"Big Four" Highlights


The Catholic Difference

A veteran teacher is reborn in the Bronx

By William Athanasidy

(This story is published in observance of Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2016)

I started substitute teaching in New York City inner city schools in 1986 after five years of active Air Force duty. Military life could be tough, but public school teaching had its own challenges. Basically, I was babysitting hormonally jacked-up high school students. After taking coursework that resulted in a permanent teaching license, I landed a full-time position in middle school and high school, got married, and settled down to a home and family.

Thirty years later, I felt spent, burned out. Maybe it was the dysfunctional parents threatening me with straight razors, the 12-year-olds bleeding out on me in squad cars after being shot on school grounds, the stabbings, the incessant fights, or lack of discipline. My experience was the negation of all I had thought school should be, and I was glad to retire.

I had broken my leg and my hip was arthritic. I had just learned my beautiful, autistic son had a cancer scare and I was, frankly, tired of correcting students who refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or show any concern for education. Thuggery, apathy and disdain for rules had taken their toll. Yes, I remembered the kids I had helped who returned to thank me through the years, but I was having a tough time forgetting the bedlam in between.

Yet at age 57, with three teenagers, I could not spend my days reclining in the backyard as mental atrophy set in. Three weeks after my retirement date I saw an ad for a teaching position at a legendary Bronx Catholic high school. As a product of the Catholic school system through graduate school, I decided to apply.

Entering the building for an interview, I noticed immediately how well-kept and collegiate the hallways appeared. But what impressed me even more were the young men. Quiet, responsible, confident. These inner-city kids were gentlemen. The school’s spirit that they radiated captured me. As I sat for my initial and subsequent interviews, I don’t know if I showed enchantment with the place, but I definitely wanted to work there. It must have shown, for they offered me the position.

It was a happy revelation. Jackets, ties, respect. Immaculate rooms, eager personnel. A senior staff of classroom and administrative veterans with decades of experience, who were willing to help this newcomer. I began to realize that my classroom burnout was only temporary. For the first time in years, I was eager to teach.

Why was my mood so ebullient? I believe it was a connection—a remembrance of my own schooling by clergy and laity who treated me like a responsible adult from grade school on. The staff was professional and caring without cliques or an “us vs. them” mentality regarding the administration or student body. The whole school was in the task of education as a team.

The inculcation of responsibility to the young men in our charge was backed by rules. Discipline was formalized in procedures and enforced by deans whose only job was discipline. Justice under God was the motto engraved over the detention room door. I noticed that the JUG room was filled mainly by freshmen; upperclassmen had become self-disciplined. The system worked.

There were rituals. Homeroom silence for morning announcements and prayer at the beginning of each class. Students standing facing the flag and reciting the Pledge after morning prayers. Camaraderie and pride in the school’s past and present. Athletes were truly scholars. Students competed for good grades. I started a robotics club and got an immense response with volunteers eager to run it for me. And there was something else, a sense of family.

We lost a student to a tragic accident over the Thanksgiving break. The family was invited to a Memorial Mass in the auditorium with 1,000 students and faculty bearing reverential witness to their son’s life. There was a collection to defray funeral costs. I was never more deeply moved in my career.

On reflection, I feel reborn as a teacher, awakened from a lethargy born of longing. I seem to have found my niche in this stage of my life; perhaps I just had to be reminded of the true wisdom of a religious education.

What is its magic? I believe it is based on a heighted sense of belonging to a community, and not simply to yourself. I can’t help but think back to my own high school years when a day routinely meant new accomplishments, new insights, old friendships reinforced, and a sense of “we’re all in this together.” Underlying it all was a realization that there is a religious purpose to our education; a basis for service, a foundation for our lives.

It took a return to the Catholic schooling I had grown up with to remind me that teaching isn’t just a job. It is a vocation we are privileged to take on for the sake of the next generation.

William Athanasidy lives with his wife and their three children in Westchester, New York.