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It is so difficult when the end is near. It is so tough to accept and very tough to handle, but, eventually, it must be done. You are prepared to accept the beginning, but no one is ever prepared for the bitter end.
Am I talking about death? It sounds very much like death. No, I am talking about the end of a career. It is the end of something I love very much. I am talking about the end of my teaching career, a vocation that I love that much.
I attended St. John's University and majored in Education. As I prepared to receive my Bachelor's degree, I thought back to my days that led up to my graduation. In particular, I thought about the teachers in my life who modeled the occupation that I wanted to join. They did so with a passion. As far back at least to fifth grade, I always wanted to be a teacher. I just did not know what subject I wanted to teach.
Aside from my parents, my uncles Randy, Conrad, and Gene, my initial passion for teaching started when I was in elementary school. I’ve had many nice teachers, but the two who really stood out were Mrs. Maggio, my third-grade teacher, and Mrs. Fryer, my fifth-grade teacher.
Mrs. Maggio was a very stern individual. From what I can remember, she stood about 6 feet tall and wore no smile even on a good day, not that I had any bad days with her. If she had a good day or a bad day, she showed no emotion. The best thing to do in a case like that was to never try to find out. When she spoke, she spoke with authority. You knew what she had to say when she said it and why she said it. She played no games with anyone. She was one tough cookie. She wanted the best out of you and she got it. For many years after I graduated from eighth grade, I often wondered if she spent any time in the Marine Corps. She could easily have been a drill instructor. She was an awesome class instructor. Because of her that year, I consistently found myself on the honor roll. She instilled in me that if you work at something, you can achieve anything you want. I really enjoyed her class and I never had any trouble with her.
One lesson that never took root with me back then was to turn around and thank her. When I attended fourth grade. I never thanked her for all that she did for me, but she did impart the seed that started growing within me. I knew right there that I wanted to be a teacher, but I told no one, not even my parents.
The next year as I entered fourth grade, I had a new teacher. She was a kindly, but elderly nun named Sister Josepha. She was also an influence on me. She taught me that as a teacher, one needs to know each student. One does not need to have dinner with each child’ss family or hang out with them 24/7. No. One needs to take time to learn about them so that when they need your help—and they will need your help from time to time—you can be there to assist them. On the first day of school, as she lined us up in her room in order to give us our assigned seats, she asked me about my newborn baby sister. My sister was only a few days old. I never told anyone about her. How did she know that I had a baby sister? Simple. Sister made a phone call even before I arrived for my new grade and learned some things about me. Until I figured it out, I thought that she was related to Houdini because that was so amazing that she knew who I was and how happy I was to have a baby sister. Again, I was still on the honor roll and very well-behaved, too.
My next influence would be my biggest influence. She was my fifth-grade teacher. Her name was Mrs. Fryer. Like Mrs. Maggio, she tolerated no nonsense. Like Sister Josepha, she learned all about me. Unlike the first two, she brought out her motherly qualities. That year, my Mom ended up in the hospital. Dad never told me why, but he assured me that she was going to be okay. During the time, Mrs. Fryer, like Sister Josepha, learned of my predicament and gave compassion. She took me under her wing and got me through the school year while Dad was taking care of Mom. For all I know, Mom’s bout with cancer may have started that year. She was a consummate smoker, but no one let on to me about it. I simply went through a worry-free period until Mom came back home. Mrs. Fryer taught me about compassion and how one must also come to a classroom with compassion and Mrs. Fryer, another extremely talented and truly dedicated educator who more than lived up to what was expected of her.
My final influence in that school was my sixth-grade teacher, Sister Catherine Joseph. She was a tough cookie. She only addressed me as Mr. Bernier. From time to time, I wasn't sure if she was talking to me or whether she thought that she was speaking to my Dad. She put the knowledge of English grammar into my rather thick skull. She listened intently to every syllable that popped out of my pie hole. When I said something incorrectly, she made me back up my statement and say it again correctly. Once, I said a sentence with a double negative. She repeatedly made me say the sentence until I caught my error. I did and then said the sentence correctly. I did and I was finally released to sit back down. She also made use write with fountain pens-messy, frustrating fountain pens. We had to purchase these pens and learn how to replace these messy cartridges when they ran out. Those of us who learned well ended up with neat papers. Those of us who had trouble with them went home with a big blue spot at the base of our white shirt pocket like I did MANY times. I really don’t remember how many shirts I messed up, but I eventually learned how to insert these cartridges. It was a comical mess at times, but it was a learning moment for me. I also stopped using pencils unless I had a Scantron-like exam to take where I had to bubble in an answer on a computer page.
As I continued my educational journey from elementary school to high school, I met people like my first Math and first track coach Brother Pat, my Biology teacher Mr. Chisena, another Math teacher named Mrs. Brienner, a second Science teacher named Sister Evelyn and my favorite teacher out of all of them, my first music teacher Mr. Keeler. All of those teachers I mentioned shared the same qualities as my earlier teachers plus, as I was learning how to play the trumpet in the school band, they were extremely supportive and occasionally said so many positive things about my musical efforts. It was at that point that I decided that I wanted to be like my favorite and only private trumpet teacher, Mr. Richard Williams. He was a professional musician first and a music teacher in schools as needed. I wanted to do just like he did. I wanted to be a music teacher.
In between my last day of high school and my first day of college, I changed my mind and decided that because of my desire to also write, I changed my major to English and sad that it would be easier to go ahead and be an English teacher. I had a better chance and I felt a bit more comfortable teaching English than I could do with music. Do not get me wrong. I still love the music as much as I love English, but I felt that my path would be a lot smoother to my goal if I taught English instead.
After four years at the university, I finally made it. I walked into my first classroom at I.S. 183X in the South Bronx in order to start my first day as a professional teacher.
Not my desk. How can you tell? It's neat and I don't drink coffee.
Now, it is 40 years later. Many things have taken place over the four decades. First of all, not only did I mourn the death of classmates, friends, neighbors, and teachers I worked with, but the most painful deaths of all were the deaths of my Dad, Mom, and baby sister Janice. We would, however, add my first beautiful niece Jasmine as well as my sister-in-law, another beautiful niece, a handsome nephew, a wonderful niece-in-law, two cute grandnieces, and two handsome grandnephews. After my BA, I also received my MS in Education and a Professional Diploma in School Administration. I know that Mrs. Fryer and the rest of my favorite teachers would have been proud of me. I know that a family friend, Mr. Ullyses Taylor who was not just like a fourth uncle to me, but he was also a mentor who went back to Queens College to fulfill his dream of getting his BA. He did. Now, he is gone with my parents. I can't even remember the number of vehicles I have personally owned over the four decades and I wouldn't even try to remember either. My best friend Bob and his wife Lori moved to California in 1982 and another best friend named Mike moved to New Hampshire. Still, others have married and started families and also, in time welcomed grandchildren as well.
If nothing else, I have to look back at my career and say that I was a very fortunate person to not only have a job, but I was able to establish a nice period of tenure in two schools—both Catholic—and I survived public school. I worked in a charter school, an experience that I would not wish on anyone. I worked as a tutor. I was a teacher, a Dean of Discipline and, a job I still love, Assistant Principal.
My fondest memory is of each one of my students especially the ones I am still in touch with on Facebook. It is nice to know that they understood why I was in their life. I was there to educate them. I know that I wasn't as good at this like Mrs. Fryer, Mrs. Maggio, and Sister Josepha, but I knew that I was giving it my best. They showed their appreciation by coming back to say HI. I saw many of my students doing honorable things all over the region.
I remember a few occasions when I saw two of my former students who were police officers. One, Theresa, was fully decorated. It turns out that she was a captain with the New York City Transit Police. After 9/11/01, I made it a vow to shake the hand of every police officer, firefighter, EMT and any other rescue unit who saved people at Ground Zero. When I came out of the subway, I greeted her and she recognized me as her teacher I was not only proud to be her teacher, but I was as proud of her like I was her Dad.
One of my saddest days was when I found out that I lost a former student-Sargeant Andrew Seabrooks-in the war in Afghanistan in the early 2000's. I am proud of him, too.
Over the years, I found out that four things can happen to a teacher to let them know that they are doing a nice job. Some may even think that I did a great job. I honestly don't know what they are thinking. The first thing that one may encounter is that former students may come back and say two very important words, words that one may never expect to her. They were said to me many times: THANK YOU! The first time I heard that I was floored. The student wasn't coerced by anything other than gratitude. I've grown used to hearing it, but I've learned to never expect it because it means more when it comes as a true surprise. Believe me! I was quite surprised when I heard those words even from students who used to give me a run for the money in class. Seeing Theresa was a second surprise as I not only saw her and others, but I've heard stories where my former students went on to also become doctors, lawyers, and, yes, even teachers. That was the third surprise. I met a few former students of mine who did what I did. They also became teachers. I asked one, Elizabeth, why she became a teacher. She knew what to say and I did not even coax her. She cited me as one of her reasons. It was hard to hold back the tears that day because she was one of my favorites in her seventh-grade class the year I had her in my homeroom.
Another surprise that I found was when I met a child who informed me that I also taught their parents. To me, there is no greater joy than having a former student send their child to your room to be educated by you as well. I gave my student so much trust in me that they also wanted me to teach their child. I loved it.
There is an expression that is rather new to me. Someone once did something nice for me. They directed me to "pay it forward." This means that because someone did something nice for me, I, in turn, had to do nicely for someone else. In 2014, I decided to "pay it backward" if I can say that. I decided to go back to a person who did something nice for me and, in turn, do something nice for them.
I was fortunate enough in late 2013 to see my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Fryer. I put on my Knights of Columbus jacket and headed to her house. Although she was mobile and able to speak on her own, I could tell that time and age caught up with her. As I sat in her living room to speak with her, I could tell that either dementia or Alzheimers had set in. What did I know? I am no medical professional. All I knew is that her mind was severely malfunctioning. She first inquired about my sister Janice. I informed her that she had passed away in 1987. As I tried to move the conversation along, she asked about her again. Again, I repeated my earlier answer. This went on repeatedly. I knew at that point what was happening here. So, I concluded my mission by doing what I set out to do. I showed her all of my diplomas and told her what I should have said when I finished fifth grade back in June of 1967: Thank you, Mrs. Fryer, for all that you did for me. You truly influenced me to become a teacher.
She died the following year. I did not attend her funeral for a very simple reason. I was very happy to have seen her in time and was able to say my thanks to her while she was still alive. I did not want to attend her funeral and see her in a casket. Although she is dead, I did not want a memory in her burial box seared into my brain. Our last session together in her living room was excellent for me. They said that some people were looking for me to be there. Who they were was so not important to me. I did not care. I was satisfied because I already made my peace with her and that was fine with me.
My Favorite Teacher Mrs. Fryer and Me Together for the Last Time
One more thing that happened to me one day in 2005 was the fact that I got along with a class so well that I wanted to adopt them all as my children. They were that special to me. Usually, when a teacher gets a class, there are like one, two, maybe even ten students who stand out as favorites, the student that you never worry about because you get along so well with them. During the 2004/2005 school year, I had my first eighth-grade homeroom. For the first time in my career, I had a class that I was going to get into high school, prepare for graduation and to give my first ever graduation message. I did not take my tasks lightly.
That school year, I attended EVERY high school open house, every graduation meeting, ordered and paid for each graduation award, ordered gowns and set up the graduation itself. I wanted everything to be perfect. This was going to be the highpoint of my career.
Along the way, a few of my students surprised me with an honor I never saw before. The nominated me for Who's Who of America's Teachers. I was so touched by it. It came with a book. Inside of the book I received was a listing of all teachers in Americ who were accepted into this very exclusive group. I took it home and searched through it. When I was done, I only found two names I knew—mine and a buddy teacher of mine who worked across the hall from me and passed away in June of 2009. He was a guy who all the students in the school loved and respected. I showed him the book. No other teacher I have worked with since then has been listed. And to think that it was the students—MY STUDENTS—who bestowed that honor on me.
Conducting a School Science Fair
So, in closing, I must say goodbye to the profession, the vocation I loved the most. I was and still am so very proud that I was a teacher. I really enjoyed it without regrets. If I was given a chance to live my whole life over again, I would change some things, but I would never change my decision to become a teacher. Yes, it is a tough job despite the fact that outsiders think that it is an easy job. It is not. It is just that when you see teachers like a Mrs. Fryer, a Mrs. Maggio or a Sister Josepha you would think it is an easy job to do. It isn't. They just made it look easy because they were outstanding people. They were the Willie Mays, the Babe Ruths, the Hank Aarons of this job and could never be replaced. me? I was just the water boy who was called to the plate to hit Cy Young's baseball. It was a challenge that I was going to see to the very end. For me, the end is here.
I wish to thank the many people who helped me to arrive at this destination of my career. I wish to thank all of my super supportive friends like Bob Rediger, Mike Dutka, Nancy Presti-Baer, Mary Dino-Biordi, Maria Negherbon-Lanka, Bernadine Harding, Carla Adelle Aram, Susan Vitale-Lipman, Ann Morelli-Dellamonica, Anne Caravella-Warrick, Carl Yannotti, Ronald Cobbs, Gerry Lo, Tim Dunne, Vince Erario, Mala B. Walker, Linda Manzi, Sandy Ferrante and so many others who were always there not just physically at times, but always there spiritually as well. I wish to thank all of the teachers I mentioned here who were a true inspiration to me. Because of their outstanding examples to me, they made a great impression as to what real teachers are supposed to be. I thank all of the principals who gave me a shot at being a teacher especially Mr. John Crawford, my very first principal at I.S. 18X in the South Bronx, Mr. Lewis Trager, my principal at I.S. 109Q in Queens Village and Sister Catherine Roche O.P., my principal at St. Pius V School in Jamaica. I literally want to thank the THOUSANDS of parents who were nice enough to allow me to enter their life and help their children. I want to also thank the THOUSANDS of students like Elizabeth Marino, Emanuel Martins and Carole Eustache Mathews who I had the pleasure of having in my various classrooms in my various schools I worked in. I know that we had many good days and some challenging days as well. I truly hope that many of you did very well in life just like Theresa Tucker and Elizabeth Nobre and many others have done. Remember to "pay it forward" all the time. I want to also thank the many teachers who I have worked with and had the honor to call my friends especially Mr. Worthy (Eddie) Hudson and Mrs. Kathleen Rivera.
Finally, last but not the least in my life, I wish to thank the people who mean so much more to me. They were the most supportive people of all time. They put up with me and my antics for decades, but they always remained steadfast in their support and love for me and I did the same. Without them, I could not have accomplished as much as I did. No, I could not have accomplished anything without them. I love them so much and I am so glad and proud to call them my family: Dad, Mom, my sister Janice, my brother Arthur, Jasmine and her little family, Linda, Saki, Little Arthur, Tara-Lee, Tay-Lee, Amber, Tahir, and Ace. I also thank my Uncle Randy, Uncle Conrad, Aunt Barbara, my grandparents, Uncle Gene and Aunt Martha. Throw in my many cousins and my package of family love is complete. Thank you so very much. It has been a pleasure.
Now, I must end this chapter and close the book. It has been a wonderful journey. Thank you for helping me along the way. Take care and be well.