Christopher Cawley • Teachers Make a Difference

It’s the middle of Teacher Appreciation Week as I write this, and I’ve been thinking about the teachers I’ve had in my life.  It has been a minute or two since I was in high school in Cooperstown, New York, but when I close my eyes I can still remember.

These are in no particular order.

Ninth grade English class with Nick Alicino.  With his salt-and-pepper spiked hair and how he carried himself, he had “cool” down to a science.

Eleventh grade U.S. History with Gus Chiarello.  He was a big Dodgers fan, and I being a huge Braves fan, we had some great chats back in 1991 when the Braves began their run of championships at the expense of his beloved Dodgers.

Ninth grade Math class with Jack Hallstead, aka “Boss.”  If you didn’t do your homework, he would tell you that you’d end up at “the hotel on upper Main” (which at the time was the county jail).  He had a way of teaching Algebra that made it relevant and easy to learn.

Tenth grade English with James Knodel and all the writing we did.  I believe I developed my writing style in his class.

Eighth grade Science with Dr. Hess.  At the time, I thought she was a hateful, spiteful, evil old hag.  She was extremely strict.  She gave us some dumb assignment one time, I don’t remember the particulars, but she didn’t explain what she wanted.  When I asked a friend of mine precisely what in the thunder she wanted, she gave both of us detention.  When we got to the office, Mr. Gould, our principal, said “why are you here?”  My friend Brian said, “Dr. Hess sent us here.”  He would sigh and send us to the library for the rest of the period.  Hindsight is always 20/20 and in thinking back, she was a good teacher, and I learned a lot in her class.  But no, she was not nice.  Not at all.

Side bar – when I met my dear Christine and we started dating, she introduced me to her next-door-neighbor – Dr. Hess.  I couldn’t believe it.  She never smiled.  Not once.

Christopher Cawley
Christopher Cawley

Seventh grade Science was with Harry Peplinski (Mr. Pep).  He had a huge poster of Hulk Hogan on his classroom door; he loved the old WWF.  The whole science lab was wrestling-themed.

For ninth grade Science (Biology) I had Ms. Nancy Iversen, and she really made Science come alive for me.  We took a field trip to the Pine Barrens near Albany, N.Y., and that was a highlight of my school year.  Yes, I remember that, from so long ago.

Mary Jo Morris (now Mary Jo Merk) was my homeroom teacher for both my junior and senior years in high school, as well as my English teacher.  We read the book, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and then watched the movie with Jack Nicholson in class.  We did plays and poetry in those classes and had a great time.  She would let me and our little group of friends drink soda, read the newspaper, and generally shoot the breeze during homeroom time.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Wayne Weir, our health and PE teacher through high school.  He wasn’t what you’d call all cuddly and kind, but if you stayed on his good side, and pushed hard (especially in PE, if you really challenged your limits), he’d be your top cheerleader.  He had a barking loud kind of voice, and on many occasions you’d hear him from two hallways away giving some poor kid the rundown because the kid couldn’t get his life in order.

Our high school principal was Barry Gould, or “Bearcat” as people would call him.  He was a high-ranked karate black belt (I couldn’t tell you what degree) and had the body build to back it up.  He always wore these super-tight shirts that seemed to highlight how jacked he was.  Students were terrified to be called to the office after the pledge each morning.  You’d hear his voice come on the PA loudspeaker, “When the bell rings, the following students must come to the office…”  It wasn’t an optional request.  That was the detention list for that particular day.

Mr. Ryan was our shop teacher in high school.  He would let us cuss in class, especially in those times when, instead of hitting the nail with the hammer, you tagged your thumb instead.  So you could just let the four-letter verbiage fly.  Hey, it was upstate [!#@$%!] New York.  It is what it is.

In my junior and senior years, I attended a “secondary” school during the day called BOCES, at the Otsego Area Occupational Center.  There, I took a computers class which was two hours in the morning (11th grade) and afternoon (12th grade), and earned college credits.  Stephen Lawton was the teacher.  I’m not sure what became of him over the years.  This was back in the early 1990s when Windows 3.1 was a thing, and word processing was done with WordPerfect 5.1.  It was a big deal when we made a “network” with all of the computers in the classroom.

I remember a few of my elementary school teachers.  Joan Mayhew, Faye Chapman, Tony Kasprowicz (he had cool hair), and George Bouboulis.

Out of high school I went to a business college, which has long closed their doors, called the Utica School of Commerce.  I remember our Economics teacher, Mr. McCarthy, who always had patterns on his true/false or multiple choice tests.

More recently, at Southeastern Community College, Dr. Karen Stirrett made Biology 110 and Biology 111 (or 111 and 112, I don’t remember) absolutely brutally hard.  She gave the Harvard-level test bank tests.  She even stood up in class and said, “you will never make a 100 on my test.”  To us that was a challenge.

Several of us formed a study group and we tried our very best, but she was right, none of us ever made a 100.  Scraping a “B” (and just barely a B) was quite the accomplishment.  Again, in hindsight, she was a good teacher because I remember a lot of what I learned in that class.  When I taught the microbiology unit to my sixth graders just a few short months ago, it all came rushing back to me.

I drove Gary Nealey nuts in Chemistry.  I was never good at balancing chemical equations.  He would have both whiteboards filled with numbers and element names.  But we had so much fun in Chemistry lab.  He had a dry ice machine, and we “flooded” all of the lab sinks with dry ice mixed with food coloring and Dawn dish soap.  A fantastic time was had by all.

He used to warn us, “Don’t break mama’s Pyrex,” when heating things up over the burner.  Of course we had those things cherry red every time.  I remember one painful lecture talking about significant digits (the number of zeroes after a decimal point).  He said, “Since we’re out in the country, we won’t fuss too much about significant figures.”

The man knows his stuff, though, and his enthusiasm for teaching Chemistry was fire.  Sometimes literally.  Like when he would “throw fire” during Halloween demonstrations.

Mike Cance taught the math courses.  I took Precalculus Algebra, Precalculus Trig, and then Calc with him.  He is a certifiable genius, and we would all be blown away the way he would seemingly make up these crazy equations off the top of his head and tell us to solve.  I remember sitting there with the proverbial “deer in the headlights” look thinking  “whaaa”?  His classes were also the kind where, if you dropped the occasional four-letter word of the day, it was ok.  And expected.

One great thing about Mr. Cance was he would give us real-world examples such as “if you have a big truck with big tires, but change them out for bigger tires, what does that do to your speedometer and odometer measurements,” and then we’d discuss.

Rebecca Westbrooks– my goodness, I could write a book about the impact “Ms. Becky” had on me.  I took numerous environmental science courses with Ms. Becky.  A group of us, we had our “own” set of tables in her lab.  We simply let other students occasionally sit there during other times of the day, but they were our tables.  There were a couple of times where the only classes I had at SCC were with Ms. Becky.  Her passion for and love of teaching, her passion and love for the Earth, her passion and love for Science – those are qualities I try to put forth to my sixth graders.  I try to teach the Westbrooks way of teaching.  She always, invariably had a smile on her face when we would walk through the door each morning.  And you left class every single day knowing that you learned something new.

We went on field trips– my first trip to the Green Swamp preserve was with Ms. Becky.  I have subsequently filmed a “virtual field trip” as part of my Resources duties with Charter a couple of years ago.  We went to Brookgreen Gardens on a field trip.  We did mini-field trips to the pond at SCC to learn about water quality management and testing.  We learned about invasive species, and botany.  I remember Christine and I working with many others on the nature trails at Southeastern, led by Ms. Becky.  The list goes on and on.

I hope she sees this post, because I’d love to contact her and catch up.  So would several other members of those classes.  Ms. Becky, if you’re reading this, please contact me.  I owe you a huge thank you.

Another talented educator to whom I owe a debt of gratitude is Katherine Hyatt.  Ms. Hyatt was my son Nathan’s science teacher in elementary school.  I was fortunate enough to be allowed to help out with Science Olympiad during those years, and it was a while after that when she told me she thought I’d make a good science teacher.  She gave me an opportunity to speak to her classes; I did “how to write a weather forecast.”

These kids probably had no clue but it was the first time I had stepped foot into an actual honest-to-goodness classroom and led a discussion. Now I’m teaching sixth grade Science.  Thank you, so much, Ms. Hyatt, for planting that seed.

I can’t leave out the educators at Charter with whom I have worked, and with whom I currently work.  Amy Williamson, Chanteau Strickland, Samantha Singler, Selena and Luke Laslovich, Lauren Bennett, David Johnson, D’Vora Shaw, Jordan Singler, Megan Lee, Jamail Piggott, Ray Schmucker, Mary Goodwin, Melodie Clarke, Tara Jacobsen, Jama Hooks, Mary Hinson, Patti Allen, Martha Ritcher, Kayla Coe, Jeane Lafave, Veronica Byrd, Gina Eckart, Carin Durdle, Richard Schneider, Shane Skipper, Courtney Hayes, and others have all had an impact on me as a newbie teacher.   To them I say, thank you.

These are all teachers who stand out to me, and I will never forget them, no matter how many years go by.  I hope one day I can have the same impact on just one student that these teachers had on me.  If I can do that, I’ve done my job.

And it’s the greatest job in the world.

About Jefferson Weaver 2040 Articles
Jefferson Weaver is the Managing Editor of Columbus County News and he can be reached at (910) 914-6056, (910) 632-4965, or by email at [email protected].