started teaching at FRHS in September 1953 when the school was headed
by Monica Ryan and her friends. Miss Ryan (no one I know ever called
her anything else - except in a private conversation where “Monica”
was a sign of our attitude toward administrators) was a rather mysterious
creature. She had a private office, closed doors and private “facilities.”
She seldom appeared outside of her office, and I doubt that many
students knew what she looked like. She really had little to do
with a student body that adhered to all the rules of “good”
education and behavior.
Monica had a staff of hand-picked administrators
who did any dirty work that might come up. My first early experience
with her was one day when she asked me why I did not wear a hat
to school. That, I think, was an indication of her primordial attitude
toward her faculty and their dress. Ties, jackets, skirts or dresses,
etc., were de rigueur in those days. I remember the change
quite some time later when women broke the barrier and wore slacks,
and men could wear jeans. But not in Monica’s time.
After meeting Monica, I met the English Department
Chairman Abe Poneman who handed me my workload: five English classes,
one which was Journalism, and faculty advisor to the school newspaper,
The Chat. The pay for all of this was miniscule, with no
extra pay for the faculty advisor position. However, I was happy
to be appointed to such a high-rated school as Far Rockaway.
I had not expected to be given The Chat,
but the previously appointed editors, Faith Perelson and Bill Shulman,
helped me to get acclimated. I settled in fairly soon and found
that being the newspaper advisor was more interesting and rewarding
than some of my English classes. I took the title “advisor”
literally and let the editors edit and reporters report. I was able
to have a more personal relationship with my editors than my other
students. I had fun with the editors and developed pride with them
in writing and editing a great paper. The Chat office,
where editors and some staff could hang out, became a refuge from
everyday academia. The Chat went on to win a First Place
prize at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association (CSPA) contest
for several years.
I taught all grades of English classes, but I most
enjoyed teaching Journalism to sophomores and Novels to seniors.
It was probably because I chose which books the Novels class would
read. I was forced to teach A Tale of Two Cities in Journalism—the
relevance still escapes me—but the primary work was the newspaper.
I enlivened all of my classes as much I as could, so that students
would enjoy learning as much as I enjoyed teaching. I acted out
all of the parts in Macbeth, provided sword fights for
Hamlet, put a footprint on the class ceiling to stimulate
journalism students to write a feature story, all in order to behave
as little as possible like a “regular” teacher.
I asked my students to express strong oral and
written opinions about what they were reading. Teaching was not
devoted to having students answer factual questions but to making
the classroom a place to have ideas—a place for them and me
to be stimulated into thinking about the novel, play, poem in new
ways and to learn how to express these thoughts. I was more impressed
by students’ insights than in their ability to recapitulate
what we discussed the day before. And in my classes they often came
up with ideas that I never had thought of and could use in future
teaching. Another way to put this is that the teacher (me) did not
dominate. As with The Chat, I advised; students thought.