By Maria Lagalante Schulz
I’ve been reading a lot of articles in the news about teachers these days, and it really has been educating. For instance, I had no idea that:
1) Teachers are lazy. This is news to me, since I had lots of teachers and while I may have not liked them personally, none of them were lazy. How can you be lazy when you are surrounded by children all day long? It’s as if the pundits and politicians have never been in a classroom. Oh, wait a minute….
2) Teachers are rich. This one is also kind of amusing. Some people want to suggest that teachers are all living large, thumbing their nose at the rest of society while they make tremendous salaries and then retire young with bloated pensions. The teachers I know aren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination, often spend their own money on supplies for their classes, work long hours that they never get paid for, and still show up every day. We call that dedication where I come from.
3) You can quantify great teaching with weird mathematical formulas. I read an article today in The New York Times that told the story of a teacher who gets excellent ratings from her students, her principal and her colleagues—but she might get laid off because a bizarre statistical calculation values her teaching skills at only 7%, and not the 52% rating that would get her tenure. All except one of her students scored a 3 or better on their aptitude tests, but apparently anything less than a perfect 4 kills your tenure track. So much for keeping the best and brightest teachers around.
4) People only become teachers so they can get their summers off. I’m sorry, but most people wouldn’t last a day in a New York City classroom unless they were committed to teaching (or maybe they just need to be committed, but that’s another issue). Perhaps that’s why the attrition rate is so high among new teachers—they come in, see what they’re in for, and leave. Who could blame them? They’re already well educated, might as well become a doctor, lawyer, or banker (that’s where the real money is).
5) Anybody can be a great teacher. Now that’s the funniest idea of all. A great teacher is a rarity, and when you find one, you should treat him or her with all the respect and honor we lavish on athletes (Derek Jeter, my heart goes out to you—you’re only making $51 million over the next three years, with an $8 million option the fourth year) and as-crazy-as-they-come celebrities (Charlie Sheen, anyone?)
For the most part, I was pretty lucky. I had teachers who cared enough about me to demand that I do my homework, dress appropriately, come ready to work hard, and always, ALWAYS treat them with the respect that they deserved.
My early years in Catholic school got me placed in classes with nuns. Now, I’m not going to tell you that they were intellectual giants who taught me more than Einstein ever could. I can pretty much trace my inability to do math right back to all of them. But they did instill in me a no-nonsense work ethic, a drive to complete tasks successfully, and a pretty good sense of right and wrong. They were mostly good, sometimes flawed people, who worked for a pittance.
When I got to public high school, I met some of the hardest working, dedicated, experienced teachers in the world. This was at a time when budgets were being cut to the bone and busing was relatively new, so riots and fights were always breaking out. As scary as it was to go to a school with my graduating class of 700 students after coming from one with only 87, it was a great experience—and that’s all because of some hard-working teachers I met along the way.
Teachers change lives every single day. Here, in no particular order, are the teachers that I remember for their dedication and ability (and no, I can never repay them for everything they did for me):
Mr. Reines: my 9th and 10th grade English teacher. At a time when I was pretty sure I had no talent or ability whatsoever, Mr. Reines came along and said, “You can write!” Then he taught me how to take my ideas and structure them so that I could add humor and develop a signature style. Thanks to him, I still have the phrase “Remember Parallelism!” ringing in my head.
There was no slacking off in Mr. Reines’ class. We read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, My Antonia by Willa Cather, and Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis. We read short story collections that included “University Days” by James Thurber, “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth” by John Updike and “The Worn Path” by Eudora Welty.
While my classmates slept, Mr. Reines would ask me questions about plotlines, story themes, irony, tragedy, and what I thought might happen next. It was more riveting than Guiding Light, and I felt it would help me achieve my future goal to be a soap opera scriptwriter.
Mr. Reines had a soft spot for cake, so whenever there was a holiday, birthday, half birthday (his, mine, or one of my friends) or any reason to celebrate, I’d bring some in. I made a fantastic Cassata ala Napolitano (Neopolitan Cream Cake) that he ate gleefully and we enjoyed a Fudgie the Whale ice cream cake from Carvel (but who wouldn’t?).
Mr. Reines gave up his lunch time on numerous occasions, worked with me after school and even came to my house to help me with papers for contests and scholarship applications. I won an essay contest thanks to him, represented my school in a statewide competition, and was nominated for the National Council of Teachers of English Award.
He was my champion throughout high school, and I’d have other teachers come up to me and say, “Oh I’ve heard so much about you from Mr. Reines! Now you’d better live up to it.” I’ve been trying to do just that ever since.
Mr. Brodsky: my 12th grade Advanced Placement English Literature teacher. Mr. Brodsky has an acerbic wit and is one of the funniest people I have ever met. But when it came time to work, he was all business. His Golden Rule was this: there is no excuse for handing in work late. NONE. He didn’t care if your grandparents were dead, your dog was in the ICU, or the president had just called and begged you to do a stint in the Peace Corps. The only excuse he would accept for a late paper was one particular death—YOURS. Other than that, hand in your paper on time or fail. There was no quarter given under any circumstances.
When Mr. Reines died that year, Mr. Brodsky came up to me at his funeral and said, “I know how sad you are, Maria. This is a terrible thing, and a tough day. But don’t forget, you have a paper due tomorrow and I expect to get it on time.” It was the first time I laughed that day. And after the funeral was over and before I went to sit Shiva, I wrote my paper on A Light In August by William Faulkner.
We read books by Faulkner, Theodore Dreiser, Harper Lee, Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Shakespeare. And every couple of Wednesdays, Mr. and Mrs. Brodsky took us on class trips to Manhattan to see such Broadway matinees as The Glass Menagerie, The Master Builder and The Merchant of Venice.
This was in public school, at a time when many electives had been cut and there was no extra money for anything. Many of my other teachers never left the building, but Mr. Brodsky didn’t let anything stop him.
I learned how to prioritize, how to make an argument and prove it, and how to never, ever miss a deadline. And in the end, I became friends with Mr. and Mrs. Brodsky. Over glasses of wine and a lasagna dinner shared just a few months ago, we laughed all night long.
Mrs. Civin: she was my 11th grade Speech teacher. Mrs. Civin was about 4 feet tall, but she was as tough as nails and commanded respect from everyone who walked through her door.
I was terrified of Speech class and Mrs. Civin knew it. I am more comfortable shouting out obnoxious comments from the back of the room than I am standing in the middle of the class with all eyes fixed on me—truly the center of attention. Getting up in front of everyone and capturing their attention was not my idea of fun.
But Mrs. Civin gently prodded me and coaxed me, and by the end of the year, I was able to get up and teach the class how to make my Cassata ala Napolitano without hyperventilating or turning three shades of red.
She was so delighted by the success of my speech that she threw her arms around me and kissed me. And then I turned three shades of red.
Mr. Cinco: yes, a former Math teacher of mine actually made the list. I had him for Trigonometry my entire 11th grade year. I had already shown my math ineptitude throughout the 9th and 10th grades thanks to such stellar teachers as Mr. B (he owned a Dunkin Donuts franchise and should have stayed there) and Ms. C, who never met a bottle of shampoo she liked and who did not believe in explaining any Geometry concepts, ever.
Mr. Cinco was the teacher who got punched in the face one day while he was answering one of my questions (and no, it wasn’t by me). Mr. Cinco was about 6’3” tall, and this wiry young boy jumped about a foot and planted a left hook in the side of his skull. For a moment, he was stunned, and then he grabbed the kid by the back of his shirt, lifted him off the ground, and carried him off to the dean’s office while the kid swung wildly, hoping to land another shot. Then, my teacher put an ice pack on the side of his face and came back to finish the lesson, and answered my question. Now that’s dedication.
He had a wry sense of humor and knew how to corral the thirty kids in his class so that we were quiet and working as soon as the bell rang. And bless his heart, he gave free tutoring classes every day after school. EVERY DAY! Since I often felt like he was speaking Cantonese, I made it my business to go to the after-school class every single day, along with loads of other kids like me who needed the extra help.
Mr. Cinco would get so excited when I got a great grade on a test because he knew it didn’t come easy to me. “MISS LAGALANTE,” he would say, as he held the test up and waved it at me. I had spent so many months in math class trying to hide my tests (36s are not as much fun to share as you might think) that to have him waving 90s at me was quite a novelty. There were times that he reminded me of Annie Sullivan to my Helen Keller at the pump.
He believed that I could go on to Calculus, but since he didn’t teach it, I got out of math as fast as I could. But what a difference that teacher made in my life. Today, I can’t remember a single thing about Trigonometry, but I do recall the feeling of accomplishment that I got thanks to Mr. Cinco. I knew that even if something didn’t come naturally to me, I could master it if I worked really, really hard at it–and had a great teacher to help.
Mrs. Rainey: my 10th and 12th grade Spanish teacher. Mrs. Rainey was kindness personified. She took kids under her wing and gave extra help whenever they needed it. She also loved to laugh and found the students in her class to be pretty funny. This was something, because another one of my Spanish teachers, Mr. Melendez, never did anything but scowl at us, and with no segue and for no apparent reason, he would blurt out: “You people lead such sheltered lives!”
Mrs. Rainey was patient and appreciated a good joke. I learned a lot of Spanish because I loved making her laugh out loud. When we took the Spanish regents, she asked me to answer this: A nurse enters the room. Her patient needs to take his medicine but he will not stop talking long enough for her to administer it. What is an appropriate way to respond to him?” and I answered in her ear, “¡Tome su píldora y cierre para arriba ya!” which means, “Take your pill and shut up already!” Mrs. Rainey was laughing for the rest of the class.
And Mrs. Rainey knew her students well enough to know when one of us (mainly me) was slacking off. When I felt like class was too hard, I would ask my mother to help me with my Spanish homework since she spoke the language fluently. My mother loved Spanish and she would sometimes help me a lot more than just a little (okay, she would end up doing it).
After I did this a few times, I got one of my papers back with this note from Mrs. Rainey: “The next time you have your Puerto Rican mother do your homework, please remind her not to use the dialect.” I thought that was hilarious, and since Mrs. Rainey didn’t hold it against me, I took her comment to heart and started doing my own work. I got better as a result and we remain friends to this day. Although my mother never forgave her!
Here are a few of my favorite teacher-inspired movies:
1) Educating Rita: Susan asks her new professor to call her Rita, and we watch as the two of them start learning things about themselves, each other, and books.
2) The Browning Version: an old, burnt-out teacher re-discovers why he once loved teaching as he tutors a young student from his academy.
3) To Sir With Love: Sydney Poitier was DA BOMB in this movie. I still can’t get the song—or Lulu’s voice—out of my head!
4) Back To School: yes, with Rodney Dangerfield.
I loved Sam Kinison as the crazed ex-Viet Nam vet turned History professor, and Sally Kellerman was great as Dr. Diane Turner, the English teacher who believes in Thornton Melon no matter what.
5) Animal House: okay, so maybe Donald Sutherland was a little too inspiring as a teacher, but he was a nice counterpoint to Dean Vernon Wormer.
6) The Karate Kid: “Wax on/Wax off”
8) Mr. Holland’s Opus: if only band class was really like this
9) The Miracle Worker: always brings tears to my eyes. Water. W-A-T-E-R!
10) Fast Times at Ridgemont High: You’ve got to hand it to Mr. Hand: he may not let Spicoli eat the pizza he’s ordered for delivery in his class, but he does show up at Spicoli’s house to help him learn enough to pass his final exam so he can graduate.
As Spicoli might say, “Awesome, dude!”
So, hungry lifers…did you have a favorite teacher who made your life better? Have a favorite teacher-inspired movie or recipe you’d like to share? Post your comments here and let us all in on the fun.
Cassatta ala Napoletana (Neopolitan Cream Cake)
This cake looks hard to make, but it’s really very easy. You can make a simple layer cake or a sheet cake depending on how many people you have coming; boxed cake cuts down the prep time.
Have a slice in memory of Mr. Reines, a great teacher.
- 1 layer cake
- 1 lb. ricotta
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 lb. chocolate chips
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup Amaretto
- ¼ cup Confectioner’s Sugar
- Heavy Cream (for whipped cream)
- 2 bars Semi-sweet chocolate
- Sliced strawberries + 1 whole strawberry on top
Put the ricotta into a bowl. Next, add the chocolate chips, vanilla extract, sugar and Amaretto. Mix together.
Place some of the filling on the top of the first layer. Put the second cake on top. If you are making more than a 2-layer cake (or a sheet cake with multiple layers), continue putting the filling between the layers. Put the last cake on top.
Add confectioner’s sugar and cream to a chilled bowl. Whip until tiny peaks form. Add a drop of Amaretto and continue to whip. Now, ice your cake with it. Shave chocolate bars into curls and add to cake as decoration. Add the sliced strawberries around the cake and put a whole one on top.
Chill for at least 2 hours. Serve. Enjoy!