Teachers and Their Students
Inside Mr. Gallo’s World
Mr. Gallo was the kind of teacher who could make you feel … well, like you were at home. His eighth-grade civics class was a welcome respite to which I looked forward from the daily humdrum and a great way to end the school day.
You couldn’t help but notice Mr. Gallo’s physicality. His middle section looked as if he had swallowed a small boulder, barrel-chested with broad shoulders and topped off by a thick but barely visible neck upon which sat his exceedingly round, shiny, shorn head.
No! Mr. Gallo did not wax his scalp, but he did perspire a lot which would explain his sheen.His face was one of those which only a mother loves. His rather unhappy teeth would have caused even a seasoned dentist to wince, but he had a smile that shone like none other. His nose was broad and flattened as if it had known the impact of too many fists in his youth. All in all, his rather ogre-like appearance contrasted remarkably with his gentle and kind personal manner.
He once brought a half of a sheet cake to class and apportioned it so precisely each of the thirty children in the classroom received an equal portion. His precision was exacting, a punctilious man who strictly enforced his classroom rules. In other words, Mr. Gallo was a “stickler” for details. He once docked me ten points because I forgot to place a “period” after my middle initial in the heading of my assignment.
Kids learned in Mr. Gallo’s class-not only textbook civics but civic responsibility, not fear of but respect for law and order. Not surprisingly, he was an effective classroom manager, a “must” for any classroom teacher.
The Coatroom Mystery
“Pssst, hey ‘Rebbe’,” David whispered from behind his textbook he had stood on edge. Relishing a moment’s respite from textbook tedium, I watched him from where I sat across the room. David sat enviably directly behind her. I, on the other hand, hated my seating assignment.
“Shush!” she snapped at him, spinning sharply around, her twin-braided pigtails flying clockwise around her neck, barely brushing the tip of David’s nose. With a glare meant to chastise, she spun back around, the same braided pigtails returning counterclockwise. Her chastisement, however, neither delayed nor deflected the advances of her “adoring” admirer.
“Hey ‘Rebbe’, after school ‘ya wanna’ … ?”
“Shush David, please. Mr. Gallo’s ‘gonna’ hear you,” she implored sternly.
The boy ‘Rebbe’ “shushed” was David Tsurrismacher who annoyingly called her “Rebbe”, as did everyone else, everyone that is but me. Rebecca Shumacher, whose affections I jealously sought, lived just beyond the woods, a short dash from my house.
How she felt about David I really don’t know. To me he was an annoyance, like when the ink cartridge from those cheap fountain pens leaked onto your hands. Not really a bad kid as I look back, just mischievous … you know, impish. There were other impish kids besides him, even one rather “nerdy” fellow who admitted he read the dictionary in the bathroom. Hysterical, but I had similarly read the World Book Encyclopedia in what I used to call the “Christian Science Reading Room” so I kept my mouth shut.
“Pssst, Rebbe, Rebbe,” he persisted.
“Yea, that’s right David, keep on disturbing the class, please!” I muttered., Rebecca turned a pretty shade of red, her cheeks suffused with the hue of embarrassment. Mr. Gallo closed his grade book.
“Rebecca,” queried Mr. Gallo, his voice tinged with slight reproach.
“Yes, Mr. Gallo?”
“Do you have a question?”
“No, sir, I was just trying to …. Davi …”
Again, David ducked, smothering his giggling with the pages of Chapter 5, “City Government: How It Works For You”. Rebecca’s cheeks approached purple.
“Da-vid,” Mr. Gallo’s voice rose in pitch.
“Yes, sir,” he responded sniggeringly.
Mr. Gallo’s pate gleamed. He wiped his brow.
“Good David. Good. Keep it up. Mr. Gallo’s ‘gonna’ blow.”
It wasn’t longer than a moment.
“David, come with me, please.”
A pall of silence blanketed the classroom. I silently rejoiced.
Mr. Gallo rose deliberately from his chair. His desk, positioned precisely three floor tiles in front of and between rows three and four, seemed fashioned from a single tree trunk, as broad in girth as was he. Every eye followed him. He walked to his left, past rows five and six, the outermost row parallel to the coatroom, turned right and proceeded to the end of the aisle whereupon he took hold of the coatroom doorknob. With but a slight turn, he opened the door. It creaked. The class shuddered. Mr. Gallo nodded his head. David got up and shuffled over as if he were about to pass through the portals to the great unknown. Mr. Gallo followed, closing the door behind him.
The drama of the moment seemed interminable, as if filmed in slow motion. My eyelids grew heavy …
“It’s time.” He got up from his cot. Glanced at his wristwatch on the roughly hewn wooden table where he had eaten his last meal: ‘surf n turf’, three twice-baked potatoes, an ample serving of broccoli (“for my mother”, he is reported to have said), a stack of blueberry pancakes, a quart of milk and one chocolate mint. He dressed himself hours before after the final watch had begun.
“Captain, open it,” the warden ordered. Father John stood just behind the ring of guards, a rosary in one hand and in the other, a prayer book opened to Psalm 23, ‘Lord, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …”
My elbow slipped suddenly off the edge of the desk, I glanced around furtively. There had been no witnesses.
The class was hushed. A volcanic eruption was imminent.
We watched the clock. One, two … three minutes passed. Interminably. Slowly. Nary a sound. And just as the fourth began, the door opened. David emerged. Looking a little shaken up, he seemed relieved his ordeal had come to an end.
As for the rest of us, we never did find out what had gone on in the coatroom. We had heard nothing-neither shouting nor whimpering. It seemed Mr. Gallo had communicated his upset through the “sounds” of silence. ‘How would you feel if he glared at you for three minutes?’ Heck, I think I’d rather be yelled at. Oh sure, there was rampant speculation, outside the class especially. Mr. Gallo had read David the riot act in threatening undertone or that he had waved his right forefinger menacingly in front of David’s nose for three minutes. There were even those who circulated the rumor he had hung David up on a coat hook by his fruit loop.
I never believed any of the rumors. David, to my knowledge, told no one other than perhaps Rebecca though I never did ask her about it. The class as a whole, I suspect, was inclined to believe, though our eighth grade civics teacher may have looked like an ogre, he was more like … well, Shrek, I guess.
Twelve Years Later
The Week Begins at Resurrection School
The bell would ring in ten minutes. My time was running out.
I didn’t have a lesson ready for my seventh-grade religion class. The time was 7:50 a.m. on a Monday morning.
“Oh boy, I’m in trouble now,” I paced the hallway, trying to brainstorm.
“All I need now is for Father Jim to show up and see me unprepared.”
Resurrection School required all homeroom teachers to teach catechism on Monday morning from 8:00 to 8:40. I had the textbooks, but the material was as unknown to me as if it had been written in a foreign language. The odd thing was neither Father Frank, the parish pastor nor Sister Jayne, the principal of Resurrection School, ever questioned me about how a Jewish man would teach Catholic catechism.
With but one minute left before the bell, the entire religion lesson flashed before my mind’s eye. I raced back to my room. The 8:00 bell rang. The kids filed in from the hallway. I spotted Father Jim. He was headed toward my classroom. I shut the door behind me.
“Class, may I have your attention?” A small commotion ensued. Bernadette knocked her books on the floor.
“Over here everyone,” I tapped the chalk as loudly as I could on the blackboard. Father Jim snuck in and sat down by LeShaun. Several of the girls giggled. Kids liked him. Young, good looking and idealistic, he wanted to be the Kids' priest. I guess he thought he could relate.
I scanned the classroom of thirty seventh-graders, my kids, my
classroom, a first year teacher at Resurrection Parish School on Chicago’s west side.
I drew an enormous oval on the blackboard.
“Class, this is our universe as we understand it,” I began, adding the
planets at different points in their elliptical revolutions around the sun.
“Hmm, good. The kids are paying attention, Father Jim is smiling. Seems interested. Okay, where is Fidelito? Ah, there you are.
All in all, a good class, but one kid in particular stood out … Fidel. I called him “Fidelito” occasionally, little Fidel, the ace up my sleeve.
They say it’s in the eyes. Fidelito’s shone with the sparkle of natural intelligence. He was the kind of kid every teacher needs in the pinch. Smart and enjoyable most of the time, he’s the kind of kid who can answer a question like an adult and, in the next instant, return to his childhood.
“Class,” I continued, “imagine our planet and everybody who lives on it, the billions and billions of people as ONE, lumped together. Got it?” Thirty heads nodded up and down.
“Now, am I correct to place this gigantic ONE at the center of our universe?” pointing to the radiant celestial body I had placed in the center of my oval.
“No,” responded the class enthusiastically. “It’s the sun, the sun.”
“Very good, so we are not the center of the universe-not you, not me, none of us,” I said while looking at Fidel. And the creator of all of this?” I asked while redrawing the ovals of my universe with what little remained of my chalk.
Fidel’s hand shot up. “Yes, Fidel,” I acknowledged him.
“God, God is the Creator.” I gave him a “thumbs up”. He grinned broadly.
“Now, tell me this. Where is God?” I asked.
“Yesss … Fidel!”
“Everywhere. God is everywhere!!” Fidel triumphantly exclaimed.
“And …” I tried to draw him out.
“And … ? But, but,” Fidel sputtered.
“But what, Fidelito?”
“Class, what Fidel may be trying to say is our lives are like the planets. No one is at the center. We are born, we die, but God- who is everywhere-is eternal. He sets the planets in motion. Understood?”
Heads nodded.Father Jim pushed his chair our from Leshaun’s table, slapped his knees with his hands and got up to leave. “Thanks be to God!” he exclaimed, looking quite pleased. Adjusting his Roman collar on the way out, he paused at the door.
“Good day kids!”
“Seeya Father Jim.”
The bell rang again, ending a good start to the new week.
“Fidel, be quiet please.”
“Yes, Mr. Busch.”
It was that most precious time of day, silent reading, when each kid prepared himself for his book interview with me.Truth be told, I knew almost nothing about running the Random House reading program other than ... ‘Keep the kids quiet.’
They never taught us this stuff at the university.
“Fidel, please be quiet.”
“Yes sir,” he responded sniggeringly.
“Okay, I’ll give him one more chance, then I’ll …”
Several moments of silence ensued.
Then the unsettling effect of that same sole voice, unmistakably Fidel’s, spread to his entire group table. He had transformed a studious table of six seventh-graders into a giggly cabal. I had to do something.
“God, what if Sister Jane walks in?” I alarmed myself.
In Sister Jayne’s Office Several Days Before
“Alan, please, take a seat.”
I was very nervous, my first review by Sister Jayne Daly, the principal of Resurrection School.
“Thank you Sister,” trying to be and appear as pleasantly unconcerned as possible.
Alan, the seventh grade is a tough age.”
“Yea, it sure is,” I said agreeably. I kept smiling, adding a nod and a “uh huh” here and there.
“You know classroom management is the prerequisite for effective learning.”
“Yes, Sister, I do.” Something was up. I fidgeted in my chair.
“You’re having some difficulties in that area, aren’t you?” She was right. Thirty seventh graders against one twenty-two year old freshman teacher. Frankly, I did not like the odds.
“Well, Sister you just said it’s a tough age, right?”
“Indeed I did, but what would you say to a little assistance?”
“I’d come and observe your class for an hour or two every day until I see the situation improving.”
“Sister Jayne, if you do that, I’m done for. I’d lose all credibility with those kids. Remember you hired me to take charge of that class. I’m the expert,” I asserted.
“My God, is she ‘gonna’ buy this? I hardly believe it myself.”
Don’t misunderstand. I liked Sister Jayne, respected her. She was a diminutive leader who inspired a balance of fear and respect by walking softly and carrying a big stick. But that was precisely my point. Were she to ‘visit’ my classroom, sure the kids would be well-behaved, but not due to anything I had done. Sister Jayne considered my plea thoughtfully.
“Alan, you’re right, of course, my coming to your class will not make of you a better classroom manager. You’re on your own. She smiled knowingly, letting go of the pencil she had been twirling between her third and fourth fingers. She had seen this before.
“Thank you Sister. See you tomorrow.” I waved.
Dealing With Fidel …
As much as I liked Fidel, I had to act. Swiftly and decisively.
“Fidel, step outside, please.”
He scraped his chair legs on the floor as he pushed himself back from the table. I relished the pervasive hush. I scanned the room. Twenty nine heads snapped back into silent reading mode, noses barely off the printed page.
Fidel sulked out of the classroom, head bent, shoulders slumped, hands thrust into pockets. I strode out after him.
“So … this is what Mr. Gallo must have felt like.”
We stood facing each other in the hallway, eye to ... chin (his eye, my chin).
“Fidel,” I began.
His wide eyes stared up. He swallowed, his Adam’s Apple bobbing.
“Remember Mr. Gallo’s approach,” I reminded myself, squinting, trying to look fearsome.
“Fidel,” I spoke now barely above a whisper.
“Yes, Sir, Mr. Busch,” he swallowed a second time.
“Fidel, I like you. You’re a good kid. Did I mention how pleased I was with you in religion class yesterday?”
“Well, I was.”
“Gee …uh, thanks,” his eyebrows knitted together.
“You disturbed silent reading this morning, Fidel, twice. You know that good classroom management is essential for the class to learn, you do know that, right, Fidel?”
“Uh, yea … I mean ‘yes sir’ Mr. Busch.”
“Good. But at this moment, the very worst thing I can say to you is …”
I paused deliberately to make him sweat. He gulped a huge breath as if about to take a plunge under water.
“May you be blessed with a son one day who is as bright as you are.”
Utter, pin-dropping silence!
“Huh?” his mouth agape.
Fidel’s face at that moment could have been the pictorial definition of “nonplussed” on one of those refrigerator magnets-you know the ones with all the facial expressions.
“Remember what we said about our not being at the center, Fidelito,
He looked blank. “You’ll understand. Just not right now,” I opined sagely. I smiled contentedly, knowing I did as well as Mr. Gallo had done. Fidel appeared bewildered but visibly relieved-as if the jury foreman had said “not guilty”.
I turned the doorknob. The shuffling of feet and the clatter of chairs made a huge racket as Fidel’s classmates scrambled to return to their places. He preceded me. I followed, sat down at my desk, quite pleased. The bell rang.