There was Mercer Street Books, Strand on Broadway, Barnes and Nobles on 8th Street, and a half dozen guys that set up tables on the sidewalk outside the NYU library hawking used paperbacks. Much of my free time in college was spent walking the streets of Greenwich Village in search of books and a sense of self. Those were the places where I bought my copy of Kerouac’s On the Road, Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and so many more books that I have to this day.
I was studying the great writers not only because I was interested in pursuing a career in journalism at the time, but I also saw books as Emily Dickinson did when she wrote “there is no frigate like a book, to take us miles away.” Just as the students of NYU connected me to people and cultures from around the world, expanding me beyond my small town on Long Island, books were transporting me in time and place, connecting me to human experiences across continents and over the centuries. A love of books and a desire to share that experience brought me to teaching.
I wanted to become a teacher because, as Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach, “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” Books helped shape my identity. From Peggy O’Brien’s Shakespeare Set Free I learned how empower students to perform Shakespeare, not just read it passively. Carol Jago, in With Rigor for All, taught me that challenging books could be rewarding to teach. Peter Elbow modeled an approach that ignites a passion for writing in A Community of Writers.
Yet, much like my NYU experience, books weren’t the sole reason why I chose the profession, people were as well. I wanted to honor and emulate the good educators in my life. My high school coach, Bob Hodgson, was a pillar in my formative years. While he taught me basketball, he coached me to believe in myself and to recognize the strength of a team over an individual. In 11th grade, my U.S. History teacher, Bill Hennessey, didn’t just illuminate the genius of Lincoln and the brashness of Teddy Roosevelt, he empowered me to think like a historian rather than a student of history. Mrs. Rampone, my second grade teacher, showed me how to multiply and write, but even more enduring, she inspired a love for numbers and words that continues to this day.
While books and people were influential, I also chose to become a teacher because I saw it as an act of patriotism. Good teachers contribute to a more just society, one that is literate and informed. I chose teaching because I wanted to do so much more than follow a curriculum — I wanted to inspire, spark curiosity, and captivate. I believed teaching would allow me to listen to students that needed direction, that were searching for wisdom. I became a teacher because I believed then as much as I do now that there is a right book for each student, and a book does have the power to change lives.
I took all these beliefs, experiences, and mentors with me into my first classroom at Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem. Since then I have taught in three more schools, covering the gamut of grade levels and abilities. New mentors have emerged. Other books have entered my constellation. Yet, what remained constant through the years are the students. With more than a decade of classroom experience, they have taught me that they are more wonderful, diverse and inspiring than any Shakespearean play or Whitman poem. They have given me the sense of self that I was searching for all those years ago as I walked the streets of New York City. And the true honor of teaching is that I get to help them begin their own journey.