NYC Catholic Schools Open September 7th & NYC Public Schools Open on the 8th
Ode to Some of the Great Teachers I've Known, Who've Been Guides on the Trail of Life
In Words & Deeds, We are all Students & We are all Teachers, be it Consciously or Not
September 7, 2022 / NYC Neighborhoods / Opinion / Gotham Buzz NYC.
On Wednesday, September 7th the Catholic schools in NYC reopen for the new school year.
On Thursday, September 8, 2022 NYC public schools reopen. Many of the CoVid guidelines of the prior public school year have been modified, so copy and paste the following link for an update. https://www.schools.nyc.gov/school-life/health-and-wellness/covid-information/health-and-safety-in-our-schools.
Thinking of Those who Made a Difference
As I contemplated the upcoming school year I thought back to all of the great teachers who made a difference in my life. And so it is to them that I dedicate this column. Generally I'm going to discuss the school teachers as they chronologically entered my life, and discuss the other teachers in my life who taught me things outside of school, in reverse chronological order. Also please note that this is by no means a complete list, but really rather a first attempt at thanking some of the teachers who made a difference in my life, while passing on a few of the golden nuggets I learned from them.
The High School Teachers Who Made a Difference
It started at Abbott Pennings high school in DePere, Wisconsin where I grew up. Father Frigo was our freshman or sophomore history teacher. He was also a coach of the football and basketball teams which won state championships, and as such, was perhaps treated a bit too familiarly, even irreverently, by some of the star athletes in our class. What Father Frigo taught me was that historical narratives change over time, and that, " ... you have to pay attention to whether you're looking at primary sources or secondary sources ... " to truly understand the nature of events.
He taught us that, " ... revisionist history is a secondary source, but also plays an important role in our understanding of the past ...". He noted that pressure to conform to the prevailing cultural norms and narratives of those in power at a given time can distort and obfuscate the truth. But cultural norms and those in power change over time, so that oftentimes, at least in a free speech democracy, the passing of time permits a more honest appraisal of past events. We can see this playing out currently, as the Civil War 'heroes' of the Confederate south are more appropriately treated in historical terms as traitors to the republic, and as champions of a harsh, cruel system of enslavement of a large portion of the American population at the time. Likewise, in dictatorships, narcissitic despots often use and distort history to provide support for their violent aggression. We saw this scenario play out in Nazi Germany in the 1930's and 1940's, and we're witnessing it today in Putin's Russia.
My junior year I came up against a tough nun, Sister Janet, who for some god forsaken reason, took it upon herself to make sure that I understood algebra. I fought her tooth and nail throughout the year, but over time she broke me down and taught me the beauty of the logic inherent in algebraic equations, for which there is no wiggle room between getting it right and getting it wrong.
And lastly, at Abbott Pennings high school, I was taught an even larger lesson by Father Meehan, in religion class. I questioned some of the basic beliefs of Catholicism in class. He patiently answered my questions, and in the end told me something that I will always remember, when he said, "don't stop questioning ... question everything". Little did I know that that was both a blessing and a curse, as I have continued to question everything ever since.
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The College Professors who Made a Difference
I first attended college at St. Norbert College, also in DePere, Wisconsin. In what was my first junior year, I ended up in a history class with Doctor Jonathan Webster. At first I found it unfortunate that I was one of only two students in the class, so this meant I actually had to do all of the homework every week, because while Professor Webster lectured us, he also engaged me and the other student in conversations about what we read in each and every assignment. The class was about Tudor Stuart England, and perhaps for the first time, I walked away with a true appreciation for the study of history at a very in-depth level. We had to read about two dozen books during the course of the semester, and during those three person classes, Professor Webster imparted his knowledge of the period, and helped us more fully understand what we were reading.
Here the lesson was that learning things helps you, and oftentimes when you least expect it. My in-depth understanding of history from that class, came up in an interview when I applied to transfer to the University of Chicago, which was then ranked the #3 college in the nation. In a robust, spirited and terribly intellectual conversation with the interviewer, Michael Walker, I was able to handle my own and was subsequently accepted into the University.
The University of Chicago has a well-deserved reputation as a rigorous academic institution. Two professors from there, left indelible impressions upon me. The first was William H. McNeil, also a history teacher, who over the course of three trimesters - a full academic year - took us, his students, through the history of the world. His classes were on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesdays it was primarily a lecture where he laid out what was happening in various regions of the world during specific periods of time. On Thursdays, he presented slide shows where he showed us photos of art, artifacts, architecture and other cultural and historical items from that time. He would use a light emitting pointer to draw our attention to various details of each artifact that supported his narratives about what was going on during that time. It was through this class that I developed a broader appreciation for the importance of art, culture and architecture; and the important role they play in our understanding of not only our past, but of ourselves.
This was in addition to learning about the history of the world.
But perhaps the most important part of McNeill's teaching happened after class, when I visited him in his office and peppered him with questions. I was troubled that what he was presenting in class appeared to differ from my understanding of the world and how it worked. Up until that time, my world view was heavily influenced by my family religious beliefs. Professor McNeill was a very patient, avuncular man with a good sense of humor, and so while we discussed many things, ultimately he let me make up my own mind about what I wanted to believe, but he also didn't give any ground when it came to the facts. He was an exceptional teacher, and I am sorry that I was never able to properly thank him, nor for that matter, any of the other teachers mentioned herein.
Professor Sam Jaffe, also of the University of Chicago, taught the Humanities. In this class, Jaffe seemed enthralled by James Joyce, an Irish author, whose use of allegory seemed to enthrall Professor Jaffe. Professor Jaffe had us write a short paper every week or two. Somewhere in the early part of the trimester, one of my papers came back covered with red ink. Professor Jaffe told me he wanted me to re-write it, but also told me I didn't have to complete the next writing assignment given to the rest of the class. So, I re-wrote the paper, taking into consideration Professor Jaffe's comments.
My second rendition also came back covered with red markings, so I asked to meet with the professor to better understand what I had done wrong. He made me aware of how I used my words, phrases, (dis)organized my thoughts and paragraphs, and went off on side tangents [like my father] and sometimes repeated myself. He wanted me to eliminate the deviations from the main argument and to stay focused on the primary subject in one continuous flow. I tried to comprehend his guidance as best I could, and made use of his comments in my third try at the same paper which he found to be much improved. But there were still a number of markings on it, so we met and went through it again. On my fourth try, the paper came back fairly clean. And by then I was on my way to understanding how to write a well-organized, well thought out, articulate paper; which if I recall correctly, was about James Joyce's book, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
I never properly thanked any of them, which shows us two things - one is how important a profession teaching is, and two how thankless a profession it is. My sister is also a teacher who consoled me, telling me that teachers derive satisfaction by seeing their students learn. She said that seeing their students grow through learning, is how they know they've made a difference, regardless of whether the students ever actually circle back around to thank them.
Our Lives are Filled with Great Teachers
But teaching isn't just done at the academic level, so while I'm on the subject I want to share a few other lessons I learned along the way, again recognizing that this is a very incomplete account. As mentioned above, here I'm going to tell the rest of the story in reverse chronological order.
I had a longstanding girlfriend, Karen Cortell, who taught me how to grocery shop by focusing on natural fruits, vegetables, meats and breads, while pointing out the importance of reading the nutrition labels on packages, when we did buy processed / packaged food. And then she taught me how to cook. I cannot tell you how invaluable these lessons have been to my enjoyment of nightly meals, my good health, and enduring financial standing.
I used to have lunch periodically with Bill Peick who was the Director of Facilities at OSI Pharmaceuticals on Long Island. He was a bit of a corporate senior statesman and would periodically tell me, "The world has changed today. Did you notice it?" At first I thought this query was whimsical nonsense, because very little changed from day to day. In fact there were some weeks when life seemed a bit like it was portrayed in the movie 'Groundhog Day' ... meaning terribly uninteresting, and more of the same. But over time I came to realize and appreciate what Bill was saying, which is that the world is constantly changing ... bit by bit and day by day ... and while we may not notice it on a daily basis, the seven billion plus people on the planet, including ourselves, are all doing something that will either benefit or harm humanity over time.
David Sharpe the VP of Marketing at Lever Brothers [a multi-national consumer products company] in NYC, told me that, " ... managing the process of business, is as important as getting business results ...". When he told me this, I had just come off a successful packaging launch where I pushed people hard, so I was feeling pretty good because we accomplished what we set out to do. When he told me that process was as important as results, I resisted the notion at first, as I had grown up near Green Bay, Wisconsin where famed Packer coach Vince Lombardi was often quoted as saying "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."
But Sharpe was right, and over time I found what he had told me was true, because one victory is only good for that day / week / month or year. Ultimately you have to keep doing it over and over and over again, and if you don't manage the process well each time you go through it, eventually things will break down and / or people will resist helping - let alone give you their all.
One of my best friends in business school, Michael Murdoch, taught me the importance of friendship. I was at Midway Airport in Chicago - this was near the end of business school - and on my way to an interview with CBS in NYC. I was flying to NYC to pitch the only job that I really wanted, and I had forgotten my plane ticket. On a moments notice, Murdoch dropped everything, took a taxi to the airport and enabled me to get on that plane. It was a heroic deed that I will never forget, because he could easily have talked his way out of making that trip. And as fate would have it, I got the job. Here, it is important to remember that, sometimes, the memory of a heroic deed can last a lifetime.
We can Even Learn from Family Members
My brother Pat would also periodically remind me that, "It's a people world." He would say this because I tended to be more book smart than people smart. I found this pithy advice insightful, as knowing and getting the facts right, oftentimes isn't enough to win the day - as people, with all of their emotional and psychological complexities - are the decision makers. And thus knowing the people is at least as important as knowing the facts, as to crack, hack or make a deal, you have to break the people code in order to achieve your objectives.
And lastly, but not least, there were my parents, who imparted countless important lessons to me throughout my life. Many were conveyed, most assuredly, through their actions as I was growing up. Two of the top verbalized lessons by my parents, were the following.
My mother used to say, "Every generalization is wrong, including this one." This means a lot of things, but the one most appropriate for this day, is that just because someone does something tremendously good or bad, doesn't mean their whole family or whole race or whole gender or whole political party or whole religion deserves the credit or the blame.
And my father would tell me, "Democracy isn't perfect. Democracy takes time. And so far, it's the best system of government we have that works." Papa has been right thus far. Let's hope he continues to be.
So as we enter the new school year, I want all the great teachers out there, to know that while you may not have been, or may not be, properly thanked for all that you do, there are those of us out here [I'm sure I'm not alone in this] who are grateful to you, even if we never made the time to circle back around to properly thank you.
Ultimately in life, we are all both students and teachers. We learn by observing and we teach through what we do or not do, and by what we say or not say. Our presences - good or bad - can make a big difference to others, and oftentimes when we're not even aware of it.
Have a good week.