The Ones That Stay With You

It is my hope that all of us have had at least one teacher who really made a huge impression on us at some point. I have been extremely fortunate, as I have had a bunch of terrific teachers over the years. The truly great ones make you look forward to their class every day. I had a few in high school that were truly exceptional. Mr. Kelley, my Pre-A.P. U.S. History teacher, who had a great sense humor and storytelling ability. Dr. Powaski, for A.P. U.S. History, who was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, and was a published author. Mr. Gubitosi for Latin I and II. He had a deep love for the art of teaching, and truly cared about our learning as students.

The one who stands at the top of the mountain was my Algebra I and Algebra II teacher, Mr. Serra. He is the single-most engaging teacher that I have ever met. When I started high school, I was drowning in my Algebra I placement. The teacher was very nice, but my skill sets were not up to par for the pace of her class. My guidance counselor told me before Christmas Break that I would be transferred to Mr. Serra’s Algebra I class after vacation.

During break, I saw Mr. Serra at basketball practice. He was walking through the gym, and I told him that I would be in his class after vacation. I wanted to tell him that he was inheriting me, my 54% grade in Algebra I, and that I had zero self-confidence when it came to higher math. The look on my face must have said it all, as Mr. Serra said: “Don’t worry there, William. It’s all going to work out.” I appreciated his kind words, but I thought that he had no idea how lost I was.

Within the first two weeks of being in his class, Mr. Serra had taken my shattered confidence and built it up. I was solving equations and working complex problems with ease. He was never too busy to meet with any of us before or after school, or during his planning time. The time in his class flew by every day, as Mr. Serra would crack jokes, hit the board with his yardstick to make a point, sing, and do anything to keep our attention. I always talk to my students now about building “the foundation” to set themselves up for the future. Mr. Serra is one of those people that helped me build a foundation. My mother liked to use the phrase “magic people”, meaning that there are some individuals that can really have a great impact on you at key moments. Mr. Serra certainly fits that definition. I always taught with a yardstick in my hand as a daily tribute to him. (My original yardstick was the first thing that I hung up in the I.H.S. principal’s office in 2011.)

I last saw Mr. Serra in 2012, when my Mom passed away. He came to the funeral home, as my younger brother and sister were also lucky enough to have him as a teacher. When I saw him, I said: “There’s the greatest math teacher of them all.” Being Mr. Serra, he said “where?”, and turned around to look behind where he was standing. His sense of humor is still intact, all these years later.

If you ever had a teacher like Mr. Serra in your life, consider taking the time to thank them. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been out of school for decades or if you are still a student. The kindness of an email, note, or a call from a former student has a tremendous impact on a teacher. The best teachers always stay with you, no matter how long ago you were in class.

In Praise of (Paper) Books…

At some point in our lives, we were probably given the dreaded summer reading assignment. My daughter kept a McGuinness family tradition alive by waiting until two days before school started to get going on her assignment. She did get everything finished just under the wire (another family tradition.) When I asked her what she thought of the book, she stated “ehhhh…it was kind of boring.” I think this happens to many of us when we are assigned things to read, not necessarily of our own choosing. I know that my most tedious summer reading project was Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” heading into 11th grade Honors English. I knew that it was an important book, and I knew what Dickens meant to English literature, but I did not enjoy one bit of it. Again, when the word “assigned” pops up, a sense of dread sets in…

Today is National Read a Book day in the United States. I would wager that most of us absolutely love our devices and modern technology. It can be difficult to remember what life was like before the advent of the iPhone a decade ago. Now, it is hard to imagine daily life without one. That being said, there is still great satisfaction in reading a book, a real one made out of paper. There is a greater connection between the reader and the tangible feel of a real book, plus you usually retain more from reading a paper book. My greatest weakness in life is spending money on biographies and history books, even though it has been 7 years since I have taught history.  All of the great tidbits and insights that I was able to put into my history lessons came from all of the outside reading that I did on my own.

I challenge everyone to try to read at least one book of your own choosing before the end of September. Don’t pick something based on your classwork, don’t pick an AR book, don’t pick something that someone told you that you “should” read. Just pick something that interests you. The Civil War, football, astronomy, anything you want. I guarantee you that it is time well spent. Happy National Read a Book Day to all!

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.”

–Walt Disney