be my fishing buddy…which, to all who know, is one of the most important things in my life. He’s calm, collected, patient, adventurous, and a darn good fisherman. On top of that, Billy is the guy whose judgment you trust. He has confidence in his convictions, and that’s why people follow his lead.”
And of course, I really wanted to hear from Billy himself about his journey to becoming a firefighter in the New York City Fire Department:
Did you always want to be a firefighter when you were younger?
It was something I thought about, for sure. But becoming a firefighter felt like a fantasy. You see them on TV or in real life, but actually being one felt like a dream. You think it’s impossible because you don’t even know where to start.
So how did you get started?
About six or seven years ago, I was living in Manhattan and working at a firm. It wasn’t totally satisfying to me, so I started thinking about what I could do with my life. One day, I visited a firehouse and asked the guys there, “How do I do it? How do I become a firefighter?” And they gave me a lot of good information. So I started studying.
What made you want to be a firefighter?
I grew up playing sports, and when you’re a firefighter, you work with others as a team. You count on each other to get the job done. When you have a bad day, your team picks you up and keeps you motivated and working. Whatever complex problem you’re presented with, your goal at the end of the day is to solve that problem and improve the day of the person you’re helping.
What would you tell a young person who is interested in becoming a firefighter one day?
To make it as a firefighter, you have to be motivated. Even on your bad days when you’re tired, you still have to do your job. My advice to kids would be to practice not giving up. If you want something, you can achieve it, but you need to be motivated and determined.
Billy is joining a fire department with a super-interesting and proud history.
With more than 15,000 uniformed firefighters, EMS personnel, paramedics, and inspectors, the Fire Department of New York City (or FDNY) is the largest fire department in the United States—and the second largest in the world, just behind Tokyo.
New York City had a fire department before it was even called New York City. Back in the 1640s, when the island was a Dutch settlement called New Amsterdam, houses had wooden chimneys and thatched roofs (a recipe for disaster). So four “fire wardens” were in charge of making sure residents kept their chimneys clean.
During this time, there were so many fires that a group of men called the “rattle watch” would patrol the streets carrying buckets, hooks, and ladders. If they found a building on fire, they would form a line and pass buckets from a water source to the fire and back.
The first firehouse wasn’t built until 1736, and about a year later, the first official volunteer fire department was formed.
According to its official site, “the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) is the largest Fire Department in the United States and is universally recognized as the world’s busiest and most highly skilled emergency response agency.”
Since its inception, the FDNY has “helped lead efforts to make New York the safest big city in the nation, and they respond to more than a million emergencies every year.” You can find them on the front lines of emergencies big and small, from events as catastrophic as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster in 1911 and the 9/11 terrorist attack, where 343 firefighters lost their lives, to incidents as mundane as helping citizens get through a jammed door. Firefighters have a way of always being there when you need them most.
It’s difficult to capture the professionalism, heroism, and importance of the job of a firefighter in a way that children can absorb and comprehend. So we were particularly happy to discover this week’s Dollar Deal, Fire! ¡Fuego! Brave Bomberos by Susan Middleton Elya, illustrated by Caldecott Medal winner Dan Santat. Fire! ¡Fuego! Brave Bomberos is a bilingual picture book that celebrates how firefighters—like Billy Levering and Anton Shipman (featured in this week’s Book Talks)—bravely serve and protect their communities.
“This winner is sure to find a spot on shelves, although it won’t stay there long.” —Kirkus Reviews
David Vozar never wanted to be a firefighter, but he has always had a deep appreciation for the way they serve their communities:
“When I was little, I noticed this rusty metal sculpture in front of my neighbor’s house that I later learned was a fire hydrant. For me and all the kids in the neighborhood, it was just something to play with. We would take turns balancing on it. It was perfectly positioned on the street to be first base, or home for hide-and-seek.
“It wasn’t until one day, when there was a brush fire in the woods behind my neighbor’s house, that I got to see the hydrant as it was meant to be used.
“The fire department showed up with their giant fire engines and went right to first base. With three hoses connected and water shooting everywhere, the hydrant came to life in a whole new way. I never thought of that little rusty sculpture the same way again.”
After you read Fire! ¡Fuego! Brave Bomberos aloud with your students, please don’t forget to check out all of the inspired content on the blog. Dance to the Book Boys’ music video for their hot new bilingual song, “Stop, Drop, and Roll”; learn from a real-life NYC firefighter, Anton Shipman, in Book Talks; get an inside look at the creation of Fire! ¡Fuego! Brave Bomberos with author Susan Middleton Elya in Behind the Scenes; and practice your Spanish-English skills with a fun classroom activity in Cooked Up from a Book.
We hope you enjoy Fire! ¡Fuego! Brave Bomberos and that it reminds you and your students just how special every community’s firefighters really are! And maybe it will inspire some firefighters-to-be in the process. As Billy said, “If you want something, you can achieve it, but you need to be motivated and determined.”
I would love to hear about what jobs the students in your class (or other young people in your life!) plan to pursue when they “grow up.” You can always email me at: JNBlog@scholastic.com
Happy reading! Feliz leyendo!
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs