The teacher ver­sus the ‘face­less power’

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Weekend perspectives -

When I picked my se­nior-year elec­tives in 1986, I had no plans to be­come a jour­nal­ist. But I heard the young jour­nal­ism teacher was rel­a­tively cool — for a teacher — and since I liked writ­ing, it seemed like a pain­less way to pro­tect my qual­ity point av­er­age, as we called it at South Park High School.

That teacher, Bart Rocco, re­tired ef­fec­tive the end of June, and for those who saw me speak at a party for him, this col­umn will be a re­hash. His de­par­ture from his last post as su­per­in­ten­dent of the El­iz­a­beth For­ward School District spurred some thoughts about the im­por­tance of ed­u­ca­tors and of free ex­pres­sion, so I’m of­fer­ing them to you, too.

Mr. Rocco (as he was known un­til he got his doc­tor­ate) made me ed­i­tor of the South Park SPress, and our Novem­ber is­sue re­ported the hire of a new prin­ci­pal, Ed­win Moyer. Our re­porter Steve Kearns du­ti­fully noted, in the first para­graph, that the vote was not unan­i­mous, and re­vealed the new prin­ci­pal’s $42,000 salary.

A few is­sues later, we led with the ban­ner head­line, “Moyer Re­buffs Park­ing Re­forms.” That head­line was, I ad­mit, over­heated — there were no press­ing calls for re­forms — but the ar­ti­cle, by Jill Le­ber and Josh Caler, was in­for­ma­tive and fair.

• By April 1987, I had passed the ed­i­to­rial ba­ton to David McFeely. Only then did we face per­haps the most egre­gious in­jus­tice many of us had en­dured in our fledg­ling sub­ur­ban lives. I’ll let the SPress ed­i­to­rial page tell the tale.

“Is this the Amer­i­can way?” we wrote. “There was no warn­ing. There was no de­bate, no ref­er­en­dum. There was only an an­nounce­ment — an an­nounce­ment that nul­li­fied, ig­nored and in­sulted the work of our duly elected stu­dent gov­ern­ment.”

The sub­ject of the in­sult­ing nul­li­fi­ca­tion?

“Some face­less power from the of­fice,” the SPress railed, “chose to re­in­state the no-shorts rule. Per­haps re­in­state is the wrong word. Rather, some­one pre­tended the rule had never been changed. What cow­ardice!”

The ed­i­to­rial about an or­der that we wear long pants be­came more over­heated from there, end­ing with: “What stu­dent coun­cil has built, no sim­ple an­nounce­ment can de­stroy.”

I have no me­mory of the process that led to that ed­i­to­rial, so I don’t know if we got push­back from our young teacher. But I vividly re­mem­ber the feel­ing in home­room on the day we passed out that is­sue to any­one will­ing to pay 25 cents. It felt like we, the stu­dents, had a voice. Bart Rocco had val­i­dated that voice.

In first pe­riod, though, the PA sys­tem­crack­led. Some face­less min­ion blandly an­nounced: “Bart Rocco, please re­port to the of­fice. Mr. Rocco, please re­port to the of­fice.”

Back then, an an­nounce­ment or­der­ing a stu­dent to the of­fice would elicit a class­room-wide “Oooooohhhh!” The sum­mon­ing of a teacher to the of­fice brought forth the moth­erof all “Ooooooohh­hhs.”

Mr. Rocco never told us what hap­pened in that of­fice. (At his re­tire­ment party, he said only that his me­mory of it is vivid.) More im­por­tant to me is my imag­i­nary ver­sion ofthe en­counter.

In my mind, our teacher — just a few years out of school and by no means se­cure in his po­si­tion — took a with­er­ing dress­ing down from the prin­ci­pal. How could he al­low a school-sup­ported pub­li­ca­tion to call the prin­ci­pal a face­less power? This in­sult­must be re­versed.

But in my imag­i­na­tion, based on seven months in his class­room, Bart Rocco stood up for the prin­ci­ple of free ex­pres­sion over the prin­ci­pal’s ob­jec­tions. The ed­i­to­rial — clearly sep­a­rated from news cov­er­age — ac­cu­rately set out the facts and the opin­ion of the edi­tors and most of the stu­dent body on what was, to the long-pants-clad masses, a hot is­sue.

We ran no re­ver­sal, no re­trac­tion. I don’t re­mem­ber whether Mr. Moyer re­lented on the shorts ban. It didn’t much mat­ter. We had our say,thanks to Bart Rocco.

• I didn’t leave high school with plans to be­come a re­porter, and it would be nine years from the pub­li­ca­tion of that ed­i­to­rial be­fore I took my first job in jour­nal­ism. But my me­mory of that ed­i­to­rial, and my imag­ined con­fronta­tion be­tween prin­ci­pal and teacher, never faded, and it played a role in my ca­reer choice.

I re­mem­bered that day ev­ery time Bart Rocco climbed the ca­reer lad­der, to prin­ci­pal of Thomas Jef­fer­son High School, as­sis­tant su­per­in­ten­dent at West Mif­flin Area and the top job at El­iz­a­beth For­ward. Hon­estly, my re­ac­tion was al­ways, “Good for him, but that’s a waste of a great teacher.” Now, hav­ing heard the ac­co­lades at his re­tire­ment party, I’m sure that he en­er­gized many stu­dents in his ad­min­is­tra­tive roles, too — though per­haps less di­rectly.

Still, there’s some­thing unique about great teach­ers. The best of them find ways to make stu­dents feel that their youth­ful flares of cre­ativ­ity (of­ten over­wrought) are im­por­tant. That re­al­iza­tion — “Hey, I mat­ter” — stays with a stu­dent long af­terthe book-learn­ing fades.

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