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The Man With the Handlebar Mustache!

October 19, 2014 16 comments
Uncle Jacob 1988

©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Fall bursts with bright colors, Oktoberfests and beer, memories from my childhood and the man with the handlebar mustache.

Memories are a curious thing. They come in the form of a person’s personal perspective. Each situation, event or conversation, means something different to all those involved, and also to those not involved. We give different meanings, according to our belief systems, and how we are affected by the event. In Other words, we don’t see things as they are necessarily; we see things as we are. (http://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/perspectives.htm)

The following is my perception and memories of a man who I am truly grateful to have had in my life.

The sun had set and I remember watching the glow of the red sky slowly fade to black. It had been a long day, a great day of blueberry picking but it was late now and clearly we were lost. It felt like hours since we’d left my parents. Maybe it was. Somehow, we missed where they turned. The back roads of the Catskill Mountains are endless, nameless and windy. There were no maps or street lights to guide you on these less traveled roads. I can’t recall everyone who was in that pale blue Volkswagen bus with me that evening, I think my brother was, maybe my sister too but I remember the mood perfectly: content and tired, despite being lost. I think I was seven or eight-years old. Another thing I remember for sure; I wasn’t scared. I felt safe. It was another adventure. Finally, we came upon a tavern and stopped for directions. We followed him inside the small watering hole and waited patiently, spinning ourselves on bar stools as he drank from a frosty mug, no doubt making new friends while he inquired about our whereabouts and how to get back to the Parkway.

This remains one of my earliest memories of the man with the handlebar mustache.

He wasn’t a “blood” relative but we were close like family and called him Uncle anyway. Uncle Jacob (pronounced Yahck-up) lived with his family, his wife and three sons in an affluent part of Westchester, NY, a short walk from Rye Beach and Playland Amusement Park where their famous boardwalk was featured at the end of the movie “Big”, when the “Zoltar the Magnificent” fortune teller machine returned the adult Tom Hanks to his original childhood age/state of being. As a kid I roamed that boardwalk with my siblings a million times over. My family spent lots of weekend time at the house in Rye. Uncle Jacob and my Dad were very good friends. Shortly after my Dad immigrated to this country from Germany, Uncle Jacob gave him a job as a painter’s apprentice and a place to live. That was over 50-years ago. Back then, an immigrant coming to the United Sates had to have a job and a place to live so as not to be a burden on society.

VW Bus

Trip to Niagara Falls most likely 1963 with the two families. This is actually my Dad’s VW Bus but Uncle Jacob had a very similar one. My Dad is in the driver’s seat. Tante Theresa behind him. Richard (the middle of the three sons) is in the passenger seat. ©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Uncle Jacob’s wife, Tante Theresa, was an amazing cook and made the best Sunday dinners and chocolate chip cookies you ever had. For real. The three boys were older than me and my siblings. I can’t say I had a relationship with any one of them in particular but I do believe that a life-long bond that exists among family members was created between us during those years and beyond. They knew my Dad before he got married, before we were born. They were patient with us when we came over. I remember watching them and my Dad play with this huge train or racing car track that Uncle Jacob built for them. It was on a wooden board as big as a bed, in fact it retracted onto the wall just like a Murphy Bed. It was a fun, comfortable place to be in, like home and even though the neighborhood was a quiet and reserved one, Uncle Jacob’s house was anything but quiet and reserved.

Looking back I realize Uncle Jacob was the most progressive man I’ve ever known.

Still.

To. This. Day.

Uncle Jacob

L to R: Me, Uncle Jacob & My Sister ©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Everything I experienced at that house was unique and unusual although it all seemed quite normal at the time. As a child, I loved Uncle Jacob but it’s only now as an adult that I truly appreciate the happy, wonderful, exciting things he introduced and exposed me to.

I think of him with the same kind of respect I have for Jean Piaget, John Dewey and Ralph Waldo Emerson and realize how amazingly lucky I was to have had this man’s influences infiltrate my childhood. My schooling occurred behind the stone cold walls of a small, strict catholic school but much of my learning occurred under the indirect tutelage of the man with the handlebar mustache. He was a natural teacher demonstrating a hands-on approach to living and learning. He was a modern day Dr. Doolittle only instead of having an English accent; his was German occasionally slurred by a happy consumption of wine or beer. Like the Pied Piper too, children and adults were drawn to him and his charismatic ways.

Let me explain.

In addition to being a house painter by trade, he was a musician and a singer. Actually, he was a party on two feet, a walking Oktoberfest, all-year-round. He played the accordion. Always and everywhere.

He was a butcher. One time he and my dad bought a pig and among other things, made sausage in his basement, letting me hold the clear, thin casing while he cranked out the ground up sausage meat into it. Another time they bought a calf. We ate veal every day in every way for about a year. I don’t eat veal as an adult.

And yet another time when my younger brother wandered into the basement and as he puts it,

One minute there was a chicken running around and the next minute Uncle Jacob laid it on the butcher block and chopped it’s head off.

Dinner.

He was a farmer, growing tomatoes and other vegetables, and berries along the perimeter of the square shaped fence that surrounded the patch of grass that was his back yard.

©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Me & my baby who I named Rabbit in Rye. ©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Peter Rabbit

My younger brother, Peter w/ a rabbit in Rye. ©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

He raised rabbits. I remembering playing house with them in their living room, dressing them up and rocking them in my arms like I would a baby doll.

He was a Bee Keeper and for some time, kept his bees in boxes on the roof of his quiet little house in the affluent city of Rye. One summer, when I was 10 or 11, he gave me and my friend a job building bee hive frames. He showed us how to hammer and wire them. He treated us like we were capable. At the end of the day he paid us with jars of honey. Soon after, a neighbor complained and called the police. Uncle Jacob called the newspaper and had me come back and go up on the roof where the bees were to show them how safe it was. Eventually, they made him move the bees.

We had freedom to explore in and out and around his house. There was a small concrete swimming pool that was enclosed by a gate on the property that we swam in often, amongst the huge green lily pads and giant orange gold fish that he kept in it.

He made my brother his first fishing pole out of a stick and some twine and helped him catch his first fish with it.

He was a swimmer and swam in the Long Island Sound, probably every night. He would walk to a small alcove with his flippers in hand and his best friend, Horste, by his side. Horste was his dog, I think he was a coonhound. Sometimes we would go and watch him and Horste swim together.

Uncle Jacob and my Dad would lay in the living room on a Sunday afternoon reading the German newspaper or watching soccer, my Dad on the couch and Uncle Jacob on the floor. Uncle Jacob would call us over one by one and tell us to walk on his back to massage his weary muscles.

As I grew older and became more preoccupied with my own life and living, going to college and working, my personal contact lessened and at some point Uncle Jacob left his house in Rye to go live where his heart was, in the back woods of the Catskill Mountains. I never got to see his place there but my mom used to refer to it as Jacob’s Chutzpah! I imagined it to be a place where animals and people could dwell in an uncomplicated way. Tante Theresa remained for the most part in the house in Rye and I was told that when Uncle Jacob would come down from the mountains to visit his grandchildren he’d bring a baby chick or a bunny rabbit in his coat pocket on the train for them to see and hold and play with.

Jacob

©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Needless to say, not everyone he came in contact with appreciated his carefree nature and unfortunately, or fortunately, a neighbor who didn’t enjoy his unconventional ways of living (or German music maybe?) had him arrested on a DUI one night after playing at a local party. He was put in a small-town, back woods jail for a few months, to teach him a lesson. Needless to say, sitting idle in a cell didn’t sit well with Uncle Jacob. He asked for a can of paint and a paint brush. By the time his sentence was served, his cell and the whole jailhouse for that matter was left with a fresh coat of paint on its walls, compliments of the man with the handlebar mustache.

Is there someone in your life that had a huge, positive impact on you as a child?

I’d love to hear about them.

The Child Whisperer

March 11, 2012 25 comments

The flip-side of last week’s post thankfully, is that there are many amazing teachers that devote their whole lives to educating children. These people influence who we are in the most positive of ways, for life. Children do not forget who they are. They too are remembered and cherished forever.

In the Spring of 2001, curiosity got the better of me. My quest to find the right preschool for my overly active, precocious, almost 3-year-old son, finally provided the opportunity for me to see what was really going on in the mysterious looking Victorian house that sits majestically upon a hill overlooking the busy-ness of Route 9D. Little did I know as I walked into the hallway that echoed with song and laughter, that in-between the walls of this house that was a school, magic happened.

We were met by the cheerful smile of a woman who greeted us in the same friendly way you might be greeted by a favorite aunt. She introduced herself as Diane. We later found out that she was actually the Head Teacher of the Downstairs Program and an Administrator. The Downstairs portion of the house belongs to the 3, 4 and 5-year old learners. Immediately after introducing herself, she turned her attention to her real interest; the fidgety, inquisitive, little person clutching my leg with one hand and squeezing my arm with the other. She positioned herself on bended-knee to meet my boy; to see him, face-to-face, and as soon as I witnessed this act of immense respect from an adult educator to a 3-year-old child, I knew we had just walked into a very, very special place.

There is something about looking a person in the eye when you speak to them that makes them feel like you are sincerely interested in who they are and what they have to say and she was. He could tell.

You can’t fool children. Instinctively, they know sincerity.

My Noah, thrilled to be standing on the back of a hay truck during a visit to the farm with Diane. Preschool 2001

Diane wasn’t my son’s group teacher until two years later, but being the head of the Downstairs team, her influences and interactions were intertwined with all of the children. In his second year there, at age 4, having no trouble expressing himself verbally or physically among his peers, Diane “shadowed” Noah on the playground. Being the Child Whisperer* that she is, she followed him in his play, gently helping him choose kinder words and actions when he mingled with his friends.

Friends. That’s what Diane calls all of her students.

Okay, friends, it’s time to clean up the block room or Okay friends, we are going to get ready for lunchtime circle now.  

Diane and Hannah playing with the play-dough she brought to our house.

Part of the school’s tradition was for the Downstairs’ teachers to make home visits to the children in their groups before school began in September. Twice we’ve been thrilled to welcome Diane into our home; once when my son was in her kindergarten group and again, before the start of my daughter’s first year at the Randolph School. Diane was her preschool teacher. She came bearing soft, freshly made play-dough to an unbelievably excited three-year-old fairy.

      Talk about leaving a lasting impression!

This amazing teacher does not limit her generous nature to the children in her group. My daughter was struggling with writing in the second grade while in the Upstairs portion of this glorious house that is a school and where the older kids, first through fifth graders claim their domain. After asking me how Hannah was doing one day, I mentioned this to Diane who then took it upon herself to become her pen-pal that summer. Each envelope that arrived in our mailbox contained a hand written note and then some. Sparkly-feathery, sticker-y, lovely, glittery things would come pouring out before the letter.

The smallest act of kindness has the power to leave a very big, positive impact on a person’s life.

When my son was in kindergarten and told Diane he was playing the lottery for the first time, she told him to call her at home that night to let her know if he won. Had he won, no doubt, his reaction would have paled in comparison to the excitement he was overcome with when it came time to call Diane at her house and tell her he didn’t win.

Another time my son was scheduled to be in After-school but was the only child enrolled that afternoon. After bringing that to my attention the After-school teacher asked me if it would be okay to cancel. Since I only put him in because he wanted to stay at school, I agreed. This news was a huge disappointment to my little first grader and he through a massive fit on the porch of the school. That evening after speaking with him and hearing how much he was looking forward to being in After-school, I realized I had made a grave mistake by so willingly accepting the cancellation, simply because he was the only child enrolled. The next day, I sought Diane out and explained what happened. I asked her what the school’s policy was if there was only one child enrolled in the After-school program. Her response was swift and clear.

If one child wants to come to After-school, we have After-school.  Now, she said, there’s one thing left for us to do.

With that, she called over the After-school teacher. The two of them went Upstairs, retrieved my son from class, apologized to him, hugged him and invited him to stay in After-school that day.

Truly extraordinary.

Diane seining in the Hudson River with another amazing teacher and their preschoolers. Noah, first in line, is like a sponge, soaking up everything they do and say.

Whether it’s a tender heart that needs mending, a river that begs seining or a rocket that needs launching, Diane has been soothing little souls, helping them to feel capable and confident in who they are, what they can do and who they might become since 1978 at the Randolph School.

 Don’t get your liver in a quiver she’ll tell them when they begin to fret.

5-year-old Hannah launching her rocket with Diane.

A person who can consistently touch the lives of the people she comes in contact with, both big and small and make each one of them, myself included, feel special nearly every time she interacts with them has an EXTRAORDINARY gift. Truly.

That is Diane.

My children are better people for having been taught by Diane. I’m a better person for knowing her and having the honor of “over-hearing” how she speaks with and teaches children for the past six years while I quietly work across the hall from the Great Room where she spends much of her time with her friends.

A few months ago Diane announced that this will be her last year teaching in the big house that is a school and as inevitable as it was, the news has surely saddened many. No matter where Diane goes however, her influence, kindness and ability to make everyone she meets feel special will live on in our hearts, always. She is the teacher, the colleague, the friend that changes your life in the most positive of ways.

It is befitting that this weekend, Diane is presenting a workshop with a former student, who is now her young colleague and who is also bursting with similar magical qualities, at a conference in New York City entitled, In Defense of Childhood: Keeping the Joy of Learning Alive!

She’s been doing exactly that for nearly 34-years.

As my soon to be 11-year-old fairy who’s been receiving birthday and Christmas surprises from this teacher every year for almost as long as she’s been at this school would say so matter-of-factly…

 “Mom. She’s Diane!”

Is there a Diane that has positively impacted your life?

Photo Credit #1 The Randolph School

Photo Credit #2-6 Karen Szczuka Teich & http://www.takingtheworldonwithasmile.com

Title Credit: *Child Whisperer Thank you, Nicole for letting me borrow this description of Diane from you!

The Devil Made Him Do It!

October 16, 2011 8 comments

Either that, or it was his funny bone!

©2007 NHT Noah Henry Teich

Some people are just naturally funny. They don’t have to try hard. The joke just kind of flows out of them, or their PowerPoint presentation.

I ask you, what’s life without a little humor?

Seriously. I know this 15-year old sophomore who happens to be a funny guy and who happens to go to a Catholic school. I went to Catholic school from Kindergarten to 12th grade. Anyone who has ever gone to Catholic school knows, funny and religion do-not-mix-well. Do one “funny” thing and you’re immediately slapped with the “class clown” label for as long as you go to that school. Being the class clown in Catholic school can mean countless hours of detention, clapping the erasers (cause they still have erasers) or worse; points taken off grades. It can mean being called out of class and calls made home, to parents; not to mention purposeful, public scoldings designed to put you in the position of becoming the “example” for any other student who might be thinking humor belongs in school. Thus, the funny guy becomes the fall guy.

In short, Catholic School is 99.9% serious business. Recently, my funny friend, fell.

Here’s what happened:

The  Religious Assignment

Make a PowerPoint presentation talking about the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The Back Story

Saint Juan Diego

According to tradition, on December 9, 1531 Juan Diego, a young, simple indigenous peasant, had a vision of a young woman while he was on a hill in the Tepeyac desert, near Mexico City. The lady told him to build a church exactly on the spot where they were standing. He told the local bishop, who asked for some proof. He went back and had the vision again. He told the lady that the bishop wanted proof, and she said “Bring the roses behind you.” Turning to look, he found a rose bush growing behind him.He cut the roses, placed them in his poncho and returned to the bishop, saying he had brought proof. When he opened his poncho, instead of roses, there was an image of the young lady in the vision. (Manga Hero)

St. Juan Diego is proof that God uses those who are most humble to do His work. By all accounts, Juan Diego, was a humble and young man.

Serious stuff.

My young, sophomore friend, who also happens to be an honor student, put all of this serious information into his Power Point presentation, only when it came time to reveal Juan Diego’s likeness, my funny friend flashed this image to his class:

Saint Juan Diego - maybe

Come on, now THAT is funny!

Needless to say, this startling, daring, depiction of the young, blessed Saint Juan Diego in my friend’s Power Point presentation brought the class to pandemonium to put it mildly; uncontrollable laughter burst onto the scene, requiring the teacher to admonish the class several times before order was restored.

The Consequence

Being called out of the next class. A call home to the parents. 18 points taken off the final grade, giving this slacker an 82 out of 100% on the report and a mandatory apology letter to the teacher (at the teacher’s request, of course).

Inside information from the mom: apology letter number one, had to be scratched when the boy, after saying he was sorry to the teacher, said he only did it to try to keep the rest of the students from falling asleep in class. “Kudos”, I say for at least being truthful.

 Was it worth the laugh?  I asked him.

Yes. It was totally worth the laugh. I thought these Power Points could use some funny moments.

There you have it and again, there’s got to be something said for the honesty here, not to mention, you are witnessing a comedian in the making.  I sent the boy $10 in the mail along with a note telling him not to be disrespectful but never to lose his sense of humor.

The world needs more levity if you will; more laughter.

The Result

Not only will every student  in that religion class remember the story of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, always and forever, they will remember it, with a smile on their face.

The Disclaimer

While the views expressed by this student do in fact reflect those of this author, ABSOLUTELY NO DISRESPECT is meant toward the Catholic church, its teachers or teachings.

I’m Catholic. I went to Catholic school and I only WISH some kid had the moxie to do something–anything to cause the type of uproar and uncontrollable laughter in class that this boy did.

It would have made the whole experience more human, with more humor.

Photo Credit #1  ©2007 Noah Henry Teich

(All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced.)

Photo Credit #2 Saint Juan Diego

Photo Credit #3 Forwarded From The Nameless Catholic Boy

It’s Not That Easy Being Green

September 25, 2011 16 comments

“It’s not that easy being green …but green’s the color of spring and green can be cool and friendly like and green can be big like an ocean or important like a mountain or tall like a tree.”  ~ Kermit the Frog

So, it’s the first full week back to school and at the end of my work day on Friday, the Director and Fitness teacher ask me to take off my “office” hat so they can speak to me as a “parent”.

You know this can’t be good.

It’s about my 10-year old daughter of course and it seems there was an issue in her fitness class. There are 25 multi-aged children in this class on Mondays and Fridays and my little “lemon drop” happens to be the oldest. Many of the younger kids look up to her, literally. She is also the tallest kid in the school and would perhaps be, by any other standard expected to “set the example” maybe?

“Ahem.”

Okay. So, it seems my little “apple dumpling” is the only one, out of these 25 kids that said “no” and flat out refused to sign a goal oriented agreement that has the following requirements:

  1. Everyone feels safe and no one gets hurt.
  2. Everyone has an equal chance to enjoy each game.
  3. Everyone learns how to be a better team member.
  4. Everyone has fun.

Not unreasonable, in fact when queried, my little “butter-cup” said she had no problem with setting these goals as a group. She just didn’t understand why she had to sign her name to it.

Her argument:

“They know me, Mom.

I just don’t know why my ‘word’ isn’t good enough anymore.

If they don’t trust my word what difference does my signature make?

Either they trust me or they don’t.

Besides, it didn’t  say ‘pacificly’ that it was for fitness only.

I am the biggest kid — in the entire school. What if I hurt another kid by accident?”

They know her, indeed. She was welcomed by this school well before she ever spent her first full day there as a student at the age of three. From the time she was about 9-months old, she would tag along on school trips to the farm, to pick apples, pumpkins and attend theater shows with her older brother’s class. When she finally got there, it was in this fine progressive, hands-on learning environment that she was truly encouraged to be herself, to think, to ask and to imagine. She was the child who wore a communion veil to class every day for the second half of second grade, even though she never made her communion. She’s the kid who never wears matching socks and when I tell her in the morning…

“You either brush your hair or wear a hat to school,”

…nine times out of ten, she chooses the hat.

This school nurtured her, told her in no uncertain terms that she had a voice and helped her to find it, so there was really no disrespect when she said “no.” Her response, in effect was a culmination of seven years of being taught the importance of being your own person.

That day, she was told that if she wasn’t going to sign the paper, she wouldn’t be able to participate in the fitness program. She would have to sit out, and she did. That’s the price isn’t it, of taking a stand or being different, not following the crowd, standing up for something you believe in, even if you’re the only who believes in it? There could be a consequence.

There could also be a compromise, which is why I love this school.

After a few discussions with her fitness teacher (who just happens to be a former student of this fine school) the two exchanged positions and she understood the need for all the kids in the class to know they were all on the same page. She agreed to verbally acknowledge the four points and she did not have to sign her name. A resolution born out of mutual respect.

Many of the younger kids look up to her. Literally. She is after all the tallest kid in the school and the oldest and would perhaps be, by any other standard expected to “set the example”…..

……and maybe, she did just that.

She is her own person and while it may not be that easy being who she is, she’s cool and friendly like, she’s big like an ocean, important like a mountain and tall like a tree.

You can visit her blog at I’m Thinking Happy! if you like.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Photo credit #1: Kermit

Photo credit #2: ©Karen Szczuka Teich & http://www.Takingtheworldonwithasmile.com

Video Credit #1 YouTube

A Wet Haven

June 5, 2011 4 comments

Think back to when you were a kid in grammar school. What would it have been like for you, if you were able to throw a bucket of water over your “favorite” teacher’s head without fear of retribution? What if, once a year, you were allowed, encouraged even to get the principal or head of school soaken wet?

My girl soaks her math/science/this is how you build a rocket, teacher!

And what if, even after you left that school, you were still allowed to come back at the end of the year and take part in a wild and wet, water-splash-out of students vs. teachers and parents?

My boy gets to come back and relive this thrill even after being gone for two years!

Six years ago, I began working at the small progressive school my kids attended so I could be near them and see firsthand, what it was all about and why my kids barely got any homework. Coming from a catholic grammar school and an all girl catholic high school, I was a little skeptical of the progressive education that I’d signed on to for them. I ended up getting an education for myself, on what it means for a child to be in an environment that nurtures their curiosity and fosters the development of a life-long love of learning. For eight years my son went to the Randolph School. He left after 5th grade. My daughter is finishing up 4th grade. Next year will be her last. I’m already feeling sad.

The curriculum at Randolph School is project based. Several months are devoted to one study at a time, such as birds, Native Americans and human flight. Math, English, Social Studies and Science all get incorporated into the study using a hands on learning approach. These kids are out and about, seeing, doing, building and loving what they’re learning. They’ve done some pretty awesome things too, like making paper and cooking an annual ThanksGiving meal with vegetables they planted and harvested themselves. They’ve tapped maple trees, collected sap and boiled it down to make their own syrup for a pancake lunch. They’ve been schooled on tracking people and animals, building shelters in the wilderness and trebuchets in the back field. They know how to use the resources they have to solve a problem. Each child builds a rocket and launches it every year and each year ends with an adventure day which usually involves a hike along the Hudson river or in this year’s case, a walk across the Hudson River on the newly opened, Walkway Over the Hudson. After the adventure there’s an all-school barbecue. After the barbecue, the older kids, students in kindergarten through 5th grade, get to camp-out behind the school with parents and teachers. Tents are pitched at the bottom of the same hill the kids and teachers, sled down during the winter. A bon fire is made, songs are sung, stories are told, s’mores are eaten.

Somewhere in-between the end of the adventure and the beginning of the barbecue, a twenty-plus-year-old tradition lives on. It began when two teachers who overheard a plot being hatched by two students to bring water guns to the camp-out, staged a surprise counter-attack, fully equipped with their own loaded water-guns and behold, a no holds back, teacher-parent-student water splash-out filled with 100% pure fun was born!

A wet haven for kids of all ages! Splash-Out June 2011

It’s tough being a kid. Society is drenched with all kinds of peer pressures and technological enticements. Finding a place in early childhood where children are free to be themselves, free of some of these stresses just long enough to give them a solid footing is a blessing.

So much of parenting is like playing pin the tail on the donkey. Without foresight, you point yourself in what you hope is the right direction and move forward, praying that you hit the target. Sometimes, you get lucky and hit it dead center.  Other times, you veer way off to the left or the right and have to go back and try again.

Sending my children to a school that encourages kids to be kids was a “hitting the target dead center” move — a blessing.

The result, is that they love to learn, they always will and I am very grateful.

What do you love about your child’s school?

 

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