Monday, March 06, 2006

Teacher Man

I recently finished the book, “Teacher Man” by Frank McCourt. It’s a true story about his life as a New York City schoolteacher and I found it hysterical. His Irish wit and wisdom had me laughing and crying on the same page. This book stresses just how important good teachers are in our lives.

My sister Eileen has been a schoolteacher for about 25 years. She has been teaching across the hall from Mr. Cappetta, a veteran teacher in his mid 50’s. After several years of teaching together they discovered that Mr. Cappetta once taught at St Lawrence School, the Catholic grammar school where my older siblings and I went. There is about a 40 mile distance between St. Lawrence School and the school he and my sister teach now.

Eileen asked him if he possibly taught her younger brother Bobby (me) as a student.

Mr. Cappetta said that yes, way back in 1973, he did have young Robert as a student. It was his first year of teaching and he remembered me fondly.

I told Eileen that I remembered Mr. Cappetta fondly as well. He was one of my favorite teachers. I decided to send him a thank you letter, some 32 years later. Here is an edited version of that letter:

September 29, 2005

Dear Mr. Cappetta,

I told Eileen that you are in the upper echelons on my favorite teacher’s list.

In my mind I think back to the first day of 6th grade, 1973. I picture you standing before the class, the young teacher with a sun streaked pageboy haircut. You have Stephen Stills’ style sideburns that border a handsome face. You’re wearing a red striped oxford shirt that is open at the collar and is draped by a wide yellow tie. Your dress pants are brown corduroy and they hang from your thin frame. On your feet you wear brown Earth shoes.

You roll up your sleeves, pick up a piece of chalk, and go to the blackboard and write: “MUTUAL RESPECT”.

You propose a contract of mutual respect between yourself and your new students, a class that is notorious for being disrespectful. Although I recognize this new philosophy as a derivation of the old golden rule we learned in religion class, I can’t help but be impressed by it’s simplicity, and that a teacher would speak to us like adults. “ He’s very cool,” I think.

Sure, Mr. Moore, our 5th grade teacher was cool, (after all he was quarterback for the football games at recess) but he tended to talk down to his students and he was a serial chalk thrower. I was pretty much the class mute, and I tired of listening to his admonitions that were directed toward other students.

I remember you taught world history and you gave us our first major assignment. We had to write an essay/art project dealing with our favorite era from those we studied.

Colleen Coniff chose Ancient Egypt, and she made a paper mache Siamese cat and she painted it gold. Any Egyptian would have been proud to bow before it. Laurie Giannotti designed an ornate sundial that proved as accurate as any Timex on the market today. Angelo Pizola buried the good citizens of Pompeii in mounds of plaster of paris.

I, on the other hand, considered myself a minimalist. I drew the outline of a Trojan horse on a block of wood and my brother cut it out for me with a jigsaw. I then glued the horse to a square piece of plywood that I had found stuffed on a shelf in my basement. I took little plastic football players from my NFL electric football game; spray painted them silver, and declared them Trojan warriors. I was quite proud of myself.

When all your students’ projects were completed, you held a world history fair. You invited other classes from the school to come in and see our displays. I remember that my Trojan horse looked a little pathetic, dwarfed by the spires of giant clay pyramids and an imposing cardboard Parthenon that surrounded it. You had to chuckle, when on closer inspection, you realized my Trojan warriors were actually two running backs and a wide receiver. But you told me it was a good effort and you gave me a B.

When we did the unit on sea life, you displayed your prized seashell collection on a card table in the corner of the your classroom. You lovingly arranged sand dollars, sea sponges, coral and starfish on a bed of beach sand. In the center was the flagship of your collection, a big pink sea urchin. On the table there hung a sign that said, “FRAGILE, DON’T TOUCH.”

One morning upon entering your classroom you found your prized sea urchin sprawled upon the beach sand in several fragmented pieces.

Now if you were Sister Alice you would have dusted for fingerprints and then told the class that you knew who the perp was. “You might as well come forward and make it easy on yourself,” she’d say.

Sister Adele would have used the fear of God: “You know who did it, I know who did it, and the good Lord above knows who did it, so you might as well come forward and admit your guilt.”

Nobody did.

We all feared a class reprisal and each of us expected to be interrogated, but instead of doing this, you blamed yourself for being foolish enough to leave something so delicate around 11 and 12 year olds. “It was bound to happen,” you said.

“Cool,” I thought, “Very Cool.”

As far as I know, someone’s guilt still hovers like a black cloud over that brick building on the corner of Main Street and Union Avenue.

Eileen tells me that you are still a wonderful teacher. She said that your fellow teachers are amazed with how well behaved your classes are. “ What’s his secret?” She asked.

“It’s all about MUTUAL RESPECT,” I told her.

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