Amazing Teachers: Unconditional Teaching
By Courtney Daly-Pavone
My father was a high school history teacher in the South Bronx in the sixties and seventies. At over six feet, he was a towering figure fresh out of college. The principal gave him his first teaching assignment, to teach the most rambunctious group of teenagers in the South Bronx at that time. As a Korean War Veteran he seemed up to the challenge, but sometimes teaching can be a battle, and this group of students had given other teachers a run for their money.
Almost daily I watched my father come home feeling defeated. He tried everything in his power to engage this group of boys that sat in the back of the classroom interrupting his lessons. He bought supplies with his own money, new textbooks that in his opinion were superior to the government issued books. He took his class on field trips to the Zoo to let them experience life, but only saw minimal interest and plenty of shenanigans on their part.
After a few years, he left teaching feeling rejected. Maybe he couldn’t reach these kids, heck no one could. Over the years he would retell the horror stories of the classroom. A kid tried to poke his eye out with a pencil, teenagers that ran away on a field trip, it sounded pretty bleak until something amazing happened. “Mr. Daly, remember me?” A man driving a garbage truck pulled to the side of the road. I was walking with my Dad in Queens New York. I saw my father take a good look at this man but shrugged his shoulders. “No.” The man replied with enthusiasm, “I was in your class you were the best teacher! Thank you! I’m married now I have kids, a great job. Thank you for putting up with me back then, I was real trouble.” It was then my father’s eyes lit up with recognition perhaps remembering some of this man’s boyhood debauchery, “Yeah, you were something,” said my dad. “How did you recognize me? That was so long ago.” The man responded, “I would never forget you.”
I can’t tell you how many times these encounters and words of kindness were repeated on walks with my father. He was always astounded that his former students remembered him, thanked him, turned out okay instead of becoming persons of interest in a criminal investigation. Most of all he knew the effort he had made years ago was not in vain. Kids learn even when we think they aren’t paying attention, kids learn from exam- ple. I share this story about my dad because teaching is a noble profession. When done right it comes straight from the heart. Frederick Douglass said it best, “It is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men.”
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