John Breunig: History lessons from my math teacher
I opened the emailed letter to the editor in October responding to news stories about special education in Greenwich schools.
The letter was critical, yet balanced, two boxes I wish were more frequently checked on the editorial page. The third box, usually left blank, is when writers show the courage to reveal themselves by more than name. This letter checked that box as well, as the author taught in Greenwich Public Schools for two decades and is married to a special education teacher.
I paused over the email signature before responding.
“I do have one question,” I wrote back. “I’m 87.2 percent sure you were my math teacher and tennis coach at Blessed Sacrament in the early ’80s (don’t quote me on that. Journalists are infamously weak at math).”
I did get the math wrong. My own numbers, no less. Kevin Fitzpatrick left my Catholic school in New Rochelle, N.Y., at the end of 1979. But yes, this was the same “Fitz.”
After he left for a job in the Berkshires, a priest from Iona College filled in. He only gave us one test. I, and almost all of the rest of the class, failed it, and the semester.
The next — and last — time I saw Fitz was during a visit a few weeks later. He greeted me silently, holding arms out wide with an expression that required no words to ask “What the hell happened?” Somehow, I and some others managed to make the honor roll despite flunking. Failure is underrated. Setbacks can provide lasting life lessons, among them that not all teachers are created equal.
He responded to my email by summing up his side of the 40-year gap in 232 words. Jobs, kids, grandkids, health, and a nod to the “cradle grave timeline.” Then he acknowledged envy for those who leave lasting legacies, “for example, musicians (big Bruce fan).”
I sent back a Springsteen column I wrote a year ago and we made plans to get together. This is often where best intentions get smothered by emails. But curiosity prevailed.
I showed up late at Valencia Luncheria in Norwalk Tuesday, which would have earned me “jug” (detention) in high school.
He filled in some of the blanks between those 232 words. He started teaching in Greenwich in 1981 and stayed there until taking a gig in Weston in 2004. Our careers overlapped in Greenwich for years, several of which I spent covering sports at GHS while he was there.
At 67, he is back at a Catholic school, this time as a part-timer at All Saints in Norwalk, a mile from his front door.
I recall a day in class when he brought a math lesson to a dead stop to address a student’s wobbly sentence structure. Those misty years ago, he said something like “You can’t forget the lessons from one classroom when you walk into another one,” and drifted from his lesson plan to amplify the point.
“Ahh, ‘The Diversion,’” he says, nodding with a wry smile.
The tactic is still recognizable 40 years on. We liked to throw teachers off-topic, though they usually saw through the ploy. He confesses it still happens.
Sometimes the best lessons come between the planned ones. But it reminds me of another morning we embraced off-topic musings.
“My wife has a beef with you,” I say.
He looks appropriately perplexed.
“I told her it occurred to me you may have lit the fuse for my whole Springsteen thing.”
There was no soundtrack to that discussion in ’79, but Fitz says he now incorporates Siri in the classroom, so if he makes a music reference, he can cue songs.
We swap backstage stories from then, now and in between. He even summons a chilling one from before we ever met, when he had a close encounter with Son of Sam.
Then he gives me a history lesson. In this case, the history is my own.
I recall how our school was so small we played all of our tennis matches on the road (there’s another life lesson in never having the home advantage).
Fitz reveals this changed just days before I joined the team. A nearby club previously opened their courts to our team for practices and matches. Then our lineup showed up with two talented black brothers.
I’m shocked, in part because they were my closest friends in the lineup. They never mentioned it. I’m left to wonder if they knew the reason we became the nomad team.
Once again, Fitz taught a different lesson than the one I expected. This one even applies to journalism (it’s always wise to seek several sources for any story).
I have a lesson as well. You don’t have to be a rock star to sway a crowd. Teachers do it every day.
John Breunig is editorial page editor of Greenwich Time and The Stamford Advocate. Jbreunig@scni.com; 203-964-2281; twitter.com/johnbreunig.