Here’s to one of the best teachers around.
I’m at my desk on the final day for students last June, knowing this piece is for September, the start of another school year—my 20th as a public school teacher. My best 9th grade student, Caitlin, hands me a “thank you” card.
Students stop for grades and goodbyes, and it always gets the best of me. Two years ago, in a circle of grateful kids, I had to excuse myself; I was tearing up. Thereafter, a non-teaching friend reminded me, “There’s nothing wrong with that. It just shows you’re human.”
“I just wanted to say thank you for being a great teacher this year,” Caitlin wrote. “Believe it or not, your class was my favorite because you actually challenged us and always asked for our best.” Michael, a student from two years ago, visits to let me know he’s moving to Colorado. Another girl, who struggled with her studies, says she still hopes she’ll have me in 10th grade, too. Next door, a student is thanking an English department colleague by trumpeting like an elephant. Now that’s a tribute.
But I prefer beginnings to endings—so now begins my 20th year at the head of the class. Before it begins, though, I must, again, thank the teacher who begat my career as both a teacher and writer.
I had the same English teacher my first three years at Archbishop Carroll in Radnor. Garrett Woznicki was incessant about getting and keeping our attention. Of course, at that time, it helped that we were still separated from the Carroll girls by, strategically, the chapel and library. Still, “Woz,” as we called him, would walk out one door of a two-door classroom, and then return through the other, all the while lecturing or leading a discussion. He’d swear—a no-no in a parochial school—but we honored it.
Most importantly, Woz taught us—about literature, writing and expressing ourselves. My junior year, Woz made me and another classmate blossom. Dave Kubacki and I didn’t always participate in class—even if we knew the answers—so our more extroverted friends often mocked us. One day, Woz silenced the masses. Twenty-five years later, I still hear his inspirational words: “If you can write as well as Kubacki and Pirro, you don’t need to talk.”
Six years into my own teaching career, I had the chance to thank Woz. The scene: the Pennsylvania School Press Association’s annual convention in Harrisburg. In a role reversal, I’m the teacher and Woz is the student—one of 200 high school journalism students and teachers from around the state in my session on feature writing. During our chance encounter, I learn that he left Carroll for Manheim Township High, where he’d become the school newspaper advisor—something I did as well.
I seized the opportunity to do what I hadn’t done years before—thank him publicly for giving me the courage to teach and write. “What a great human-interest story,” I told the crowd. “A writing teacher gets to teach his writing teacher—and finally say thanks.”
Woz wrote to thank me for “some of the kindest words anyone ever said” about him. Those words, he wrote, are the “psychic remuneration that carries us on in this profession.”
He asked forgiveness for not having explained this in person or over the telephone. But, he added, “When I consider something important, I always use my favorite medium—writing.” Of course. Woz’s influence has long settled inside me, and I renew this anecdote whenever I need to thank someone or accept thanks. Because of it, with each ending—and beginning—to a school year, I find it’s helping me become more of a gentleman teacher, too.
Frequent Main Line Today contributor J.F. Pirro wrote “Hope and Healing” and “Star Man” in this month’s issue.