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Mr. D Sticks in my Memory

During Teacher Appreciation Week, I thought it would be fun to share about a teacher from my own past. Robert D’Andrea was my social studies teacher in seventh grade back in New Jersey. Like so many people around me during the earlier half of my life, he was Italian-American, and had a booming, jovial voice with that New Jersey accent so many try to impersonate but never truly replicate. Being the youngest of four, I knew from my siblings that we would learn about the Mayas, the Incas, and the Aztecs with “Mr. D,” and he did not disappoint.

Teacher Appreciation cupcakes

A few months ago, our paths crossed on Facebook.I live in California now, and Mr. D lives in Kansas.I am an educational technologist and technology teacher, and he is also in EdTech, working for the diocese near where he went to college and now lives.He recently shared with his former students, many of whom have also found him on Facebook, a video of his church’s Maundy Thursday play, in which Mr. D played the role of Thomas, who doubted until he touched Jesus with his own hands.Hearing that voice in the video brought me right back to seventh grade.

I have two vivid memories from that time and place that have nothing to do with Meso-American cultures.Both involve Mr. D.

Mr. D’Andrea had been in an accident some years before I found myself in his classroom.At the start of each year, he shared the story with his students. He had been hit by a car driven by a drunk driver, thrown completely over a fence, and awoke with his leg crushed. He was put back together, but he always had one leg a little shorter than the other, resulting in a limp I can still vividly envision to this day. Telling this story on the first day of class each year broke the ice and answered the question many students would have been thinking anyway. And it made Mr. D such a regular human being to us kids. He was still larger than life, but this one physical flaw, which we soon forgot all about, made him one of us. That doesn’t mean we didn’t look up to him and show him respect; it just means we could relate to him.

My other memory is much more personal. And I have never talked to anyone about it, that I can recall.

Our school, a 5-8th grade intermediate school at the time, was at one end the former high school (East Rutherford High School had burned in a fire some years before) and at the other end a much newer building. The old part of the building contained a competition swimming pool, still used by the (new) high school for its swim team. We used to have “Activity” classes a few afternoons a week, which were like electives. One of these was swimming, and Mr. D supervised it. I was in the pool one day with lots of noisy classmates, and I wanted to show off how I could do a somersault underwater.(I wasn’t much of a swimmer, so this impressed me about myself.)I called out, “Mr. D, look!” as I dipped beneath the water, waving to him. It probably caught him off-guard, and he thought I was calling out for help. I came up for air, smiling, just as he was about to jump in the pool to save me. Seeing I was not in danger, but scared nonetheless, he yelled at me and kicked me out of the pool. Alone, back in the locker room, I was mortified. I cried. I think I tried to explain to him later, but I don’t remember.

I’ve been a teacher now for almost twenty years. The number of field trips and outdoor activities I’ve supervised are now too many to count. I fully appreciate that heightened awareness and anxiety that comes with being in charge of a lot of kids in a riskier-than-normal situation. I’ve never borne Mr. D any ill will for his reaction to my thoughtless antics. In fact, I appreciate so much his love for us kids.This anecdote illustrates one of the best things about teachers: they care.

Teachers don’t go into education for the money, glory, recognition, or fame. For every publicized Teacher of the Year, there are thousands of excellent peers toiling away in the shadows. Teachers like Mr. D give kids role models of what it means to be a grown-up: not perfect, just as human as everyone else, and deeply concerned for children as people.

I hope that someday, maybe twenty years from now, a student will find me on Facebook (or its future equivalent) and tell me a story of how I impacted him or her. I don’t expect it any more than a brand-new actor expects to win an Academy Award. I hope, not-so-secretly, that I can be good enough to deserve such an out-of-the-blue walk down memory lane with a former student.


Image of teacher appreciation cupcakes from Flickr user clevercupcakes, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.

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