|John Smoklo, Mary Ann Balbach, DD, Bob Luckay|
AHS Library, 11 October 2013
Remarks on induction into Educators’Hall of Fame, Aurora Schools, 11 October 2013
It was nearly fifty years ago when I first walked into the old Aurora Middle School (now Craddock and the Board Office) to begin my teaching career in Room 116. It was the fall of 1966; I was twenty-one years old. And I was terrified—and with very good reason. Yes, I was a college graduate, and, yes, I had done my student teaching. But I had never worked with middle school youngsters—and I well remembered from my own days in grades six, seven, and eight, that I was, well, clinically insane. As were just about all of my friends. And so I was wondering that fall day a half-century ago if I were about to enter an asylum.
But not the sort you imagine. For me, the Aurora Middle School became, as the foundational meaning of the word asylum suggests, a place of refuge. My first year was only the second year that a “middle school” had even existed in Aurora. The previous year the School Board had decided to organize the grades in a new fashion. Grades 1–4 were the primary, 5–8 the middle school, 9–12 the high school. But that first year there was no separate building for the middle school—middle-schoolers shared the building with high-schoolers. In 1966, the fall of my first year, the “new” Aurora High School—the building we’re in right now (sort of)—was under construction but would not officially open until October, about six weeks after I started teaching. Until that time, we were on split sessions: high school in the morning, middle school in the afternoon. Then the high school moved out, and there we were: Aurora Middle School—for the first time in its own building with its own administrator (Principal Ray Clough) and its own faculty.
And what a faculty that was! Most were very young (still in their early 20s)—some of us rank beginners, like me. But—thank goodness—there were also on that first faculty some veterans—and every one of them dedicated him- or herself to helping us greenhorns survive … and I use the word survive very literally!
Ted Burand taught fifth grade math; Willetta Thomas, reading; Eileen Kutinsky, sixth grade science; Jim Wright, eighth grade math. I saw a lot, too, of Donna French, who adorned the library. Those five, in particular, took me in their arms and carried me my first year—and beyond. (In ways, memories of their words and deeds are carrying me yet today.) I could see, right from the beginning, that the kids deeply respected those five—even loved them. And while watching those five work, I stole their ideas with abandon. Figured out what worked for me, what didn’t. And slowly—slowly—began to crawl, stand, stumble, and walk.
In a year or so, young Bob Luckay joined us at the middle school, and I could tell he was going to be something special, right from the beginning. I was right. During a couple of years at Harmon (the early 1980s) my classroom was right next to Bob’s (in the days before the rooms were enclosed), and I was astonished by what I heard over there. The knowledge that Bob had about American and Ohio history—the activities his classes did. The mutual affection that was the very air in his room. And then, after the move to Harmon, here came Mary Ann Balbach, a tornado of a teacher, who swirled into Harmon and helped transform it into the magical place it became. And I also had the privilege of working with John Smolko on our production of the 1950s musical Grease at Aurora High School in March 1987, a show that featured, as well, the incomparable talents of my colleagues and friends—choreographer Andy Kmetz and musician Gary Brookhart. Anyway, John Smolko and his students created some gorgeous flats featuring Buddy Holly and James Dean and other 50s icons—like Marilyn Monroe. (That was a popular one!) They stayed up on the old stage for years, those flats, haunting the place with their eerie, lovely presence.
So—I was privileged to work with all three of the other inductees, and if I’d had a vote, I would have voted for them all—several times, if I could’ve gotten away with it! Being inducted in their company is a tremendous honor—a humbling one. And, too, thinking of all the wonderful educators who have worked in this community since, oh, about 1800 or so, I am even more humbled. There are so many names lost to history—men and women who worked hard, planted hope in young hearts, transformed lives. We almost need another plaque for the wall—one for the “Unknown Educators” whose gifts and labors we can no longer recall.
And I would be criminally remiss if I did not mention Ray Clough, Lino DeAnna, Mike Lenzo, David Rathz, Jerry Brodsky—the five building principals I taught for, but especially Mike and Jerry, who, in their own individual ways, helped guide me along, pointing out my sins, forgiving them—believing in me. Mike, a father to me; Jerry, a brother. And all my former colleagues—custodians and cooks, teachers, bus drivers and teachers’ aides, librarians and secretaries—so many folks who in so many different ways held my hand, helped me become whatever it is I would become. And parents. Some of them accepted me immediately—some even fed me now and then (I was taking home, twice a month, only $168.42). Others challenged me in ways that I needed to be challenged: Mr. Dyer, what are you doing? And why?
And how can I neglect to thank and celebrate those thousands of students who sat in my classroom (well, they were supposed to be sitting, anyway), looking at me as if I knew what I was doing, trusting me. I have to say that I felt accepted immediately by the kids, and that feeling never went away. They joined the clubs I sponsored, acted in the plays I directed, did the crazy things I asked them to do in class. They memorized the poems, wrote the essays, read the books, learned the vocabulary words, underlined subject and verbs (with some accuracy). They surprised me, moved me, angered me, inspired me, worried me, delighted me; each day they caused me to experience about every emotion of which a human being is capable. I’ve often said of middle school kids that once they’re on your side they’ll run through walls for you—which is probably why is was a good idea for Harmon to have no walls for so long!
I had the privilege of teaching my own son at Harmon in 1985–1986. And having your own child in your classroom causes you—even more than usual—to question everything you say and do. His very presence in my classroom that year made me a better teacher—that year and every subsequent one.
And thanks, too, to my parents—teachers both—who showed me how a professional educator behaves … it took me awhile to recognize their genius. (Is there anything slower-growing than children’s awareness of their parents’ wonder?) And, finally, to my wife, Joyce Dyer, a superior educator herself, who has, for forty-four years, shown me so many varieties of excellence that my head swirls even as my heart swells.
For myself, I am deeply grateful for this honor. Considering the company I worked with during those Harmon Days?—my many supremely dedicated and talented colleagues? in that amazing Harmon Asylum?—I can say without any reservations whatsoever that this is the greatest honor of my life.