The teacher versus the ‘faceless power’
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.