An Evening With a Mentor

I.  In the Beginning

Months ago, I wrote a letter to a former teacher upon his retirement.  I had the opportunity to talk with him over a cup of coffee last Thursday.  It has been almost eight years since I saw Mr. Dance last.  I was doing classroom observations for one of my education classes.

I was a late bloomer, socially, and it has resonated with me to this day.  No one can ever be cured of pending awkward social situations; they find you.  You have to love those especially dumb things one says, and then feel like a complete jackass after immediately realizing what you just said.  You’re at a wake, and you see someone you know.  They ask how you are, and your response is:  “Eh, you know, living and breathing.”  There is no inserting a foot into a mouth.  The majestic realization, that snap of clarity, yielding embarrassment, is too appropriate in itself. 

However, it wasn’t until tenth grade where I had balls to stand up for myself.  I shed the glasses and popped in the contacts.  The braces finally came off.  The bowl cut was grown out.  I obtained my license the first time around, scoring perfectly.  Before my age group realized it, we were over the hump and transitioning into junior year.  That was the year, which did it for me. I began to actually take myself seriously.  However, that has since faded, thinking about it as I sit and type away.  I do take myself seriously, but there are significant moments where a person shouldn’t.  It goes for any person of any age, personality, race, religion, political affiliation, or species for that matter.  I am going to sound as redundant as the washed-up Carlos Mencia’s stand-up, pausing after every joke to remind everyone to lighten up.  Yes, you’re about to slam your laptop shut and throw it or crush it.  For those with desktops, by all means put your fist through the screen.  My words are the Sirens’ songs, but not the same Sirens Odysseus encounters.  These are more annoying than a Hell, a Hell where you are tied to a chair and Ben Stein is repeating “Frye” in your ear for eternity. 

Anyways, I got a job that summer, and it was unpaid for six months.  I began volunteering at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology that summer.  After getting hired in December of ’99, I was applauding the fact that I (a) worked at a science museum compared to everyone working at Wegmans, and (b) I got more hours and better pay than those Weg Workers.

I was going to volunteer at the museum no matter, but the Gettysburg of the decision making process was a bit obvious.  The application asks you where you prefer working.  I made it clear that I did not want to do cash register.  I interviewed twice, and upon my hiring they told me the magical sandwich shop words. 

“There was much rejoicing.”

They reiterated sandwich shop. However, before I went into the training sessions, they uttered cashier over the phone.  Although, Wegmans is probably the northern equivalent to Disney World, ask the Baldwins, they shatter promises and broken promises break hearts. Well, that was life as a teenager in 1999, at least. It’s like that magical kiss did not work and the prince leaves, feeling screwed in one way and not the other. The kids leave the theater crying.  It’s all just a big mess.

II.  Those Who Inspire, Do

Returning to the point of whatever I am trying to get at, my junior year was to be a nice challenge.  I personally wanted to try and dapple in the A1 courses, stepping up from the A2 group.  I have no idea on how the classes would have been different, but there was essentially more coursework.  The challenge I greeted with open arms. 

The teachers seemed to care.  Mrs. Caltabiano, my English teacher, loved taking the red pen to my paper, hesitating not in the slightest wince.  However, halfway through the school year, she displayed her “other side” in the sense that tough love was the way to teach.  My English teacher explained to me her thoughts that I was a great writer, I had good ideas, but I needed to work on this and that and a bit of everything to amount to something.  Through practice and persistence, I excelled.  I even scored above a 90 on the dreaded English Regents.

Mr. Kane was another English teacher of mine, a saxophone playing jazz master, who often referred to his students as emphatic Cats.  If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be in the position I am in today, enjoying literature in both reading and writing sense.  However, if it wasn’t for my father in the beginning of this whole mess called “My Life,” I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed any art whatsoever.

I am proud to say if it wasn’t for Dad, I wouldn’t associate myself with reading or anything related to it. 

Mr. Kane introduced us to Chris van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a collection of illustrations and captions.  Each month, aside our tasks, we were required to write a story pertaining to one of these picture and caption duos.  With the book talks and these assignments, we were constantly reading and writing.

Let me just stress the importance of the continuation and consistency of keeping kids doing BOTH throughout the school year.  You cannot have one without the other, and the constant practices are essential to a student’s education.

As. I. Digress.

History was another story.  Eleventh grade:  United States History.  I couldn’t wait.  The last time school had focused on that was in seventh grade.  Mr. G (because I cannot spell his last name off the top of my head) was a fantastic teacher, and we got into the nittygritty of our beloved country.  Mr. G., also, played hangman type games.  I would do well, especially my highlighting the monster-themed games around Halloween.  I guessed Loch Ness Monster before he even threw letters on the board.  He probably threw his chalk down, too.  I had tendencies to win those pieces of candy, bringing in articles to discuss for current events (obtaining more candy), and eventually bringing Mr. G. bags of candy to hand out due to my taking most of his stash. 

As. I. Digress.

Eleventh grade, however, was a year among years.  Mr. Dance was to be my history teacher.  His getting-to-know-who-you-are process involved him sitting you in alphabetical order, reading off names, and then staring that individual in the face.  He, also, opened up the school year with a political joke/reference about Hillary Rodham-Clinton hyphenating her last name, stating that if Kristen Maloney were to get married to me, her last name would be Maloney-Malone.  Granted, Kristen and I will never get married, nor will we consider it; we grew up across the street from one another (ironically enough), and we knew each other to the point where things would have gotten drastically weird.  However, Mr. Dance made a good point to have a laugh.

Mr. Dance made a generous wager one day.  I was a horrible test-taker, and I still am to this day.  However, he challenged me, because he believed I could do well.  Instead of scoring the high-70’s on this certain test, I was going to score at least an 85.  Mr. Dance was certain of this.  He was so certain that if I had scored an 85 or higher, he would sing Ellington’s I’ll Take the A Train

No pressure, right?  Don’t worry,  I didn’t have my classmates approaching me, trying to convince me to do well.  Of course, they did; it’s just entertaining that kids that age think strength in numbers can coerce a good grade.  Even individuals not in the classroom took an interest in this wager.  What had I gotten myself into? 

Needless to say, making a long story short, I got an 88 on the test, and Mr. Dance held up his end of the bargain and sang a capella. 

Later in the school year, Boys State nominations came around, statewide week-long excursion at SUNY Morrisville for students interested in politics and government.  It was, also, for students who did well.  Students to go from West Genesee, and there were alternates ready to take on that spot.  I went through a rather extensive interview process. Finally, I was chosen as one of the lucky handful to attend, and I wasn’t an alternate.  I was so pumped. 

I was hesitant about taking on this responsibility, striving for this opportunity, seizing the day, but this situation–especially my reluctance–was not a surprise when compared to other opportunities I have been a part of.  For I am King of the Second Guessers.

Boys State was a great experience.  Our dormitory, or “county” if I remember correctly, was lead by a Marine, Sgt. Rios, who held us in high regard and asked for simply one thing:  respect.  He held everyone accountable for their own actions, and we had to do integrity checks; we had to be truthful with ourselves, admitting our failures (hands in pockets, forgetting to say please and/or thank you, not saying sir or ma’am, etc.), to ourselves and the rest of the group.  The punishment, if you consider this a punishment:  push-ups.  The upside:  a quick workout and built character.  We never had to do physical training in the morning, which was a unique approach, since all the other guys had to.  However, we really screwed up one day; we didn’t have to do PT, but we did have to walk around the building and pick up trash with our hands, carrying it around until the vicinity was clean.

Aside that, the You-respect-me-and-I’ll-respect-you approach was a great deal.  Our free time was extended on a daily basis, not because there wasn’t anything to do, but do to our dedication. 

My roommate, John, who resided in Baldwin, New York, was a good guy.  He had quite the extensive music taste, playing Slipknot one moment and Frank Sinatra the next.  I was the same way, which helped make this a great fit for a week.  I figured this was a nice preview for the upcoming college years, and–later down the road–I would come to realize that my hopes for great roommates did hold out.  I had kept in contact with Nick F. from Buffalo for a while, but we have our own lives.  Life gets crazy and people lose touch; however, we’re still friends on Facebook.

Senior year came around, and aside everything else, I knew I was going to have him write me a reccomendation for college.  I would be taking two classes with him, one for each semester, and I couldn’t have been more excited.  The first was The Sixties, a class based on–you guessed it–one of the memorable decades in history.  However, I have to stop myself, which decade isn’?!?  We covered every bit possible of the decade, tapping into music and movies, economy and politics, and even simplistic everyday life aspects.  The second semester, economics, I learned that there is no such thing as a free lunch. 

Literally:  TINSTAAFL.  I cannot remember if he included that extra A, because not everyone counts that lowercase a.  Eh. The “word” is kind of funny; it sounds German.  Which reminds me, I was near a family of Germans at Marshalls the other day; they were having a good time, smiling and all, but they sounded so angry.  Hmm…

III.  Taking Care of Quick Business

College professors are great, but I found the majority of them not as inspiring as my K-12 teachers.  There were a few that stood out, that were very welcoming and approachable.  However, to sum the whole bus load of teachers I had at Oneonta:  interesting. 

Being an education major had a nice little perk:  the requirement and ability to do observations.  Some professors were very strict about where we could observe, some were relentless to the point where you had to go where they told you to, and others could have cared less just as long as you got the work done. Many times, for the more rigid professor, I just did what I had to for my own convenience.  For instance:  if we were going on break, I would want to get my observations done without any distractions.  After my day in the school, I could go back to my parent’s house, type up what I had do, and be done with it.

At Oneonta, I would have to figure out a time when I didn’t have class in order to do observations, plus figure out transportation since I did not have a car, yet deciding whether or not to carpool with a peer (this would require matching up scheduling), get back to campus for classes, type up my report along with my other homework, and work myself up over nothing.  Ergo, the phrase:  work smarter, not harder. 

I could not tell whether Stearns wanted to rip my heart out of my chest, gauge out my eyes, chop my head off, throw me out the window, or crucify me.  It would be safe to say all of the above.  However, I would have the opportunity to go back to West Genesee and run into old teachers again.  I actually opted to observe in classrooms where I didn’t know the teacher, which allowed me to step out of the comfort zone.  A school is a school, no matter where it’s located.  However, comfort levels waver in certain classrooms.  I did observe in my favorite’s rooms, however.  At the time, this could have been a nice networking/foot-in-the-door approach to get a job back at Wildcat Manor.  Yet, I eventually opted out.

I did observe in Dance’s class, and it was professional rather than putting me on the spot as a former student/alumni/etc.  However, that was a while ago, and we have since lost touch.  After graduating from Oneonta, I moved on with a different route than I anticipated.

IV.   Waiting for Godot, err, Mr. Dance

The breeze was soft and easing despite the hovering darkening clouds in Skaneateles.  However, that is typical Syracuse.  The pier crowd surfed out above the slight slaps of timid whitecaps.  An older gentleman with a pup, one of the types found in some pretentious purse, walked by, and the bitch was about the size of my foot.

What?  You didn’t like that sentence?  A bitch is a female dog.  I know you know that.  It kind of made me laugh as I wrote it.  I was debating on using that terminology, but I went with it.  The dog had a bow in its fur; granted, I shouldn’t assume the sex of the dog–to each their own–but let’s be serious here. 

I am sure the dog was a sweetheart, she even looked up at me with eyes asking for a head scratch.  However, they kept walking toward these two older women, about the same age as the dog’s holder, who simply “could eat that cute little thing right up.”  That visual, two women, having a picnic in the park while feasting on that poor dog with barely any meat on its body to go around for seconds, is even more unsettling than the other dog comment.

Would they grill it? I would have such a hard time with that.  I would only be able to see those little eyes staring up at me as it roasts, a slight whimper, and the inquisition for a hearty head scratch.  It wouldn’t be tasteful.

Simply add a dash of garlic.

V.  Chit Chat

Friendly as ever, Mr. Dance.  After 13 years from when I first had him as a teacher, he looks the same and has the same friendly persona.  That just proves an individual character:  that person has the same character inside and outside of the classroom, let alone the resilience after so many years.

We covered many topics, including:  high school versus college, working versus retirement, relationships and dating to marriage, kids and grandkids, politics, leisure, and travelling.  Of course, the downside of having to talk about so many things in two hours is damn near incredible.  The conversations were tips of icebergs, because tangents could have unfolded for two hours. 

I bought Mr. Dance a coffee, because it was the least I could do to thank him.  Everything is “least” when looking at it.  Writing the note upon his retirement:  least I could do.  Treating to coffee:  least I  could do.  Shaking his hand, thanking him, and saying it was good to see him:  least I could do.

Here is a life I can look at objectively, aside using my parents as inspiration.  He seemed elated when telling me the process of his decision to retire. He tried keeping it hushed, but the students found out and gave him one hell of a sending off.  I asked him why this year to retire, and Mr. Dance stated that it was simply a great time to.  Quitting while ahead, is what he referred it to.  The last couple of years went incredibly well, so why not? 

It’s a great way to approach life, and retirement.  It’s not the day I get to retire that I will appreciate most. It will be the day when I can actually quit while I am head.  The notion that I know that I am ahead will be incredibly breathtaking.

The topic of travel came up numerous times, and I suggested his taking a trip through the Syracuse Chamber as I had.  It’s absolutely rewarding, especially the China trip.  Why not?

Of course, the two hours flew, complimented with an open-ended departure.  Hopefully we’ll do the coffee thing again.  It’s good seeing an old friend.

I didn’t want to hastily write this, but it came out more rushed than I wanted it to.  Oh, well.  It’s been over a week, and I just needed to get this out into the Internet ether. 

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