My favorite teachers were my English teachers and one of my favorite books from high school was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Maycomb, Ala., during the Great Depression, had few things in common with Hudson, Wis., during the 1970s. My father worked in a factory in Hudson and there were no interesting court cases. But I still identified with the story, (I did have one overprotective brother and one brother most of us needed protecting from) and its concrete details about growing up in a small town where everyone knew everybody to the point of who struggled to get by financially and who struggled to get along with each other.
So, why is To Kill a Mockingbird on my mind? Because it’s arguably the greatest courtroom drama in American literature, and Monday I finished a grand jury term that started April 17. It is a felony to reveal anything about the numerous cases presented to us. I can tell you we met twice a week for just over two months. On June 12, with a half-dozen cases outstanding, we were extended to Sept. 13. I had been advised to bring a book because there were lots of time in between cases just waiting around. Mockingbird would have been an appropriate choice if I hadn’t read it more than a dozen times already.
I’m not a parent, but I am the involved aunt of my nephew and nieces who attended Schalmont schools in Schenectady County from 1982 through 2003. (They have all graduated and are doing quite well thanks to the stellar public education they received.) Rick Pepe taught at Schalmont schools for 37 years. If he didn’t teach Felix, Marisa or Rachel, his wife Elisa had them in class. So, when I found out Coach Pepe had written a book about his final year teaching and named it “Thank You for My Children,” I had to get a copy.
You may recognize the main title as a line of dialogue spoken by Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It encapsulates my feelings not only for my own children whose mom, my life’s greatest blessing, I met in Schalmont’s halls, but for the 4,500 students I’ve had the pleasure to teach, coach, and advise. They are, in a sense, my children too.”
What a great book to be reading over the last few months! Told honestly and with a sense of humor, it was a great contradiction to the attacks one might read in the press about teacher salaries, pensions or other benefits. It took me most of my grand jury service to finish Pepe’s 151-page book; I just did not have the time to read it — Unfortunately, there were many cases presented to us and not a lot of time in-between waiting around. Back at my day job, my colleagues pitched in to do what they could, but work sure can pile up.
Back to Pepe: I’m reminded of something he wrote, and something I hear most of my teaching friends say, about why they chose teaching. He writes:
“At age 14, I wanted a career that I could enjoy. That was paramount. I thought little about honor and nobility, and not at all about salary. It has never been about money (a good thing, since my first year’s wage was about $7800. I still couldn’t quote my exact final year salary; it just doesn’t matter that much to me.). I wanted to make a difference and have fun doing it.”
The book is written as a journal. Pepe provides perfect gems of advice to educators and non-educators. Problems with scheduling meant he ate lunch at 10:45 a.m. He shares that “I don’t need to eat at 10: 45; apparently no one else does either. In my final year I must forgo the spirit-boost that comes from colleagues’ stories, jokes, advice … just from their company. The only advantage … is that the copy machine will be available — and with no opportunity except this lonely lunchtime to use it between 8:30 and 1:30, that’s really quite fortunate.”
Most teachers immediately understand the intricacies of scheduling at the high school level. I’ve been hearing from a number of elementary teachers of problems with scheduling because, now that art, music and physical education offerings have been reduced, well, “havoc” is one way I’ve heard it described.
Pepe also shares the good advice he received that made a difference in his career. Like these words from his first principal: “I don’t care how good your college prep was. You’re going to be a liability for a year or two until you figure out how it’s done. Everybody is. So you need to find other ways to make yourself valuable so we have a reason to keep you around if we have to make job cuts.”
Published by The Troy Book Makers, there are copies of Pepe’s book in Capital Region bookstores or go to www.thetroybookmakers.com.
The book is also available at Amazon.com. Looking at Amazon shows that people must want to read the memoirs of teachers, because there is quite the cottage industry for their books. A search reveals 213 titles for sale now at Amazon.com. And that doesn’t include Having Our Say, because only one of the Delaney sisters was a teacher. Meanwhile, there are only 30 titles for retired lawyers, eight on retired bankers and so on.
Please share any of the good memoirs you may have read.