It’s back to school time, so I’m going to salute a teacher that literally changed my life—the late, great Paul Grillo, who taught literature my sophomore year at West Catholic.
But what Mr. Grillo did was use music to help us connect to books. He used words and music from the songs of my time, from obscure songs of Bob Dylan to Van Morrison, even the likes of Gil-Scott Heron.
My brother was a very accomplished musician and songwriter by the time he was 15—and he was six years older than me—so when I was 9 years old, I was listening to some pretty heavy stuff. I had no choice since we shared a bedroom.
So not only did Mr. Grillo show me a new way of looking at these songs, he also comforted me that I was not alone in even digging them to begin with. We stayed in touch until he passed away a couple summers ago. He was a great, great man. But this is a magazine for South Jersey residents, and since I went to school in Philly, I had to recruit some South Jersey folks to help me in my salute to the difference teachers can make in our lives.
Bruce Wilson and Jerry Schofield, Cherokee High School, English and Economics
I graduated from Cherokee High School in 2011, so I’m writing this with fresh, young memories. Did I mention young? OK, fine. It was 1994, which makes me older than I want to be. Bright side? Cherokee High School had Mr. Bruce Wilson and Mr. Jerry Schofield; and I had them for English and economics, respectively, my senior year. There’s no need to talk about how they “taught me about life” or “went above and beyond” because of course they did. You don’t write about teachers 20 (TWENTY?!) years after you had them unless they hit all the right, clichéd notes.
The bigger reason I won’t talk about that, though, is that neither of them would like it. What I loved about them, especially as the angry, maladjusted teenager that every comedian seems to be at some point, was that they really seemed above the petty, false concerns of everyone else. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Schofield seemed one step ahead and four steps apart from their peers, teaching not out of obligation or some idea that someday, we “will need this information!” but because, simply, what they knew was cool and, hey, wouldn’t you like to know about this cool stuff, too? That adults could be like that was a revelation to me. It helped me connect to the material and, OK, fine, I’ll say it, it helped me reconnect with life a little bit. Like it or not, we are all Holden Caulfield at some point; it helps to know that some adults are less phony than others.
So, thank you Mr. Schofield and Mr. Wilson. I hope someone gives this to you and that you get a chance to read what you meant to the younger, angrier version of me. I’d love for you to come out to one of my shows. I’ll even give you a 10 percent discount. I would have said “free” but one of my stand-up comedy teachers was Big Daddy Graham and he taught me that you don’t do “free.”
—Jay Black, actor, screenwriter and stand-up comedian
Jim O’Brien, West Deptford High School, English
I was really struggling with English; and Mr. O’Brien, instead of just letting me flounder, reached out to me and asked me to stay after class. He gave me the personal guidance to get through the course and through our conversations, I discovered he played the bass also and we have remained friends to this day. He went the extra mile.
—Greg Juliano, bassist and singer with the legendary Juliano Brothers
Salvatore Marchese, Delsea High, Drafting
Mr. Marchese was a tank of a man whose demeanor, on his most friendly day, would intimidate a hungover Hell’s Angel. Salvatore’s build was not unlike that of The Thing from Marvel’s Fantastic Four. A formidable man to say the least. The interesting part about Mr. Marchese was that beyond his thorny exterior was a great mentor. I was not what you would call a “quiet student who never disrupted class,” so Marchese and I should have butted heads in a big way. Instead, he harnessed my creativity, energy and will to entertain by simply allowing me to be me. The entire concept of me was completely foreign to him, but he accepted me, valued me and allowed me to be me (as long as my classmates and I were able to complete our work). I’ll never forget that man, or the nickname he gave me, “Goonybird.”
—Marcus Darpino, host of “The Crapulent” a podcast with 300,000 Twitter followers on Wildfire Radio
Sister Anne Jude, St. Mary’s
The year was 1970 and I was in my second year of fourth grade. Yes, I was held back and had to repeat the fourth grade. Praise the Lord I had a new teacher, Sister Anne Jude. All four of my previous years at St. Mary’s in Gloucester City I had nuns, three were much older and one was down right mean. Sister Anne Jude was different, thank God!
My mom was divorced and I was the youngest of three. The nuns knew my single working mother wasn’t showing up for PTA. And when they ripped my skirt down with the metal edge of a ruler they knew it wouldn’t be mended for weeks. But Sister Anne Jude chose not to treat me differently. I had no idea that a nun could be like her.
One day, I took a terrible fall running down the steps for recess and chipped my two front teeth. She was terribly upset and bent down on her hands and knees to try to retrieve my chipped teeth. Since my mom was working she took me to her room at the convent next door. She had Beatles posters all over her walls! She then told me the story of her favorite Beatles song, “Hey Jude,” was about a young boy and his mom and dad were divorced, thus her chosen nun name, “Jude.” She made me feel that I mattered and for that I will be eternally grateful.
—Pat Setter, realtor for Berkshire Hathaway
Anthony Sears, Clearview Regional High School, Music
Growing up, my parents instilled in me this intense passion for music and our house was always filled with it. By the time I was 5 years old, I knew all the words to Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Sound of Music and much more. My sister and I would put on a performance from Meet Me in St. Louis for anyone who would humor us. I felt that my parents were giving us a better musical education than the one I was receiving in school.
That all changed in the eighth grade when I met Mr. Sears who took on the role as our choir director at my middle school. The second I entered his classroom, I knew he was going to change my life forever. The year before had been somewhat of a disaster and we weren’t exactly an easy bunch. Seriously, what middle schoolers are an easy bunch? Within minutes of his first class I knew that things would be different and I admired his way of commanding respect with a side of compassion.
He had an amazing way of filling kids with confidence and helping them to discover their natural talents as singers. We transformed our sad little group into something pretty magical. At the end of the year we took first place in our first choir competition. I will never forget the moment we heard our name. Tears were flowing as we jumped for joy hugging one another.
I will never be able to thank Mr. Sears for all that he did to help my awkward, self-esteem-challenged, eighth grade self. He brought the joy that music so deserves and I am forever grateful. Thank you, Mr. Sears.
—Keeley Gudonis, Walk Manager for the Alzheimer’s Association
Joe Cromer, Clearview Regional High School, Marketing
We were his business venture. The future was in our hands and he was going to help us. It’s amazing how good advice sticks with you. We’re talking, real world advice. He taught us: “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” To control your own interview by knowing every detail of the position you want. He taught us how to write a resume and to send thank you cards to people who took time to meet with you. All of these things, 10 years later I still apply to my everyday life. He was a glimmer of hope for some very scared teenagers. He didn’t treat me like a kid, but a young professional, a peer. Everyday as we slaved away at our DECA projects, he pushed us and encouraged us. He wanted me to reach for the stars because he thought I was one. He dedicated himself to teaching and I couldn’t be more thankful.
The clock never stops for a teacher. Teachers deserve much higher praise and a raise. Thank you, Mr. Cromer, you are and always will be, the man.
—Ava Graham, host of The Ava Graham Hour on Wildfire Radio every Thursday at 5:30 p.m.
So sharpen your pencils, kids, and don’t be so glum about the summer ending. You just might get that “life-changing” teacher this year.
Big Daddy will be performing a solo comedy show on Saturday, Sept. 19 at the Rrazz Room in New Hope, Pa. Visit BigDaddyGraham.com for more information and be sure to check out his podcast on WildfireRadio.com
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 6 (September, 2015).
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