Reflections on Teaching 1987, circa 1996


Looking through the windows of a one room school house:  June 9 2016…reflections on the window and through the window

I went back in 1987 to my old high school, no longer in existence, to teach social studies.  As I turn the magic number this week of 55, I can now collect my monthly pension. My ten year payout is paltry compared to what thirty years in gives retirees, but I have worked with people who lived on that amount. I am grateful and my life is simple.
Today I will reflect on the one room school house. There I was with 130 or so faces passing through my classroom daily and I was ill equipped to discipline in the late 20th century, when an older English teacher told me: ‘the best way to discipline: pretend you are in a one room school house.’

This picture above is a one room school house.  His advice sounded good and sometimes it worked.  Most of the time, it did not.

It worked when I taught a college level Macro-Economics course to 17 well-behaved, motivated, curious students.  I loved what I was teaching and the students and I gelled.  Throughout my lectures, discussions arose that made me think that I was connecting to humanity in a profound way.  Teaching at its best: those moments when everybody gets it and falls silent at the weight of the knowledge.


The students wanted to learn from me and I believe I did a good job.  It was the parent of one of these students who sent me the greatest thank you note in my teaching career. I have it somewhere among my things: she left a message with the school secretary who wrote it out and  to the effect, it read ‘Dan loves your class and cant wait to get there everyday.’

Most of the time, my one room school house was a wreck, or close to it.  To be fair, I weighed 40 pounds less than I do now, was ill prepared for coping with the illnesses and drugs that coursed through the veins of my students, and was evaluated at the time by my aunt’s hard core divorce friend as, ‘too nice for this world.’

My disclaimer however, should not substitute for the lack of support I received from parents, colleagues in the department, and administrators, to run my one room school house.  Nor should it negate, the expectations placed on me to bring out the best in all 130 souls that passed my way. For me, the weight of the conflict was extraordinary…I knew after my first year, I could give public school teaching 10 years but that a lifetime of it would drain my soul.

In the same one room, circa 1996, thirty-three hormonal fourteen year olds barreled into my Global Studies class for ninth period, the last class of the day.  Thirty-three students is a number at which you just pray to keep them all alive without melting down yourself.  The end of the day…always a bad class time, thats why it is assigned to new teachers. Students at fourteen have been trapped for about 7 hours, they want out, jumping beans come to mind.  I delivered the material but I was really in survivor mode.

At a parent teacher conference, a parent of a shy young man from that class took me to task. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘You’ve got a bright kid here, I would think that you would pull him aside, nurture him, encourage him, get him to his personal best. Not come home with Cs.’

I literally was speechless. He had a point, but what I wanted to yell back at him was, 168 students (we were in an over enroll year) pass through that door everyday.  You have one – you do the job!

Now I say: Sir, I would of if I could of!

Claire Anne Perez


The Reading List for Life Part 1

When I was in eighth grade I had a fabulous English teacher. Her name was Ms. Dawson and I was an Honors Student, one of those in an advanced class.

She taught us so much within the confines of her classroom. We read and watched Death Be Not Proud, we were assigned a word of the day monthly and stood up in the front of class to present it…a good technique for teaching public speaking. She helped us connect poetry to images in the outer world and then published our works in a book I still have some forty years later.

Fast forward to eleventh grade where I was demoted to Regents class, the non-brilliant classification of the day. The brilliant students were on the other side of the wall in a class with, what I do believe was, a brilliant teacher named Barry Swan.  I only heard  pieces of his lectures, but I learned through stories that Barry Swan made students’  think.  For sure, he had passion.  You could hear it in his voice when it passed through the wall to the room I was sitting in that year.

My English teacher was out most of the year.  She had been a victim of polio and became head of the Teacher’s Union…I think the latter was her passion and I think the polio led to her  absences.  She was a nice woman, gave me As on all my papers, but I don’t think she read them.  One day, I actually wrote, if you are reading this please indicate it.  When the paper was returned there was no mark on that line.  I remember we were  to read Beowulf…I could not get past the first page and had no motivation to try it.


When I went to college, it dawned on me, and was elucidated by many of my friends, that I did not read enough and do the simultaneous thinking.  It was as if I stopped with junior year.  My college boyfriend sent me into the summer after our sophomore year with a reading list.  There were 10 books on that list, I bought all of them.  I read most of them…they began to change my life.  In retrospect, I think it was because the books covered such a wide range of topics and made me think of the uncertainty of certainty.

Here is the list of five of those books.  Sadly, I cannot remember the other five but as you can see what a combination.

  1. The New Testament
  2. The Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis
  3. The Roswell Incident
  4. Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton
  5. The Cosmos by Carl Sagan

For each book, I can summarize in about one sentence why it changed my thinking:

The New Testament is an integral part of the foundation of our society, like it or not!

The Screwtape Letters, written by the senior devil to the junior devil depict a truism:  as soon as you proclaim your humility you lose it.

The Roswell Incident made me wonder are they out there and could the government really cover them up if they are?

The Seven Storey Mountain confirmed for me that it is body, mind, and soul.

The Cosmos:  I admit I never could get through this tome, but I loved the pictures and I loved the concept billions and billions.  I later in life worked for the man who hired the author, that was pretty cool.

My Child, You are the devil’s stool!!

You get old and you realize there are no answers, only stories.  Garrison Keillor

St Patrick's 21st Century, adobe water color, source below
St Patrick’s 21st Century, adobe water color, source below

 Link to St. Patrick’s picture, source Wikipedia commons.

This is St. Patrick’s Grammar School, the one my grandfather, Harry J. Lagonegro, an Elmira businessman and co-founder in 1912 of the Arctic League*, attended with Hal Roach, the famous Elmiran who produced the The Little Rascals comedy series.  According to my Mother, they became life-long friends because they were  outsiders, my grandfather was Italian and persona non grata in an Irish Catholic milue and Hal Roach was protestant.

At this same grammar school, my Mother, years later, with some real Irish blood in her, attended grammar school during World War II.  I later attended religious education here. It is now, residential apartments.

This is the story…

sitting at my Mother’s kitchen table Saturday, I mentioned I might like to write a book about my public school teaching experience: the high school I taught at recently closed.

“Well,” boomed my Mother, “you will have to start with my getting hit with a yardstick in grammar school!”

“What?” I replied.

“Yes, one day Sister took me out into the hall, whacked me on the arm with a yardstick and screamed, ‘You are the Devil’s stool, You are the Devil’s stool.’

My mother started to laugh…”That is what I heard, but, of course, what she really said was  ‘You are the Devil’s tool, you are the Devil’s tool.’ “

My mother was born in 1931  and three of her five brothers were soldiers in World War II.  She went on to tell my husband and I that when she was having a bad day, she’d start sniveling a bit, and say, “We got a letter from my brother yesterday.”  I surmise this kept some of the yardsticks away.

Recalling a different incident and not specifying whether it was before, or after, her whacking, my Mother said,

“I was so naïve, one day Sister asked the class if anyone had any old yardsticks they could bring in for her.”

 My Mother continued, “I enthusiastically raised my hand and brought one in for her.”

My Mother raised her eyes to heaven as it to say, can you imagine.  Yes, I can, women always at the ready to be helpful, and teachers that abused authority so badly the logical counterbalance was to take their authority away.

*Arctic League-The Arctic League began in 1912 as a group of baseball fans who met regularly at Harry J. Lagonegro’s cigar store at 157 Lake Street.