I saw Mr. Napoli today at the Port Chester Acme, shopping
for groceries with his wife. Mr. Napoli sightings are rare, mostly because I live
in Massachusetts, and my visits home are usually brief. It’s been thirty-one
years since Tony Napoli was my boss, the principal at Port Chester Senior High
School, but he remembered me. I was glad to see him and I hugged him warmly. I said
to his wife, “Your husband was the best principal, truly he was”. Cliff was with me, steering the grocery cart.
Mr. Napoli had his hand on Cliff’s shoulder while we talked, and then we went our separate
ways. Our brief exchange reminded me that I'd never spoken about the deep respect I have for Mr. Napoli, or the extent of my gratitude for the year he changed both
my teaching life and my personal life in ways he could not have foreseen.
My first job after college came about serendipitously thanks
to a man I’ll call Mr. A, whose teaching career had met an ignominious end,
much to the relief of the Port Chester Board of Education, the Port Chester
Junior High School administration, and the entire English Department. According
to my younger sister, Barbara, who suffered through Mr. A’s seventh grade
English class, she and her classmates rarely did a lick of work inside his
classroom. The administration began to keep a close eye on him because word had
gotten around that Mr. A was essentially warming his desk chair by then, biding
his time until he would be eligible for a fat pension from the state of New
Mr. A was tenured, which meant that even if he were giving
his students free periods for 180 days a year, it was still going to be a bitch
to toss him out on his warm kiester. So while I was freezing my own kiester at
Buffalo State Teachers’ College, the administration worked to stockpile
evidence of Mr. A’s incompetence. The serendipitous part is that I applied for
a teaching job just as the school had enough evidence to bring the case against
him to court.
“Miss Meloni, we’d like to offer you the position, but
you’ll be a long-term sub until Mr. A’s case has resolved, either way.” Mr. A officially lost his position soon after.
I was in!
I was green, barely twenty-two and didn’t own a car. My first day of work was a succession of
classes with a minimum of a dozen or so behaviorally “difficult” students all
together, one of whom accused me of thinking I was “hot shit” (her words
precisely) because I was young and had the audacity to ask her get off the
radiator and sit at a desk. She proceeded to let fly a string of expletives as
she sauntered menacingly past me on her way out of the classroom. The assistant
principal, a wonderfully sweet man, encouraged me to “hang in there” on
particularly challenging days, after which he would pat the top of my head, and
I couldn’t help but think of the kitten-hanging-on-a-wire poster with that same
sentiment; cute, but not in the least bit helpful.
Thus began my teaching career.
A couple of years later, when some of the faculty left the
junior high for open positions at the high school, I went along, thinking I was
pretty good at my job by then, or “hot shit” as I had once been described.
This was in the early 80’s, a time of exclusion and plenty
of outright discrimination towards students with intellectual challenges. But what the hell did I know? My ignorance
was outweighed only by my fear of actually running into one of ‘them’ in the
hallway. These students were a marginalized population, and my colleagues and I
rarely had contact with them, unless they were special education teachers.
That was about to
change, at least for me.
My students that year were freshmen and sophomores who were
tracked, meaning that classes were organized according to ability. Of my five
classes, I taught two sections of 9-3-track students, or kids who were deemed
to be low achievers for a variety of reasons—low test scores, absenteeism, failing
grades, lack of motivation—but I encouraged them to do the best work they were
capable of. I knew they were smart, and I saw potential in each one.
A month into the school year, I stood at the door of my
classroom to wait for the second period kids to show up. I was minding my own
business when Mr. Napoli speed walked through the crowded hallway heading straight
for me. If his approach had been a scene in a movie about my life, you would
have been listening the soundtrack from Jaws.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,
please don’t let this be an unannounced observation,” which was a distinct
possibility; this was my tenure year; I couldn’t afford to be unprepared. A
principal is perfectly within his rights to pop into a classroom at any time,
but I knew from some of the other teachers that Mr. Napoli was not the type to
pat young teachers on the head and, in fact, the rumor was he could be
demanding and even harsh.
You’ve heard of the way a person’s life flashes before her
eyes in the moments before imminent death? I felt almost like that, except it
was my lesson plan flashing before my eyes. Go
over vocabulary homework, launch into analogies, introduce “The Cask of
Amontillado”..., and what else? What else?
“Miss Meloni, do you have a second?”
He was holding a small
notebook and his expression seemed pretty benign, sincere, in fact, as though
he had something to apologize for.
“I wanted to let you know I’ll be adding six more students
to your fourth period 9-3 class. They’ll start tomorrow…” and the rest of it
sounded like all the adult characters in a Peanuts movie, and I was Charlie
Brown, all five feet of me looking up at him; “Okay, okay sir, sure. That’s
fine, sir, yes, thank you.”
The bell rang, I picked up the attendance book from my desk,
put it back down. “Wait, whaaaat?”
What Mr. Napoli said was illogical, ludicrous, and every
other synonym for senseless. I would have six more students in my classroom who
had, until then, been under the purview of the special education teacher? What
was he thinking? I had no experience teaching at that level! This guy is nuts!
And why me, anyway? I’m not going to know what I’m doing!
I resented this sudden assault on my familiar, safe teaching
life, and by association, Mr. Napoli. At the time, I didn’t recognize my anger
as fear, but regardless, I had to put my feelings aside. I was a teacher;
figuring out how to make this work was my job.
You won’t be surprised to know that those six kids became
some of my most beloved students. I don’t know how well I modified the lessons
for them, or if they always learned the carefully written objectives in the
lesson plans. But I’ll tell you what they did get from that year in my
classroom: the understanding that they
were capable beyond what they had previously believed, that they belonged, and that
what mattered could be found inside their best efforts.
That experience taught me I could adapt, and that it was
incumbent upon me to adapt, to search out new ideas and best practices, and to
remember that perfection is less important than earnest attempts, that trial
and error is how all of life works.
I left Port Chester High School after the birth of my first
child, Cliff. The plan was to eventually return, but Cliff, born with Down
syndrome, needed me more than I needed to go back to my career. He grew up, and I advocated for him to be
included in typical classrooms. From kindergarten on, my husband and I
encountered teachers who objected, often strongly, saying they had no
experience with “that type of child”, and I was able to tell them I had been on
that side of the desk too.
Turns out Mr. Napoli wasn’t nuts after all, just
demanding. Good principals must be demanding if schools, and
kids, are to succeed.
He was a man ahead of his time, which just so happened to be
the right time for one young, ‘hot shit- teacher’ to practice the skills she
would soon need to advocate for her son.
Rarely have I encountered moments more meaningful than that
of being asked to do what I thought I could not do. Nor have I experienced
anything close to the kind of serendipity owed to that October day outside my
classroom when my principal set me on a path I couldn’t appreciate at the time.
That’s the best thing about getting older, at
least for me, looking behind to remember the places, experiences and people,
the connecting dots that bring us fully into focus.