The school year begins in earnest today as students walk, bike and ride to schools across our region and state.
It is, as it seems to be each year, a time of anxiety. CMS faces its annual bout with budget uncertainty. Some teachers and teaching assistants don’t even know if they’ll have jobs a week from now.
But as happens every year, the days to come will be filled with moments big and small, with learning that goes beyond curriculum to shape who those students become. Here are three such moments from members of our editorial board:
Peter St. Onge
Leo McCue, my high school history teacher, loathed Richard Nixon.
His U.S. History class, which I took my senior year, was sprinkled with Nixon jokes and Nixon barbs, even when the era we were covering was decades and centuries before the 37th president took office.
Mr. McCue also was a funny man with a sharp wit. So when he finally told us late in the semester that the next class would be devoted to Richard Nixon, we were giddy about the dissection we’d get to see.
But that morning, the Nixon he described was not the butt of jokes or a president to be ridiculed. He was a man with demons and deep insecurities that ultimately destroyed him and his presidency. He was, almost, a sympathetic figure. He was tragic.
We were disappointed that day – or at least I was. But I remember, too, what Mr. McCue was really trying to teach us: That our leaders – the people we presume to be great – are burdened with flaws and frailties, too. And that we are better to take a fuller look at people, instead of only poking fun, so that we can understand the mistakes they, and we, make.
It was 1981, the height of the Rubik’s Cube craze, and there was no one better at it than I. I could solve any scrambled Cube in less than two minutes.
So when I ran for president of the seventh grade at Carver Junior High in Miami, the Cube became my campaign logo and appeared on signs all over school.
For my speech to hundreds of fellow seventh-graders, I had a plan. I’d solve a scrambled Cube while I delivered my remarks, finish the speech and the Cube at the same moment and triumphantly declare: “And anyone who can do that clearly deserves your vote!”
My mother wasn’t so sure. “Maybe you should use a Cube that’s just a few turns from being done?” she suggested. “Don’t be silly!” I replied. “I can do any Cube in my sleep!”
On stage, the crowd in the auditorium was bigger than any I’d ever stood in front of. I began my speech, laying out my agenda. But then … I got … distracted … by this … darn … Cube. I turned my attention to the Cube and that … distracted me … from … my … speech.
Each kept me from the other until I finally gave up, turned from the lectern and pleaded, pathetically, “Just vote for me!” Needless to say, Alberto Santana became the president of the seventh grade.
It was a new low, to be sure. It taught me the hard lesson that while ambition is vital and setting a high bar is admirable, a stretch doesn’t always come with a happy ending. Aim high, but know your limits, understand you’re not bulletproof and, at least once in a while, listen to your mother.
I went into modern poetry class in college figuring I’d hate it. But I left it burning to be a writer.
For that, I thank the late Dr. Anna Katona. She was a tiny Hungarian woman who spoke in heavily accented English. The letter ‘r’ rolled off her tongue so musically I can still hear her saying “Mauber-r-r-ly,” even all these years later.
As she peeled back the layers of T.S. Eliot’s poems, like “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” I gobbled the words off the page. It was as if I’d stumbled across a strange old man on a street corner singing a lush, dark opera that only Dr. Katona could translate.
And it turned out he was giving voice to the same feelings I’d felt, the same questions I’d asked.
She explained how Modernists like Eliot and Ezra Pound sought to use language to jar meaning out of a world shattered by the global conflict of World War I.
Yet, generations removed and hailing from a completely different context, I instantly connected with Eliot.
Words, I understood then, carry tremendous power.
I’ve been writing ever since.