Jamie Onorato, Manasquan High School, English and Print Media
“It is so exciting being a teacher. I get about 30 kids in my classes, and for about an hour a day, I get to know them, I get to teach them something, and I always hope that I give them something to think about, that challenges them: that something I said had an impact on them.
“I have them read stories that challenge them and get them out of their comfort zone. Like this year we talked about stereotypes, and we read the Book Thief, which takes place in Nazi Germany, but the narrator is Death. Everyone fears Death, but in the book, Death is vulnerable, and not happy with what he is doing, and he shows compassion to the souls he is collecting. The book forces my students to rethink the way they perceive the world they live in. And books like that, and To Kill a Mockingbird, with the racial issues (which you would think we would be so far past, but we’re not) is still relevant today.
“I get to make special connections with my students. They ask me for my perspectives on things we are discussing in class, and it opens the door to how they are feeling. And they ask me what it was like when I was in high school, and I get chances to be real with them, because I am human as a teacher, and it is good for them to see that. I get to mentor them as their teacher. So I get these moments that I just hope they take with them beyond the classroom. You never know what has an impact on a student during the day. Sometimes just a simple ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ is like you cut the onion and all of the layers come off, and they were just waiting to be asked.
“My favorite success story was a student I had a few years ago in three out of four of my English classes. In the beginning, to get him to construct a sentence was a struggle. But he always came in for extra help, and he always had a smile on his face. He would always participate in class, and he was a student that was a joy to have. School wasn’t his thing, but he kept trying so hard. Then I had him again in English II and we picked up right where we left off. He would keep coming in for extra help. Then when he took the HSPA test, he got ‘advanced proficient’ on it. I was so excited for him. I didn’t have him his junior year, but I had him again senior year, and he asked me to help him with his college essay. When he emailed me his essay, he told me, ‘You are never going to believe this, but I wrote too many words.’ We went back and forth for a good two hours over email, with me putting comments on his document like, ‘Take this out,’ or ’You can combine all of this,’ or You’ve got to add more to this.’
“Afterwards I was waiting to hear how he did, and one day I walked into class, and waiting for me was a University of Rhode Island sweatshirt and pennant. He had gotten accepted to the school. I saw him the next day and gave him the biggest hug.
“It is so priceless. I don’t know if they are going to remember every literary device I have taught them, but for that moment in their lives, I was there to help them, to guide them, and it’s just such a satisfying feeling. I go to their graduation, and goodbyes are hard, and I don’t know if I will see them again, I don’t know where their journeys will take them, but I just hope that something I said or taught them is packed in their suitcase with them as they head off and that they’re ok. I just want them to know that not everything is going to go their way in life, but if they continue to work hard and keep their big goals in front of them, and keep the tools they are taught in high school, they will be just fine.”
Photo and interview by Gregory Andrus. To find more of his interviews go to www.potjs.com