1998-99 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year
School/District: Parsippany High School - Parsippany-Troy Hills Township
Grade Level: 9th-12th
Teaches: Social Studies
Good morning Commissioner Klagholz, Assistant Commissioner Groff, Vice-President Daniels, members of the State Board of Education, educational leaders of New Jersey, and friends. I am deeply honored to be selected as New Jersey's Teacher of the Year. Believe me, I have no delusions of grandeur- I know that there are many outstanding and deserving educators in New Jersey - I work with over six hundred of them in Parsippany-Troy Hills - so I'm genuinely humbled by my selection to represent our state's teachers during the 1998-99 school year.
Beth Niedermann has set a high standard. I commend her for her efforts, and will do my best to follow in her footsteps this year.
This award really belongs to a host of people, and I'd like to take a moment to thank them. My wife Kathy and daughter Katie, who have shown incredible love, patience, and forbearance over the years. My mom, herself a former teacher who spent 39 years in dedicated service to the children of West Orange, and my dad, for their support. My 6th grade teacher in West Orange, Mr. Ben Estilow, the finest teacher I have ever known. My colleagues and students at Parsippany High School. Education is a team effort. They are as excited about this award as I am, and I consider it as much theirs as it is mine. They're the best teammates in the world, and I wouldn't trade them for anything.
I'd like to introduce you to some of the fine people of Parsippany who have created an outstanding school district and who are with us here today. The President of our Board of Education, Mr. Harold Feintuch, Board Vice-President, Mrs. Vi Schike, former Board of Education member Mr. Mike De Pierro, and Board member and former colleague Mr. Saul Goodman. Our Superintendent, Dr. Tim Brennan is here, as well as my Principal, Dr. Richard Konet, and my Social Studies Supervisor, Mrs. Connie Donvito. Mr. John Capsouras, President of the Parsippany-Troy Hills Education Association, a colleague and friend for a quarter-century. Last but certainly not least, my trusted co-advisor, colleague, and mentor, Mrs. Francine Walsh. I wish that some of my students could be here today to share in this, but most of them are taking the HSPT, and I didn't think that Dr. Klagholz would appreciate them missing it. They're here in spirit, though.
The people I've just acknowledged are examples of commitment to education. My remarks this morning will focus on that word "commitment." I know that everyone in this room is committed to the educational well-being of our students, but what about the students themselves? What about their understanding of what commitment is, what it really means? How do we as educators respond to the critics who charge that our young people lack this mystical ingredient?
During the Great Depression of the 1930's, critics made the same charge about America's youth. How specious that charge seems now! Many of us saw Saving Private Ryan this summer, a heart wrenching film, at once troubling and uplifting. We know that its fictional plot represented real people, real events. Did the boys in the landing craft on the beaches of Normandy lack commitment?....Could the critics question the commitment of the bomber crews, the sailors, the marines in the Pacific, the nurses, "Rosie the Riveter" and her co-workers in the defense plants?...hardly! They proved their commitment with their blood, their suffering, and in all too many cases, with the sacrifice of their lives. Beyond the battlefields, that generation taught the rest of us what commitment really means.
I'd like to speak for a moment about two men whose experiences capture what thousands of their generation endured, and which served to motivate their actions for years afterward. Captain Timothy Brennan, our superintendent's father, was a young armored cavalry officer who led his unit of the 3rd cavalry in the bitter fighting to wrest Europe from the grip of Nazi horror. Captain Brennan and his soldiers were "young old men," hard-bitten veterans of 19 or 20 who thought they'd seen it all - until the day they liberated a piece of hell on earth called Ebensee Concentration Camp. There, they witnessed unspeakable atrocities, and gazed into the bottomless pit that is created by the evil those in power can wield against the helpless. There, their commitment reached a new intensity. In the fall of 1941, a 15 year-old sophomore was thrilled to be playing on the varsity football squad at Clifford Scott High School. He turned 16 on Thanksgiving Day. Two weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and only weeks after that, he changed the date on his birth certificate and joined the Navy. Three and a half years later, he was a grizzled veteran of 19, with 13 battle stars on his Asiatic-Pacific campaign ribbon. He had survived some of the fiercest naval battles in U.S. history, including Guadalcanal and Leyte Gulf, as well as two monstrous typhoons. He thought he'd seen it all, until the day in August 1945 his cruiser, U.S.S. San Juan, raced into Tokyo Bay prior to the surrender and he went ashore as a member of one of the first landing parties to set foot on Japanese soil. These armed sailors marched quickly inland to liberate a place called Shinegawa Prison Camp, a prisoner of war camp holding emaciated, brutalized American and British POW's. There, Bosun's Mate Joseph Foreso saw first hand the evil that results when there is nothing to stay the hand of the powerful against the powerless. There, Bosun's Mate Foreso and his shipmates were reborn in their commitment.
The commitment of Captain Brennan, my father Bosun's Mate Foreso, and millions of young men and women like them in America's World War Two generation surpassed, transcended commitment to country and to victory. Having achieved the great victory, the WW2 generation came home committed to making America and the world a better place, to helping the helpless.
Committed to education, many later entered our nation's schools-first as GI Bill students, then as teachers. They rebuilt war-torn Europe with the Marshall Plan, even restoring the cities and economies of our former enemies. They sent uncountable tons of food, medicine and school supplies to every corner of the Earth. They protected the free world from aggression, and even took our first tentative steps towards the stars. That was and is a truly amazing generation, with an incredible record of commitment.
Now, as the WW2 generation fades from the scene, as their ranks thin, like the dying Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, they challenge us-their sons and daughters- grandsons and granddaughters with a ghostly whisper- "Be worthy of this…be worthy of this." As teachers and as parents, dare we fail them? Dare we allow our students to come of age in a nation that has forgotten what commitment means? The answer must be a resounding NO!
In the years since 1945, young Americans have continued to pass on the heritage of commitment to others. Many served in Korea or Vietnam, or a hundred cold war trouble spots. Others gave of themselves in the Peace Corps, or through involvement in the Civil Rights movement, or political activism, or environmentalism. Still others have proven their commitment through the teaching of the ideals and the responsibilities of democratic citizenship in our nation's classrooms. Through service to others, to the greater good, our young people are learning what earlier generations of Americans came to know before them- the meaning of commitment. These are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the WW2 generation - our school children, the youngsters we work with every day. They too are carrying on the tradition of commitment through community service.
Community service is often used as a punishment- We hear about it on the news - "John Doe was sentenced to three years probation and 200 hours of community service." Yet that isn't what I wish to address this morning. The community service that is the heir to the tradition of the WW2 generation is that given freely without any compensation save the satisfaction that comes from helping others who need us. In Parsippany, the commitment to others through community service is deeply rooted in our district philosophy. Service organizations such as Interact, Key Club, SADD, Teens at Work, and others have existed for many years and have provided a focus and an outlet for our students' commitment to the welfare of others. With the establishment of Parsippany's Academy, our emphasis on community service has become even more ingrained in our curriculum.
I'd like to tell you about an outstanding example of concern for others that transcended clubs and curriculum to become a wonderful case study of what committed students can achieve. On the first day of school in 1997, our Board of Ed president, a PHS alumnus, met me in the office with the news that his best friend and classmate from 1975 , LTC Mark Littel, had been sent to war-torn Bosnia as commander of a peace-keeping squadron of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. "Would I" the Board president wanted to know, "be able to get a few of my students to write to Colonel Littel's soldiers?" Many were barely older than my seniors, away from home for the first time. The response from the students was overwhelming. Within days, over 150 letters were on their way to Bosnia, my own letter to Mark among them.
Two weeks later, Mark's reply arrived. After some personal conversation, Colonel Littel described the terrible situation in Bosnia. The schools, he wrote, had for all intents and purposes been destroyed. He wrote, "On a different note, would like you to energize the school to write and even more, see if you can conjure up some school supplies, old books, etc. for the kids here. I'm calling in all my chips across the Army and the U.S. to get this stuff sent. Schools here have ZERO supplies. No pens, no paper, no copying machines. NO MAPS, NO MAPS AT ALL (all taken down and destroyed during the war) no chalk, no chalk boards, no desks (only chairs), nothing at all on the walls, no bulletin or activity boards, etc. One school I went to had just had the windows all shattered in a bomb explosion in July - So if you can get supplies to me, I will get them to those who need them."
These few sentences set off a chain reaction that affected not only Parsippany, but all of northern New Jersey. In a wonderful cooperative effort, the Board of Education, administration, supervisors, faculty, custodians, secretaries, and parents threw themselves wholeheartedly behind what soon became known as our "Books for Bosnia" campaign. The commitment of adults to "Books for Bosnia" was gratifying, but the commitment of our students was the life blood of the entire project. Students at every grade level and from across the educational spectrum devoted themselves to this campaign. They solicited donations of money, books and school supplies. They spent countless hours sorting, packing, labeling and weighing boxes. They loaded trucks for shipment to the post office, they filled out thousands of U.S. customs forms - all of this in support of children they will probably never meet, in a country they will probably never see. In the end, their commitment to the humanitarian goals to this project resulted in the shipment of nearly 2,000 boxes (most weighing between 30 and 70 pounds) of school supplies to the children of Bosnia, an incredible 20 tons of hope for a better future.
Did our students' commitment make a difference? LTC Littel said it best in an e-mail received shortly before the end of the school year. "Your gifts...have made a difference here. I can assure you that the kids here appreciate it more than you know...These kids have a bit more to look forward to because of what you have done with this project. When you all get a bit older, you will appreciate what you have done for your school and your country. Each of you has proven that America is as great as it is because of kind, selfless people like yourselves, who give freely to others who are less fortunate than we are. The people here will never, ever forget what you have done. These kids will never forget the kindness and generosity of some great people in Parsippany and Northern New Jersey. They are really your legacy in a way, and I believe you have given them hope."
So when I'm traveling around our state and our country as New Jersey's Teacher of the Year, and I hear critics charge that our young people lack commitment, I'll look them in the eye and tell them they're wrong...dead wrong. I'll tell them about "Books for Bosnia" and other projects like it. Through outstanding programs such as this, our young men and women have proven - continue to prove - that they are worthy heirs to the tradition of Capt. Brennan, Bosun's Mate Foreso and Private Ryan.