|Dorothy Jasiecki, circa 1967|
This weekend I will make a pilgrimage to a place that will always hold a special meaning to me, and to see people I came to know in the first two decades of my life. It’s my 50th high school reunion. Interestingly, I suspect the people with whom I’ll spend the most time will have a common denominator: a teacher named Dorothy Jasiecki.
|Me in 1967. The less|
said, the better
I am by trade a writer, and I say that with pride. For 35 years, I plied a very different craft that occasionally required me to put words to paper, but which I can say with complete honesty never gave me anything like the personal and professional satisfaction I have felt for the past twelve years. The reason this blog exists is because writers, like (for example) pianists, need to practice. Just as a pianist does not sit down at a concert grand and begin playing ‘The Appassionata’, so a writer does not go to his or her keyboard and begin writing that Great American Novel. The pianist begins with ‘etudes’ – literally, study pieces - that stretch the fingers and make the mind warm up.
This blog is my equivalent of an etude. It is about gardening because I am married to a virtuoso gardener and I am her helper, and also because writing about gardening is considerably more interesting than opining about, say, politics or wine. Each entry is as carefully thought through as a short story and is polished to fit within a prescribed length.
|Me, earlier this|
month. The less
said the better
I am a writer because, from September 1964 until June 1967, Dorothy Jasiecki taught me to love language, literature and words. She had been recruited by a young principal named John M. Jenkins to teach at a spanking new school, Miami Springs Senior High School. I was in one of her classes that first year strictly by happenstance. The following two years, she was my English teacher by design.
Miss Jasiecki (the notion of calling teachers by anything other than ‘Mister’, ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ lay many years in the future) created and followed a lesson plan that ensured we read and mastered the material that would appear on tests. What made her so extraordinary was how she conveyed that information and that she demanded we go far beyond what was required by the Dade County Board of Public Instruction. She effectively had a second syllabus, one of her own devising, that was intended to stretch – and open - our minds.
|Our reading list was designed to|
stretch the mind
Part of her methodology was to reach deep into her own knowledge of literature to awaken our own senses. She spent much of one class session reading Beowulf in a way that I felt I was gathered around a hearth fire, listening to oral tradition being made. We delved into poetry far beyond Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost and spent several days dissecting The Wasteland and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; titles that almost certainly were not sanctioned by the bureaucrats at Lindsey Hopkins.
The balance of her teaching style was to challenge us to think about what we were reading. To be in her class meant you came to school prepared, and ‘prepared’ meant you had not only read the assigned book but that you had understood it. And God forbid you came into class spouting something from Cliff’s Notes. (I tried that once and was found out almost immediately.)
All of this was leavened with philosophy and humor. The final five minutes of class could comprise a discourse on the importance of shaking hands or a treatise on elbows. These ‘sermonettes’ as we called them stretched us further still, if for no other reason than because we had no idea of what was coming next.
Miss Jasiecki was a tough grader. I made very few ‘A’s’ in her class. But I tried harder than I did in any other subject both because she expected it and I knew it pleased her.
She was recognized for her skills. Florida named her a ‘Star Teacher’ and sent her on a statewide tour with a similarly high achieving student from my class. My great hope is that she inspired other educators as much as she inspired us.
|At the 2007 reunion with Ms. J.|
That's classmate Jane Greer at right
I last saw Miss Jasiecki ten years ago at my 40th reunion and spent much of one evening doing nothing but listening to her reminisce about her years in the classroom. Time had taken its toll on her body, though not on her mind. It turns out that her best memories were of her first years at Miami Springs and at her predecessor school, Norland High.
She passed away in 2015. Were she alive, she would have turned 92 today. And, in an important sense, Dorothy Jasiecki is still very much alive in 2017. She touched thousands of lives and, for a certain number of them (including mine), she left an indelible impression that transcends time. She still looks over my shoulder as I write; ‘tsking’ at lax grammar and use of ‘easy’ adjectives.
|Ms. J circa 2015|
We did not all become writers or poets. We went into computer science, sales, engineering or education; we raised families or went into the military. But we all learned how to think and, regardless of future occupation, that skill made us better individuals.
Principal Jenkins attracted a pool of talent in those first years that made Miami Springs a school unlike any other. I had many teachers – Jack Gonzalez, Agustin Ramirez, and Phil Giberson come immediately to mind – who were outstanding and committed to quality education. But I can draw a direct line back to Dorothy Jasiecki and say, without hesitation, that she was the teacher who most inspired me. I would not be the person I am today were it not for her.
Happy birthday, Dorothy Jasiecki, and thank you for being the teacher you were, and the inspiration you still are.