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Rescued

September 9, 2012

The day after Labor Day I attended the annual luncheon reunion of the retired teachers from the last school in which I taught. It is held on the day those still in the classroom return for their first day back. This was my third reunion, and I enjoyed seeing former colleagues and old friends once again. Much reminiscing transpires at these gatherings (though no gloating, as claimed by some of my still-teaching friends), and I always end up hearing many behind-the-scenes stories that I had been unaware of previously. I have one of my own, though I’ve never shared it at this particular gathering. It’s the story of how fate brought me to my final teaching position, one which lasted twenty-five years until my retirement.

My Newark students hard at work.

The new school year of 1985 found me beginning my thirteenth year teaching in the city of Newark. Throughout those years, I had the opportunity to hone my skills and learn much from those with whom I worked. In spite of numerous difficult socio-economic circumstances beyond their control, some of my Newark students still stand out amongst the very best I ever taught in my forty years in the classroom. But that year would prove to be the low point of my career, the result of a critical culmination of various negative forces.

The revolving door of superintendents during this period created constant instability, not to mention a crisis in confidence. My first year started with an outgoing superintendent replaced by an acting superintendent succeeded by one who was then removed from power four years later. The next one lasted three, followed by a short-term interim. Another highly touted replacement took office only to be suspended after three years and supplanted with yet another acting superintendent. The eighth of the series ascended in what proved to be my final year.

A combination of incompetence, corruption, nepotism,  and a “boys’ club” mentality crippled the administration of the largest school district in the state. Much lip service but very little actual meaningful attention was paid to the real needs of the kids. A constant shortage of supplies as well as an overabundance of disrespect for the professional nature of the task plagued the teaching staff and resulted in frequent labor strife. A fire that partially destroyed my hundred year old school building didn’t help matters much, either.

But the most critical problem became my mental state. I always held the belief that my classroom was my kingdom, and what happened outside its walls would not affect what I did within, which was to teach the children before me to the best of my ability. I slowly came to realize the error of this vision, for the continuously changing and often inexplicable policies and requirements of each new regime and a disheartening de facto acceptance — and worse — expectation of poor achievement pierced my castle walls and eventually crushed my spirit. I knew inside that I had to leave in order to survive as a teacher.

During that school year, I must have sent resumes and applications to scores of districts in five different counties in an effort to rescue myself. I felt bad about this, something akin to being a rat leaving a sinking ship, but in reality that abandonment was essential to my survival. And, after all, I hadn’t been the one to sink the misguided vessel. However, in district after district, at least in those that actually bothered to interview me, I got the distinct sense that my status as a teacher was simply dismissed. In their eyes, as a Newark teacher all I could possibly be was a cop or a baby-sitter. By the end of the year, my anger over this turned into frustration and then resignation. I felt destined to remain where I was or else leave the profession I loved. Then one day near the end of July, I received a phone call from my good friend John.

“Hey, are you still looking for a new teaching position?” he asked without any of his customary introductory chat.

“No, I kind of gave up on that. Why do you ask?” I replied, curiosity rising.

“Well, I just finished up with one of my patients. She happens to be a school principal and mentioned that there’s an opening in her building for an eighth grade English teacher. I told her I knew someone who might be interested.”

“What?! You’re kidding me!” My curiosity instantly morphed into anxious excitement.

“No, I’m not. But the search is closing tomorrow. Call her right now, and she’ll see you then.”

He gave me the number which I immediately called. I would have my interview the next morning at a place called Pierrepont School in Rutherford. I tried hard to temper my high hopes, remembering what had happened in all my previous interviews. I nervously reviewed the questions I’d fielded in those and some possible responses that would best capture my teaching philosophy. I had experience, excellent observation reports, and a proven track record, but self-doubt kept creeping in.

The next morning I entered the front office of Pierrepont School, an old but well-kept building on a tree-lined side street in Rutherford, for the first time. After a short but tense wait on the couch, I walked into the principal’s office. Ann Marie Amorelli greeted me with a pleasant smile, asked me to sit, and then got down to business. The directness of her no-nonsense questions surprised me a bit, quite a departure from the pedagogical obfuscations I had to wade through in so many other principals’ offices. Most of her inquiry concerned what I would do if and when certain situations occurred, and I answered as honestly and simply as I could. We ended the session talking in a friendly manner about our mutual connection. What were the chances that my friend would turn out to be her doctor? How improbable that she see him the day before and mention this opening? I left with a good feeling about this job.

Shortly thereafter I got another call, this one an appointment to see the superintendent. What I thought would be another interview turned out to be an offer of employment. Elation filled my very soul. I felt validated and pledged to myself to prove to them beyond any doubt that their decision had been the right one. I wanted this to be the school in which I would finish out my career, one that I’d be able to look back at with a feeling of accomplishment and pride. Twenty-five years later, that mission had been fulfilled, and I stepped out of Room 26 in Pierrepont School for the last time as its eighth grade English teacher.

Pierrepont School, my home away from home for 25 years.

And now, two years farther down the road, I still marvel at how it all came to pass, how my despair had turned so rapidly to hope, how my career became resurrected. I know many would attribute it to mere circumstance, nothing more than an unusual chain of events, but not I. There have been far too many people who have had experiences in which events beyond the simple explanation of coincidence changed the shapes of their lives, some for better, some for worse. This is not the only instance it happened in my own.

So yes, I believe that every so often, when lost and adrift in the sea of life, one can indeed be rescued by the mysterious hand of fate. It is not something upon which to count, for it seems to happen when it’s least expected. Nor is it something that can be proven. Some think they can never accept this even as a possibility. But to those I say be aware; keep your mind open. It just may happen to you.

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One comment

  1. Such a nice story about your first experience with Miss Amorelli.



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