“Unthankfulness is theft” – Martin Luther
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the debt that I owe to others in my life. Since I prefer to limit my blogging to my teaching career and the profession of teaching, it occurs to me that, even if no one else reads this, I need to thank the people who have influenced me and contributed to my own career as an educator. Some of the people that I will discuss in the following series of posts will be my own teachers. Others will be colleagues who supported and influenced me during these years as a teacher.
Anthony (Tony) Novak was my sixth grade teacher. My sixth grade year marked his second year of teaching, and he was forty-eight years old at the time. The prior year, I had a new fifth grade teacher, all of twenty-six years old. She transferred after only one year (it wasn’t because of me, I swear) and so the prospect of another “new” teacher was not initially popular in my house. My twin brother had “the veteran” fifth grade teacher, and there was no doubt that he had learned more than had I. Now he was once again to have an experienced teacher while I got the newbie, and a forty-eight year old newbie at that.
Any thought of a lack of structure or discipline with my new teacher evaporated in the first few minutes of sixth grade. There stood Mr. Novak, a jaw carved out of rock and a neck that his impeccable shirt and tie strained to contain. It seems that “teacher” was not Mr. Novak’s first career. In fact, he had recently retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Marine Corps. Even the miscreants in my sixth grade class were no match for a man who had served as a platoon commander at Iwo Jima.
Other than my own father, I can think of no man for whom I had so much admiration. I certainly did not suffer academically for having had the new teacher that year. But it was not the ABC’s and the long division that set Mr. Novak apart. He was a remarkable role model. He was incredibly fit, kind, encouraging, and every bit a gentleman and a gentle man.
What did Mr. Novak teach that was not in any sixth grade textbook? He explained to us that leadership begins with the ability to follow directions and commands. He taught a group of us to raise and lower the American flag with great respect each day – noting that it made no sense to have a custodian do the job when something could be taught to students by giving us the privilege and responsibility. Rather than depend on volunteer adults to serve as crossing guards, he trained a group of us to take on that job as well. What I now know is that it was his way to of teaching us to become leaders by serving others.
Most forty-eight year old teachers would have been hard pressed to keep up with me in sports. That was not the case with Mr. Novak. He doubled as our PE teacher, led us in calisthenics, and took us on “distance runs”. Many years later I returned to the school and realized that those tremendous distance runs around the school grounds just seemed long. It is amazing how big an elementary school campus seems when one is young. None-the-less, Mr. Novak and I usually ran side-by-side. It was easy for me to outrun my classmates. I could never have outrun my teacher, but I also never had to find out by what margin he might have been able to beat me. It was sufficient for Mr. Novak to run with me and encourage me to go a bit farther and a bit faster each time. All these years later I can still picture him in those impeccable shirts and ties, pressed slacks, with dress shoes, running effortlessly and never seeming to break a sweat.
I was in the sixth grade during the years 1970 – 1971. Those were turbulent times in this country, and Mr. Novak was a walking lesson in civics and the political geography of the world. I remember one day when a student asked him if he hoped that we kids might some day “get” to fight in a war. Mr. Novak took the time to explain that each generation that fights in a war does so with the hope that their own children will never have to do the same. He made it abundantly clear to us that war really was hell.
Another time, a student made reference to the trial of Angela Davis, and the student commented that the woman should go to jail “if they prove she’s a communist.” Mr. Novak took the time to explain why communism was destined to fail. But he also explained that it is not against the law to disagree with your own government, and that in fact preserving the freedom to do so was ultimately why he had fought in WW II, Korea, and Viet Nam.
Mr. Novak passed away over a decade ago. During his teaching career he influenced many hundreds of students at West Hillsborough Elementary School and later at Crocker Middle School. He was not just a teacher. He was one truly fine human being, a genuine hero, and one of the reasons that I chose teaching as my career.