A Cup of Joe

Once a month, Joe and I meet for lunch and strong coffee.

He never lets me pay. That’s against my nature, Baby, he says.
He drives a shiny black car, newly washed, with a license plate that reads Cent Ani.

God, I hope that is true. I need Joe around for at least 23 more years.

At the end of each lunch, Joe drives his car up to mine. He gets out, dressed in slacks and a grey vest and drops two paper bags, full of magazines like the New Yorker, Harpers, Scientific American and the Atlantic into my trunk. All of these and more he has read in one month. Joe refuses to buy a computer.

After a lunch with Joe, my mind percolates with the ideas we have shared, usually a rousing conversation about education, politics, philosophy or literature.

Joe is my mentor. He, more than anyone else, has shaped my views about all things education. We have known each other since I was 15 years old, an opinionated high school student. He hired me in 1972 to teach English and I hired him back in 2000 to teach Latin.

We had lunch last week.

Joe, you were my humanities instructor. Your intensity and expression mesmerized me. Despite tremendous political upheaval and distraction during the 60’s, you captivated me. How did you do that? What goes into being a great teacher?

“The great teacher has a sense of humor about the job. The job is not doable and seeing that, operating within the absurd, the great teacher has a narrow window to convince his students that the subject is worth learning.

We need an inexhaustible curiosity about our subject.

We must have a profound empathy for young people and be non-judgmental. In essence, love the sinners while you hate the sins that they commit.”

This belief comes from Joe’s experience as a young rebel.

Joe grew up in San Francisco, an angry young boy who lost his dad when he was five years old.

“My dad, Dominic, was born in Sicily. He worked as a lumper (one who unloads the trucks) at the produce market for 11 years. He died at age 35 and left my mom, Sadie, a widow at 26. My mom worked two jobs in the 30’s to pay off the debt my dad had accrued in the 1937 collapse of the celery market.

In essence, my grandmother Nona raised me. She spoke only Italian. I was a pugnacious kid, angry because I didn’t have a dad. Every day I would fight with Jerry Segalas, an Irish kid. One night, he kicked the hell out of me and I ended up with a bloody nose. All I could think of was being hugged by my Nona, but when I came home with blood all over me, she knocked me across the room. Her words became a cornerstone in my belief system:

When you want to fight, fight, but when you lose, don’t come home crying: take responsibility.

I ended up at St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco. One teacher, Ed Doyle, helped me to become a scholarship student. Ed wrote mystery reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle on Sundays. He gave me a reading list of banned books, the spirit of which, took me to Cal Berkeley. I loved books; I majored in English and philosophy.”

Was Ed Doyle a great teacher?

“I was looking for reassurance that whoever I was, I was accepted. It was OK to be a little goofy as long as I had a value structure at a deeper level.

We haven’t taught teachers to appreciate the vicissitudes of teens. The system has become less accepting because we have Balkanized ourselves: African-American, Asian American. That’s a bunch of bull. If I had a template to make them [teachers] successful, I would give it to them and we would all go home.

There is no template. It’s who you are and what you are and each has to do it on his own. Sine Qua Non.”

What gets in the way of becoming a great teacher?

“Cheri, the most serious problem facing teachers and teacher organizations is the failure to recognize their audience.”

Joe understands his audience. Still teaching aspiring teachers, he is a blast from the past, a blow torch of opinion.

Perhaps this story, which Joe says may be a myth, best captures his life.

“I was born with pyloric stenosis and born at a time when it was a fatal disease. Although Dr. Flood, the greatest infant surgeon at Mr. Zion Hospital, would perform the surgery when I was 6 days old, the hospital staff told my parents to prepare for the worst and buy a casket.

When I didn’t die, my Uncle Vinny threw a party in the Exselsior District of San Francisco. They threw the tiny casket in the fireplace, things got out of control, and the house burnt down.”

Joe’s life hasn’t been the same since he lost his bride, Maureen, several years ago. But he lives his life, still teaching and mentoring young teachers, still in the mix, still enjoying the opera, baseball, and books.

Joe’s life is a double espresso.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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21 Responses to A Cup of Joe

  1. ♥ Kathy says:

    I would love to drink a cup of coffee with Joe. He sounds like my kind of people. Nice post. I enjoyed it. Thank you Cheri.

  2. Liz says:

    This was amazing to read. Thank you for sharing Joe with us!

  3. Dina says:

    We could all use a cup of Joe in our life.

  4. lakeviewer says:

    You were lucky to have a mentor like Joe throughout your life, an inspiration and a friend for life.

    The New Yorker had a wonderful article a few months ago about how difficult it is to assess good teaching because of those rare qualities that are hard to quantify. The article explained them in terms of mindfulness, paying attention to everything about the audience and responding immediately.

    From one Italian to another, tell him “Buona Fortuna” from me.

  5. andreaskluth.org says:

    Also on the matter of “what makes a good teacher”, watch the second half of this talk by Bill Gates. (The first half is about Malaria, the second about education.)

  6. Cheri Block Sabraw says:

    I listened to Gates’ presentation at TED. I have to be honest here. There wasn’t one thing he said regarding teachers, kids, observations,or the system that I did not know or haven’t experienced to the point of rage.

    For years, no exaggeration, I invested energy in trying to make public education a more functional place, one where we encourage, train, and sustain good teachers.

    Alas, I am not Bill Gates. With little money and no power, other than that in my classroom, no one listened. Union politics and district bureaucracy stymied all my efforts.

    I am one of those teachers to whom Gates referred: no Masters (too busy lesson planning and correcting papers)and who left public education after 26 years. I have a funny story(at the time, not so) about the Official Observation that Gates hilariously shared: the observation that is scheduled once a year.

    The Assistant Principal, a former English teacher herself, came to visit my classroom. The lesson was progressing swimmingly. The stars aligned. She sat in a crummy desk, squinting. Why is she squinting, with that painful look?, I remember thinking, all while keeping 35 smart kids engaged.

    When I came up to the office for the results of her observation, she said, Cheri, I have a headache after being in your room for 45 minutes. Do you realize that having posters all over the walls and the ceiling is distracting?

    That sums up my 26 year service to public education.

    I have recently applied to a masters program and hope to go back to school next fall, if admitted. It will finally be My Turn. If I am rejected, I will write my book.

    Thank you! I hope all of my readers check out your blog and buy YOUR book.


  7. Douglas says:

    Cheri, I am one who feels that teachers need not possess a masters nor even a bachelors degree. I suspect that Joe might agree with that. Joe seems to think that teaching is about the student. If so, I heartily agree with him.

  8. andreaskluth.org says:

    I cringe at your description of that Official Observation….

    But why bother with a Masters at this point (unless you’re teaching it)? You seem to have made it even in this silly system of ours….

  9. Cheri Block Sabraw says:

    No more rants, I promise.

  10. momcat says:

    What is so apparent and poignant is the role that various people (including Joe’s grandmother)played in his life and which had an effect on the way he turned out. The people we come across in life are going to be affected by our words and actions and maybe that effect will only be seen years later. And in turn Joe has had a positive effect on other lives.

  11. addhumorandfaith says:

    A wonderful tribute to Joe. If I believed in cloning, he’d be one of my nominees!

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  14. I read with interest this posting, and listened, too, to Bill Gates’ talk about the characteristics of a great teacher. Perhaps great teachers are born, not made.

    However lamentable the paucity of great teachers in American schools (and no doubt in schools anywhere), not having good teachers shouldn’t prevent a student from somehow getting a good education if he (or she) has the will.

    Think only of auto-didacts like Abraham Lincoln. And, compared to Lincoln’s time, there are today so many more sources, other than a teacher, from which to get the knowledge to do well in school.

    More parents could do more to see that their children do scholastically well, by creating a learning environment in the home. Parents should read the text-books and novels which the schools assign their children, so to discuss them with their children, and also ask them questions about things in the texts which they, the parents, never learned when in school.

    Admittedly, subjects like mathematics and physics would be difficult for a long-out-of-school parent to follow. But what about literature, poetry, history, social science, geography, and the other right-brained subjects, which the non-expert parent, or non-academic parent, can normally more easily understand?

    So, let’s not put all the blame on the teachers!!

  15. Cheri says:

    Thank you for this very thoughtful comment.
    Some students have the will you mention, but many benefit from a guide. And yes, parents can be insightful guides.
    Great teachers are born , not made.
    Good teachers can be made.

    Parent+teacher+student=educational lift-off!

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  17. Man of Roma says:

    Wow, I loved this post. Deep and true. A good mentor of course is crucial. I lost mine many years ago and I still remember every single word and teaching he passed on to us.

    I perceive from Joe’s photo like a good nature, a sympathy that seems from here, toughened by a life that has known sorrow.

    I read a few posts regarding Joe to figure out what type of man he is. As I said, Sicilians are a mystery to Roma too, and a Sicilian from SF even more!

    You know, to me Italian Americans are a good ‘bridge’ to better understand the New World (then I was distracted by my youngest daughter coming to my study room with her guitar, and I lost focus)

    Digression: When I was in SF last year I visited the Italian North Beach neighbourhood among the rest: Columbus Avenue, the Caffé Trieste, that famous library whose name I forgot in search of the old beat generation times and all the artists that followed. Tourist-like, but with a meaning, I had the pleasure to read some Whitman in that library. My other daughter was my guide since she spent last entire year between Berkeley and SF and absolutely adored both.

    Kind of a family tradition: my first serious relationship at 20 was a girl from SF! though I met her here.

    When my daughter came back she had changed. She told me: “Papi, Rome is a place for old people!!” which though a bit unfair one cannot deny the exuberance of the New World is unbeatable.
    End of digression.

    Joe, I was saying. It’s like there are ‘types’, ‘characters’ – in Italy, in the Usa and elsewhere – that are disappearing and that no one will be able to replace, maybe. You describe very well Joe’s personality – I’m commenting 2-3 posts ensemble – one who understands his pupils, who loves the sinners but not the sins.

    [but isn’t it a bit puritanical? Here we love both].

    In some villages of the Mediterranean there are still the sages sitting under the big oak tree who utter sentences from a life lived the hard way. I loved the casket (coffin?) story, and the house burning because of it, the crankiness with Mahid, the fact that Joe doesn’t conform to any cliché and sticks to what he has processed himself: “shall we go to NYC? Our old beach?” “I don’t do nostalgia, baby.”
    Or “I don’t think that by being good, people will follow. No, baby, I don’t buy that.”

    And I also liked Joe the hero, the anti-geezer. Almost 80, “still out there living life.”

    A good example, no doubt – especially for just-retired people like me who all of a sudden feel they are a bit like mummies.


  18. Cheri says:

    I loved the casket (coffin?) story

    Me too. This story (perhaps family myth) symbolizes a great deal of Joe’s familial history. Joe is a terrific storyteller; I am hoping to capture some of his stories in my essays.

    Now, that you are retired, you will have more time to write for those of us who enjoy learning new things.


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  20. Great post, great story. Love Joe’s lines:

    “The job is not doable …” and “… the most serious problem facing teachers … is the failure to recognise their audience.”

    Thank you.

  21. Cheri says:

    Joe is a treasure trove of storytelling, educational philosophy, and irreverent language.

    He still teaches teachers at National University (sort of like a University of Phoenix gig).

    Boy, are they lucky people to be in his airspace.

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