by cheri block
I have just learned that my mentor, Joe, died suddenly last night.
As Joe would have it, I am supposed to teach in 30 minutes, so I cannot cry my eyes out (yet).
Our lunch meeting to discuss Galileo is off.
A big personality, larger than life, has left this experience for the Great Beyond.
I am honored to have been his student up until last week.
I’d like to submit this post again, in honor of my friend Joe, and wish him safe travels to beyond our cosmos. Tonight, I will have a J&B on the rocks, even though I don’t like the taste. And maybe lobster. Then I’ll turn on an Italian opera and blare the music for all to hear.
One of life’s unique people has gone. Good-bye Joe!
First written: 2009
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.