I don’t write much about my grammar school years. They were pretty much standard: I cried the first day my Mom and Dad “left me” at kindergarten (I didn’t think they were coming back); between first through third grades I became so well-versed with Janet & Mark until I couldn’t help wanting one to kill the other; and being that I was the quiet one, I’d always sit in the corner during recess or lunch and play with my He-Man figures, continuing where yesterday’s story left off.
Then came the sixth grade, where I encountered one of the most influential educators I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking a class with: Mr. Torio. The legends about his greatness echoed legion through the halls of Woodrow Wilson School. All anyone ever talked about was how cool the sixth grade would be. “That’s what all the seventh graders are saying,” my best friend Jeremy had said. I even remember meeting a seventh grader once –– a long blonde-haired headbanger (long before I even knew what “headbanger” meant) with a Wilson brand black motorcycle jacket and fingerless gloves. “Just get through these other grades, kid. Sixth grade’ll change your life.”
Well, I made it through six grades (kindergarten included –– my parents did come back for me after all), and I had some memorable teachers: Mrs. Gioffre (kindergarten and Grade 3), Mrs. Fitzgerald (Grade 2) and Mrs. Perz (Grade 7, I think, though it might’ve been Grade 8). Then there were some old guard” types like my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Wickle who made me admit to the whole class that Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was fiction when I believed otherwise. (And still do –– there’s truth to everything, y’know.) And although I recall Mrs. Lange’s fifth grade classroom being pretty stellar, what I remember more vividly reading a copy of Robin #1 over and over again during her math lessons ever since my friend Brian slipped a copy in my desk.
All the while, though, I was anticipating just how great it was gonna be once I get to the sixth grade. And it was, in many ways.
See, Mr. Torio was the type of teacher whom you know enjoys sitting up there at his big teacher’s desk, watching over his “kids” like a headmaster out of Harry Potter and making sure we paid attention to the spells of knowledge and completed our home concoctions in our notebooks before morning. But he was also the kind of teacher that cracked many jokes throughout the day, which prior to my then six years of schooling was practically unheard of. Don’t get me wrong, they were all great teachers except for Mrs. Wickle, who was just okay, but they rarely cracked a joke; they smiled, but always made certain you knew you were here to learn, and that learning was serious business and not to be lightened by a brief moment of laughter until after the lesson was complete.
But Mr. Torio, he had jokes, animal noises, and on occasion a little Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor grunt. He also had some of the greatest facial expressions around. He helped break the monotony of standardized schooling in the best possible way, all the while being able to provide us with a trove of treasured knowledge from inside our brown paper bagged textbooks and outside of it. He was the first teacher who made me want to go to school everyday, and made me understand my Dad’s story about how when he was a young boy in Greece, whenever school was closed, he’d cry.
Interestingly enough, Mr. Torio was the first male teacher I ever had. In fact, before I heard the legends of how transformative an experience his sixth grade class would be, I had thought that teaching was exclusively a woman’s career –– to nurture in their students not only with knowledge, but compassion and empathy, as well as the alphabet. Mr. Torio was able to do all that, too, and he did it just as well.
During the sixth grade, I never read comics halfway inside my desk during Mr. T.’s lessons. I waited until lunchtime to run around and play with Kareem, who had replaced Jeremy as my best friend by that time. My Masters of the Universe figures stayed at home until the day was done, at which time I’d resume their stories after my homework was done. Thinking back to those years, 1989 – 1990 was a time before I became who I was meant to become. The man I’m still becoming. Mr. T.’s sixth grade class cultivated in me a genuine love of learning that I carry with me to this day. While fifth grade blackened my eye from my first fight with a bully, it was sixth grade that saved me with my first tryst with teenage love. And when I had questions about it, Mr. T. was there with the answers, whether as a look of approval or words of sage advice.
It’s teachers like him you don’t forget. It’s lessons like those I learned in sixth grade that linger on until “the last syllable of recorded time.”
Years later, when I was finishing up my bachelor’s in creative writing at New Jersey City University in the early 2000s, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I also knew that it probably wouldn’t pay the bills for quite a some time. (And still doesn’t to this day.) Dr. Chris Wessman, my mentor and advisor, made an interesting recommendation on the final day of my independent study in playwriting:
“Why don’t you apply for graduate writing program, John?”
“What?” I sneered, much more cynical then than I could ever be now. “What would I do that for?” I’ve had enough of these “Ivory Halls,” I thought to myself. It was time I became a writer.
“Well,” Chris continued, “with an master’s degree, you can get a job teaching, so there’s money coming in while you’re writing.”
Teaching? I had always thought of teaching as something you do later in life, after you had spent your life learning something worth teaching. I remember the word itself being the bane of all writers’ existences, Kryptonite to a real author’s superhuman sense of syntax and soliloquy. The darkest night of a would-be scrivener’s soul that most likely might never see a new dawn. I for one didn’t want to trade in my own black ink for red ink, sacrifice my precision-crafted words for the disjointed ramblings of college freshmen. No, no writer ever wants to teach. It’s the final nail in the coffin before you actually go out do the dying. Teach? I thought to myself. I want to write!
But then that same night I thought of Mr. Torio. I thought about all those lessons I packed up in my cerebral suitcase and took with me from his sixth grade and all through my undergrad years. I thought about how much I enjoyed his methods, even though I didn’t know there was such a thing as methodology at that age. If I could be that kind of teacher –– that kind of professor –– well, then I just might consider going to grad school, and soon after saying goodbye to the various seats I sat in as a student, saying hello to the front of the classroom.
I put in my application the following year to CUNY’s Brooklyn College, and I was accepted to its MFA program for creative writing, specializing in poetry writing, my passion. And upon graduating in the summer of 2003, I landed my first gig as a university professor at NJCU teaching a poetry workshop, thanks to Chris Wessman.
Through the wonders of Facebook, I’ve managed to reconnect with Mr. Torio, and it’s quite humbling to see his comments on an Instagram photo I’d taken of my writing station, or when I read a heartfelt message from him. And I try to send him pictures of Jersey City when I’m out and about, since he asked me to send him some so he could see how the city he spent so much time in had changed.
This also got me thinking early this year. About how I spent over ten years teaching at various universities across the Garden State –– from NJCU to William Paterson University, with a few community colleges thrown in for good measure; about how during that same time, I produced over a dozen short films, two theater productions, and a feature-length movie, read at dozens of poetry slams and open mic nights, and wrote the first edition of Crowdfunding for Filmmakers in a little under six months –– “an impossible task” as most of my writer friends warned; about how today, I still consider myself a professor of not only writing and storytelling, but of crowdfunding, and how even at my neighborhood coffee shop, I’ve become a cross between Norm and Frasier from Cheers, giving life advice to baristas and regulars alike. And everyday I try and make sure my Facebook friends and Twitter followers start their days with something positive in the morning, because life doesn’t always give us that opportunity.
But just like “Know Yourself” by Drake, in this blog, I guess you can say I’m running through the sixth [grade] with my WOEs –– WOEs being an acronym for “Working On Excellence” –– and in all these years, I’d say one thing’s been proven: you may not be able to take the writer out of the professor after all. But you also can’t take the professor out of the writer, either.
Thanks for that, Mr. T. –– er, I mean Joe.