When I began my freshman year at Bowie High School in 1992, I had lived in the state of Texas for a total of four days. I walked into school with my older brother at my elbow, and the promise of a new start at a new school.
English class was where I was home, having considered myself a writer since my third grade teacher told me I was. Because of late registration, I couldn't get into an honors class. So, on the first day of freshman year, I found myself standing in the doorway of Mr. Cavallaro's classroom. The population seemed a mix of little mousy kids and second year freshmen. And Mr. Cavallaro... well, I didn't even see that man coming.
Mr. Cavallaro was a 6'2" New York Italian, having arrived from doing 25-years to life at an inner city public high school. By some twist of fate, he wound up in this suburban wealthy neighborhood. He was irritable, salty, and more filled with life than any teacher I had encountered before. He paced the floor like a madman. He would shout and sing and act out words from books, then throw them on the floor in dramatic finality. He wanted to talk about life, and passion, and the god-awful southern hospitality. He shirked the good'o'boy administration of the school. He let students sit on top of their desks, shout out in class, and he would stop a lesson right smack in the middle if something more interesting was brought up. I remember sitting in my desk, in a near constant state of awe, asking myself, "Can a teacher do that?" If this was high school, I was in. Being in Mr. Cavallaro's class felt like being part of a strange dark society, and somehow I had divined the secret knock.
I have had so many amazing teachers and professors, and each has their place in my scholastic heart. But as I walked into a classroom again in January (after a 13 year absence from teaching), I am remembering Mr. Cavallaro with a particular fondness. I'm teaching freshman English.
Looking back, I can see him with adult eyes. He was probably unhappy in Texas; he was a rebel and a disturber of the peace. He barely eked out the required curriculum, if he did any at all. He was annoyed with our suburban middle-class goodness and innocence, from time to time, sorely missing the challenge of his inner-city New York "thugs" (as he affectionately called them). Among my cast of memorable English teachers, most of them were better at teaching English than Cavallaro. They challenged me, graded my essays with thought and encouragement, and even found ways to make the curriculum exciting.
But there is no mistaking that there was a quality of his classroom that cannot be erased with time. We were a part of it. The students helped to form it with our own ideas and thoughts and questions. When the bell rang each day, our spell was broken, and we walked out into our own worlds. We nodded to each other in the hallway, sometimes shaking our heads and smiling about the crazy antics of our teacher. He was something special.
And as I stand at the front of the room with my freshmen sitting quietly in their seats, it's Cavallaro's spirit that rises in me, and not the other sages of my English past. His is the one that says to each student, "You belong here. This is a special place where you are safe, and wonder is encouraged, and the unexpected is a delight."