Sunday, July 24, 2016

Training Ground

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 York.

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.  


  1. I was lucky enough to have you as an English teacher at PCHS and still remember some of your lessons ( one with song lyrics comes to mind )...thank you for thinking you were "hot shit" and moving to the high school! I also remember Mr. Napoli...he was an incredible principal. He always stood in the center of the building during class changes and knew everyone's name! Port Chester had some great teachers and administrators!

  2. Thank you, Chris! I appreciate your kind words! I was lucky to have met you and all the students I still remember with such fondness!