Hold me closer, Tony Danza

Roughly 14 years ago, I was avoiding the front stairwell of my high school because my older brother kindly informed me that freshmen would be pushed to their humiliation or death (synonyms back then) if they dared to tread the steps reserved for upperclassmen.

Just last week, I narrowly escaped being asked for a hall pass during my first day as a student teacher and had to use my lunch bag to clear a path to the classroom.

A friend has predicted that I will become the female Will Schuester of this joint, but if we’re going for Glee characters, I’d give my prime parking space in the student lot to be like Gwyneth Paltrow’s crazypants in “The Substitute” episode. In truth, my high school musical’s opening theme song has proven to be a number I never anticipated.

Since my first concert experience was an Elton John extravaganza with my parents, I guess it should only seem natural that “Tiny Dancer” came to mind as I navigated the building. But to be specific, it was only one line from the song and also one of the most famous misheard lyrics that was on repeat in my head (and continues to be every morning of my commute): “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.”

I’ve yet to see an episode, but apparently the (other) Boss has a reality show out on A&E right now called Teach: Tony Danza. Last year, he spent a year co-teaching a tenth grade English class at Northeast High School in Philadelphia and it was all deliciously caught on camera. A guest speaker tipped me off on the show in one of my grad school classes in December. Intrigued, I did some research and found a Los Angeles Times review of the series the night before I started my student teaching practicum.  Among the highlights of the article:

• Danza cries no fewer than four times in the pilot.

• The boxer-turned-actor-turned-teacher credits President Obama for the career shift.

And this gem:

• “But what Danza does have is a situational humility—not only does he cry with alarming regularity, but he also often appears in early-morning close-up with his snore-strip still in place—and the genuine desire to excel. … The story is focused on his fears and frustrations, his stunning realization that teaching is hard, that wanting to ‘reach’ kids is not enough, and most important, that this job is not about him.”

That last part was the kicker.

In anticipation of this semester, I’ve obsessed over finding the right teacher clothes that won’t make me look like a teacher-teacher but will help me pass for more than a teenager, mourned the return of untimely zits, and worried how I might be perceived by guys and girls nearly half my age. But the reality is that it’s not my turn to survive high school this time, and the stakes are much higher for my students.

In my classroom, I have kids from Nepal, Mexico, Sudan, Thailand, Congo, Vietnam, Pakistan, Tanzania, Iran, and beyond. Some have only been in the country for a month and have had little exposure to English, while others can speak multiple languages with inspiring clarity, charm and creativity. Frustrations can range from checking out a book in the school library due to a language barrier to learning how to negotiate a new culture that prides itself on consumerism.

They don’t care what I’m wearing, and neither should I. They want to hear that I know their name—their native name—and see that I cared to prepare the content of the day to meet their very real needs and aspirations. They’re less concerned about what I have to say and more interested in what I’m willing to hear. If I’m to be effective, I can’t have any pride in the classroom. I have to risk looking like an ass every day and be OK with that. I can’t fit in.

I’d say Here goes nothin, but there goes my superlative in the yearbook.

6 responses to “Hold me closer, Tony Danza

  1. I wish I had teachers like you in high school. They are so lucky to have you.

  2. having some similar experiences, yo. btw, i’m just over the border from you now…

  3. Wonderful. At least they don’t beg you to play in the sandbox with them. Bet you would though if they asked you to.

    Have a good “rest of the week”
    Eileen Lewis Mostiler

  4. That’s my girl. I’m so proud of you.

  5. Wow, another great read!..Keep ’em coming.
    Glad EJ impressed you, but Bennie and the Jets might be a big challenge to me if you wrote about it…I mishear often.

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