Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Genuine

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
- Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

I never knew Robert D'Aquila, the high school principal who died unexpectedly earlier this month at age 56. I only knew him as Mr. D'Aquila, the math teacher from my high school in the mid-1980s.

In the four years I spent at Stamford Catholic High School, he was never "the popular teacher" or "the cool teacher." Those types came and went during my time served. But he was always there, always paying attention and always quietly helping. That's what some of my classmates and I remember most about him as we reminisced via Facebook a few weeks ago.

Sean Barry wrote that he especially remembered the "pretty well rust-eaten" car his teacher -- and for a few years, neighbor -- drove during those years.

"I realize now how grand a gesture that car was," said Sean, a teacher and writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Genuine teachers, the selfless, self-effacing, committed kind, are those who drive a car like that not from neglect, but from a sense of priority. What mattered to Bob was his school and his students. The rest appropriately would take care of itself."

Alan Chapell recalled the first meeting he had with Mr. D’Aquila while he was taking summer school classes in 1984 to try to get into Stamford Catholic after "literally failing out” of another local high school. After Alan had a run-in with another teacher and was kicked out of class, Mr. D'Aquila confronted him.

"He said, ‘When they decide whether they're going to accept you to SCHS, they're probably going to ask me what you were like in summer school. And I'm going to have to be honest. So, it's really up to you.' No drama. No judgments. Just an honest assessment that empowered me to decide my own future," wrote Alan, who credits Mr. D'Aquila for helping him boost his math SAT score enough to get accepted into the University of Connecticut. Alan graduated, went on to get a law degree, and now heads his own company in New York City that consults with interactive media companies on public policy issues.

"He was easily the best math teacher I have ever had," wrote Deborah Anzalone Esposito, whose father Joe Anzalone was the varsity football coach during most of our tenure. "He explained concepts very thoroughly and precisely without ever getting annoyed with the class for `not getting it.' He would simply smirk and go through it again."

Now a social studies teacher at a middle school in Seymour, Conn., Deb credits Mr. D'Aquila as being one of the people who most inspired her career choice.

"When I was a senior, he simply wrote (in my yearbook), ‘It's been a pleasure,' because I used to always tell him that he was my favorite teacher," she added.

As for me, I have three distinct memories of Mr. D'Aquila from my Green and Gold days.

I remember him always being the person operating the clock at our home basketball games: freshman to varsity, boys and girls.

I remember that whenever our Math Analysis class discovered that he had made a mistake in the calculations he chalked out on the blackboard, he would take a good hard look at his work then say, "Good! I did that to see if you were paying attention."

Finally, I remember one teacher, one of those more popular and cool ones that we students flocked to, telling a few of us how lucky we all were to have Mr. D'Aquila at our school. "He could easily get a job with IBM or GTE and be making real money," the teacher said, "but he chooses to be here because he believes in education and he believes in all of you. That's a gift."

For that gift, Mr. D'Aquila, many of your former students owe you a lifetime of thank-you cards.

* * *

What teacher do you remember most and why?

Bob D'Aquila(photo: Dru Nadler / Stamford Advocate)

13 comments:

  1. William V. More. American History I and II. Six feet tall, black, elegant, booming voice and a copper ID bracelet that said "BIG DADDY" on it. I had him for two years and I consider myself hugely lucky. Taught us to think critically, articulate our thoughts clearly, and gave me a passion for understanding why knowing your history matters. I've been trying to find him for years but recently heard he passed away. I just wanted to tell him how much he meant to me and how often I hear his voice in my head when I read the Wall Street Journal. He used to walk past my desk and say, "Just remember, THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED."

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  2. Two teachers: Charles "Mr. Nick" Nixon, my drafting teacher for 4 years. Intimidating as hell, but genuinely cared about what he was doing and made sure you lived up to your potential.

    Ms. Morgan, my 11th grade English teacher. Little did I realize just how cool she was, and she is probably most responsible for me wanting to read everything and write. She recommended I read "Even Cowgirls Get the Blue" (Tom Robbins) for crying out loud. That's awesome!

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  3. My Greenwich HS English teacher, Ralph Pettite. He once called the class to assembly to read a story, prefacing that it was written by someone in the class who he believed would be a future "Edith Wharton." He began to read in that melodious voice of his and I realized, after a few minutes, that the story was MINE. I sunk in my seat (hating the limelight then as I do now), but Mr. P was my greatest champion. I graduated in 1974 and 30 years later, I discovered that he lived in Blue Hill, ME. I wrote him a letter and he wrote back thrilled that I had connected again. Not quite Edith Wharton here, but I do write for a living, and I owe it all to Ralph Pettite

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  4. "A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
    That fro the tyme that he first bigan
    To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
    Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie."

    - The Canterbury Tales

    Mr. Law, my 7th and 8th grade English teacher, made us memorize these lines. I doubt he ever thought these words were about him, but we knew differently. He taught us how to diagram a sentence and how to love the English word. He passed away over the winter, when "these woods fill up with snow". I smile remembering him. Thank you.

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  5. I'll have to have my wife read this one, being she's a high school English teacher. Though, she may react with cynicism, being she's a high school English teacher.

    I had more teachers than most, but there were three special ones:

    Mr. Chapman, 4th grade english, helped me realize I might be smart. And that it was a cool thing to be. Mrs lent 9th grade english and drama, helped me realize I might have talent,

    Mrs. Alden, high school math. I hated math and I was a shitty, annoying student, but she never gave up. Not ever. Detentions and punishments were handed out, but never in frustration or disdain. She was always sure I could do it. Great woman.

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  6. i would completely agree with harry adams, a teacher does not teach a kid, but a whole family and teachers influence us even when we have all grown up and become wise, we remember what they said when we were little and we love them for it, i lvoed my teachers, still do

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  7. Dave Cawley was the principal whose pet I'd become by 2nd grade. He taught me humility. Other kids had noticed he played favorites with me by giving me "special chores." He told me he had to give the other kids a chance too. Tough lesson for a 7-year old.

    Fred Reicher was a math teacher, my JHS softball coach, and a principal later in his career. I went to him when I was trying to decide whether or not to get a degree to teach Special Ed. He asked why. I told him I felt sorry for these kids. His response: If that's your biggest motivation, you'll burn out and fail them. I have an inner teacher and traveled many paths ~ just never this one.

    Chuck Kalinski saved my life when I was a suicidal 17-year old HS student. He helped me realize I was good enough just being me.

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  8. That was so very well written- and so heartfelt.

    My heart sends you a thank you, and a thank you to all of you - and all of us- who remember those who give. The ones who give without expecting or wanting anything except for those that we "touch" to have success.

    And by success, I mean that they live a life of value. And you, my friend, certainly do. xxx

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  9. Great tribute. And I'm sure it makes many high school teachers suddenly feel a lot better about their jobs.

    I remember my music teachers, who got paid zilch, and stretched their meager budget to its limits, since even in the late 80s, arts education was completely underprioritized and underfunded. They spent their lives trying to get students, all students, involved in some aspect of our school's music program, because they knew that the program's value had nothing to do with musical talent and everything to do with responsibility, community, and sense of belonging to something larger than yourself.

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  10. I'm fortunate to have been blessed with a number of wonderful teachers during my school years - but for the sake of brevity I'll stick with Mister White. I won't use his first name, because I named my son for him and prefer not to put the Evil Genius's name on the Internet.

    Mr. White and I still correspond, some twenty four years later. His quiet voice, gentle manner, and dry wit gave him an air of approachability that I appreciated as a lonely and often conflicted child, and are traits I still value as (allegedly) a grown-up.

    He nurtured my love of words and word play, encouraged me to read beyond my prior boundaries and to ask "why?" relentlessly, even when faced with disapprobation.

    I cherish his continued presence in my life.

    Shade and Sweetwater,
    K

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  11. This was a wonderful tribute/post! I barely remember HS and I know that is a bad thing!

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  12. Wow, that was easily one of the best posts I have read in awhile. Thanks for sharing.

    I still remember Carol Ray, my AP European History teacher. I couldn't handle the pressure of a huge test and cracked. Turned in my test empty and got in my car to drive home. She called me at home and convinced me to come back after school and sit down and finish. She refused to give up on me.

    Teachers rock.

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  13. There's nothing like a teacher who believes in what they're doing. I'll never forget my high school theater teacher. That lady helped foster a love of the arts, collaboration, and problem-solving like nobody else. And she put up with all of our teenage bullshit while she was at it.

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