Veteran Teacher Takes His Victory Lap
Summary: Teacher-consultant Joe Bellacero (now associate director of the New York City Writing Project), retiring as a high school English instructor in the Bronx, reflects on his most wrenching experiences, such as being threatened with a knife; his most inspiring experiences, such as coaching failing students to success; and the love he has given and received over the years.
This is my last semester of teaching, my victory lap.
It may be that there was never a time when I didn't teach. Surely, as the older brother, I was always showing my siblings whatever it was I knew. And as a camp counselor from the summer after eighth grade in 1964 until my current job as an associate camp director, I have been teacher to both campers and staff. But I suppose, technically, my teaching career started when I walked into Haaren High School in Hell's Kitchen to begin my student teaching experience in the spring term, 1972. Bernard V. Deutschman was the principal—how could I forget the name of a principal whose initials were BVD? The school building had been used not long before I got there as the internal setting for the movie Up the Down Staircase from the Bel Kaufman book, which might give you a sense of how run-down the place was. The chaos in the halls, the emptiness of the classrooms (despite each having around 34 students on register), the weirdness of being among teachers during their down times ("I'm really starting to get someplace with my novel . . ." "I got a new gun that fits neatly in my briefcase . . ." "You coming to O'Neal's Balloon with us on Friday . . . ?" "What the hell are we supposed to do with a tachistoscope?")—I was exhilarated and terrified by turns and simultaneously.
When I got my degree and took a teaching job, I spent the first years asking why I was subjecting myself to this abuse—"I don't need this. I'm a smart guy. I can do anything I want, make a lot more money and get a lot more respect." But, of course, when other things did come along, I turned them down and stuck with teaching. I knew it was what I was meant to do.
It's been a gauntlet, of course. I'm lucky to have survived as long as I have—the student who was caught at the door carrying a gun looking for me because I had refused to let him into the building; the boy who went for the knife in his book bag when I stopped him from pounding on a classroom door; the assistant principal who leaned against the school door talking to me about how tired he was at the end of a long day, then drove up to the Kensico Dam, jumped in, and drowned himself; the young boy wakening to his sexual difference telling me he was in love with me; the gang of students who surrounded me on the street as I waited for my ride home, started pushing me, stole my hat and tried to steal my briefcase before a squad car turned onto the block; the last day of school, when I walked out, last to leave the building, to find all four of my tires flattened; the other assistant principal, who observed my lesson and listed 23 things I had done wrong and 3 things she liked, including that the window shades were even; the girl who fell off a swing in Central Park on a class trip and broke her hand; the administrator at my first interview who said, "Not everyone can be a teacher. You might want to look for other work." I survived all of that and much, much more but that's not why I think of this last semester as my victory lap.
I deserve this victory lap because of the other side of the story: over 15,000 names learned; hundreds of thousands of essays assigned, read, responded to, graded, and returned (albeit usually late); 5,000 college recommendations written; 40,000 hours in schools; 60,000 hugs; 10,000 cheeks kissed; 100,000 taps on a shoulder, arm, or back; 1,000,000 smiles given and 30,000,000 received; the girl who called me weekly for 20 years after she was in my class, just to pour out her troubles; the hundreds of students who returned expressly to tell me how I helped them in their lives; the boy who shook my hand after a class because, "That was the best lesson I ever had"; the 15 kids in one class whom I helped pass the ELA Regents after they had failed it three times previously; the girl who put me in my place early in the year saying, "I already have a favorite teacher," then ended the year writing in my yearbook, "I guess I have a new favorite now"; the colleague who told me, "You are a true gentleman"; the assistant principal who said, "Someday I'll be telling people, `I knew him. I used to work with him'"; the principal who said, "Please, stay one more year. We need you"; the yearbook that won an award; the student who came to my rescue when I was being harassed, saying, "He's my teacher. He's cool. Leave him alone"; the young writers I encouraged whose contest entries brought them a new taste of success; the beautiful students who invited me to their weddings; the colleagues who have sought my opinion, my experience, and my companionship, and shared the same with me; the kids who came to my house to work on the yearbook over the weekend; the group who painted a Bambi scene on the classroom wall as a reward to themselves for their hard work; the group who camped out with me at Pound Ridge; the kids who shared their troubles, fears, hopes, and hearts; the ones who fought me and made me find a better way; the ones whose affection buoyed me through difficult classes; and the love, oh my God, so much love I have been given and been allowed to give over these years. For the love alone, I deserve a victory lap.
And I'm taking it.