Here’s to Teachers

A few months back, I ran a story in the Reveille/Between the Lakes about the United Way of Seneca County’s Women’s Leadership Council inviting people of all ages to share a story about a teacher who changed their life.

Dede Olufsen, chair of Women’s Leadership Council, sent an e-mail thanking the Reveille/Between the Lakes for running the news item, but added, “The Council was so hoping you would write your own letter of gratitude. Is that a possibility? We really would appreciate your sharing.”

Thanks, Dede!

After mulling it over and dusting off 45-plus years of cobwebs from my memory, I did remember vividly four teachers who had an impact on me. So, I went to the attic and pulled out my high school and college yearbooks to refresh my memories and confirm some facts.

My first nominee was Sr. Mary – weren’t they all Sr. Marys?– my eighth grade teacher at St. Anthony School in Paterson, NJ.

I remember a “discussion” with her about my effort in class. The details are the fodder for another story, but early in the school year we battled wills and she whipped out her grading book and made notes. I didn’t know what they were at the time, but when report cards came out, under comments, Sr. Mary wrote in pencil “Tends to be disruptive in class and question authority.” It was lightly erased, but the words were there in shadowed No. 2 lead pencil that overshadowed the upper 80s and 90s in the grade section above. Let’s just say, as Desi Arnaz would have said to Lucy, I had “some splainin’ to do” when Mom and Dad received my report card.

Sr. Mary and I continued to spar throughout the school year, but I learned I could question anything … up to a point. There was a line established by authority I could approach but couldn’t cross without consequences. I learned a little about respect that year. While I did approach that line many times with Sr. Mary and others in my academic pursuits, I never crossed it again.

Next came Don Bosco Technical High School, also in Paterson. I could have gone to any Catholic high school in the area or the public school in my district, but Mom, Dad and I decided on DBT. We were a blue collar family, and this route seemed to be a good hedge, just in case college wasn’t an option four years from then. I chose the electronics curriculum as my technical choice.

God bless Fr. James Chiosso, SDB, my next “champion.” He was the chair of the electronics department and I may have been one of his most challenging students. I wasn’t disruptive and I did my work, but I remember questioning everything over the next four years – like who came up with those color rings on resistors and why. He patiently answered all of my questions, pointed me to the research to get answers, and unraveled the numerous wires and connections on projects that went awry.

One particular freshman lesson I learned was to never cut open a capacitor. When Fr. James saw the not very well cleaned up mess, he just shook his head and said, “It must have been your idea, Mr. Siccardi,” to which all I could answer was “Yes, it was.”

But I did learn about slide rules and resistors and capacitors and vacuum tubes and all the other electronic jargon of the day.

I also remember the senior class project Louie, Steve and I attempted … building a color television set. We even had some of our friends from industrial woodworking make us a cabinet. The problem was, although we worked and toiled the entire year, the television never worked. We must have torn down the power supply a hundred times and tracked every wire and cathode tube. Fr. James often helped us, but in the end, nothing. But it did look pretty in its cabinet.

Fortunately, Fr. James graded us on effort, not the final product … and that was the lesson I learned from him. It isn’t what you do; it’s how you do it. Did you follow the instructions (rules)? Did you check and re-check your work? Did you have a work ethic? Did you take your assignments and projects seriously? In the end, were you satisfied you did your best?

And then there was Fr. Oneil Monzillo, SDB. He was my algebra and trigonometry teacher and the athletic director, but first and foremost he was the assistant principal in a testosterone- and hormone-driven all boys school. He was universally feared by the students, not because he was mean or harsh, but because he was the first stop en route to the principal’s office … and not many students went beyond his door. I’m told – I was never sent to the principal’s office – when you met with Fr. Oneil, your school life was never the same. He was totally invested in his students, whether it was the final months of your senior year or your first day as a freshman. He wouldn’t allow students to fail. He would unexpectedly check on students without notice and turned many of us around.

The remarkable thing was, he knew not only the few troubled students in the 250-ish school population, but the average students and overachievers as well. Nothing ever got by the man.

As an example, I was a good student, graduating in the top five, a member of the National Honor Society and active in sports, most notably as scorekeeper and statistician. But I did have somewhat of a free spirit and even then, liked to eat. So, I certainly wasn’t going to allow class to get in my way of cooking hamburgers or shrimp over a Sterno flame on the ledge outside the class window. It went on for a couple of years. Everyone knew me as Wimpy (after the hamburger-devouring Popeye character) or “The Cook.” I don’t know why I didn’t think Fr. Oneil knew about my culinary escapades. After all, his office was right above my class as a junior and next to my class as a senior.

About midway through my senior year, Fr. Oneil sashayed next to me in the hall and simply said, “If you ever do that again, you’ll be suspended.”

Stunned and with all sorts of things running through my head, none of which included my cooking talents, I stopped and said, “Do what?”

He stopped, turned and said, “Cook on the ledge.” Then with a smile and a playful punch in the upper arm added, “And not make one for me. You know in two years you never made me a burger.”

The next day – my last day in culinary school – I made an extra burger for Fr. Oneil.

That could just be a cute high school legend, but it reinforced what I had learned from Sr. Mary just four short years earlier. There is a line that can’t be crossed. This was Fr. Oneil’s way of showing me the lightly erased words that forced me to either pay attention or pay the consequences.

That was Fr. Oneil’s style. He was willing to give his students enough rope to explore new ideas and new opportunities, but never enough to stray too far from the pasture. His example led me to later allow my children and staffs to explore new ideas and new opportunities and know, even if they failed or messed up, I was there unconditionally.

Finally, there was Dr. Howard Warger, my English professor while flailing (“l” added) at Manhattan College. One day he called me to his office and asked, “Mr. Siccardi, what’s going on? You’re smarter than this” as he returned another sub-par paper. Sheepishly I told him I was just overwhelmed. The classes at Manhattan were bigger than my entire high school and I felt lost. He shook his head and told me to return next week for a field trip.

The following week, we got in his car and he drove across the river, up the Palisades Parkway and into a small campus in a little burgh called Blauvelt. During a tour of Dominican College he explained he also taught at the former novitiate turned all-girls college and it was going coed.

And the rest is history. I did transfer and became only the second male enrolled at the school – George Ellison was technically the first accepted applicant. By the time I graduated there were a dozen males in a graduating class of 59.

I never had Dr. Warger again as a teacher, but it was his faith in me, his recognition that I was out of my “comfort zone” and his intervention that allowed me to succeed that made a tremendous impact in my life.

These educators pushed me, prodded me, brought me down a peg, lifted me up, challenged me and allowed me to grow, not only as a student, but as a person. I’m sure they are long gone by now … but they are remembered.

This new Women’s Leadership Council initiative of memories of significant teachers will support the United Way’s ambitious goal to increase the high school graduation rate in Seneca County schools with a positive, community approach to the education process. The stories will be shared with local partners and posted on the United Way’s website, uwseneca.org to send a strong message of support for educators and students across Seneca County.

If you remember a teacher or two, the committee would love to hear from you … even if you don’t know where Seneca County is {it’s in upstate New York between the two largest of the Finger Lakes, Seneca and Cayuga} Completed letters should be submitted electronically to Olufsen at olufsen2@rochester.rr.com or mailed to Dede Olufsen, 3683 Parker Road Seneca Falls, NY 13148.

THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: The old saying claims you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. I never knew why anyone would want to attract flies, but I get the point. Being nice will take you further than being a grouch.

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About wisdomfromafather

I'm just an ordinary guy walking along the journey of life.
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One Response to Here’s to Teachers

  1. Pingback: Don Bosco Tech — Yesterday, Today, Forever | Father Says…

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