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Mr P and Mat

Mr. Lee Paseltiner, in 2009, playfully enjoying my little man.

Like most teachers, I have to clear out my classroom at the end of the school year, so the custodial staff can come in and prepare the room for next year. 

Everything not nailed down or pinned to the wall is put away in locked drawers and closets, or it has to leave the room — which means all my living creatures come home with me for the summer months.

This year, as I was cleaning, I found an old, paperback textbook written by my AP Biology teacher, Lee Paseltiner. 

I opened it up and found this dedication, handwritten and signed by “Mr. P”.

Mr. P's Book

 

To Dubba,

A former student in my Advanced biology class, outstanding teacher and dear friend.

Lee Paseltiner

He always called me Dubba, my high school nickname — and until recently, I always called him “Mr. P.”

My relationship with Lee Paseltiner started to flourish after I called him and asked him for help with a graduate paper that I was writing on “Hand-on science education”. 

Mr. P was a pioneer in the field of hands-on science. 

He was a member of “a creative and ingenious teacher staff … [that] developed and implemented its own brand of individualized biology called LindLearn” which was the singled out by the NABT as one of 10 exemplary programs in Secondary Biology.

In 1980, he personally started a program, in my high school, for Seniors called L.E.F.T., Lindenhurst Environment Field Trip, which continues to this day.  I was one of those Seniors — a LEFTy, as we proudly called ourselves.   

L.E.F.T. took us to the Sunken Forest on Fire Island for a week-long hands-on adventure into one of New York’s most unique ecosystems.

Not only did we study the ecology of Fire Island; we were joined by a group of dedicated teachers from the Departments of Art, Math, Social Studies, English and Phys Ed. 

I won’t be so dramatic as to say that the L.E.F.T. experience was life-changing; it was, however, life-forming

For me, L.E.F.T. strongly confirmed my decision to attend the University of Montana and study Wildlife Biology as an undergraduate.

The paper that I was working on was titled WHY CAN’T JOHNNY? A look at how today’s science-curriculum excludes certain students.  Kind of an unconventional title for a graduate term paper, but I excelled at being unconventional.   

Without hesitation, Mr. P. sent me an abundance of information on LindLearn Biology and L.E.F.T

From there, I would periodically call him up to just to “talk shop”.

He always had lessons to share, as well as a list of articles and books to read, including “Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire” and “There’s No Short Cuts”, best-sellers by Rafe Esquith, the Walt Disney Company’s 1992 Teacher of the Year.

I would later share “Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire” with my school principal, Chris Krohn, at the Community Day School in Burbank, California, and together, she and I planned a professional development day where we actually visited Room 56 and spend the day observing Rafe Esquith, in person.

This wouldn’t have happened without Mr. P’s influence.

After Mr. P. retired, he paid a visit to my classroom in Burbank, California during one of his West Coast trips to visit family.  He viewed the grounds and meet my famous Sulcata tortoise, Kobe and observed my student’s award-winning project.

You can only imagine the look on his face when I handed him with his very own personalized, autograph copy of Rafe Esquith’s latest book.

A few weeks later, a package arrived for me from Long Island.  It was from Mr. P.

Inside, I found an album of photos that he had taken of me and my students, pasted with his signature feel-good stickers, along with a personal note of compliments.

It was like having my performance on the baseball diamond praised by the legendary Yankee great, Babe Ruth.

After my wife and I moved back to New York, we would often have dinner with the Paseltiners at their home on Long Island.   He just loved my boys, as you can see in the photo featured above.

During our long dinner conversations, we discovered that our lives oddly intertwined.  

When discussing how I met my wife — we met while working at the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown, NY,  Mr. P and his wife, Judi, shared that they were Puppy Raisers for GDF and once cared for one of the Foundation’s stud dogs.  

During another dinner, we discovered that the Paseltiners had Honeymooned in the Lake George Region, the Melody Manor to be precise, a resort minutes away from where we were married and very close to our present-day home.

What really blew us both away, however, was when we learned that Mr. P’s mother-in-law was my father-in-law’s English teacher at the Bronx School of Science.

No matter how intriguing those connections were, the conversation always got back to teaching.

“It’s like planting seeds,” he would always say about the goal of a teacher.  “But most of the time, you don’t get to see the end product of what you planted.”

My family was saddened when the Paseltiners decided to move to Florida to be closer to their grandchildren.  However, shortly after the decision was made to relocate, packages started to arrive at our doorstep. 

Almost daily, we received a large box filled with items from his legendary classroom.  

Turtle skulls. Shark jaws. An enormous dried-out sea star. Corral. Natural sponges.  Something that looks like a giant vertebrae. A self-penned script on Photosynthesis — props included.  His “Soft ice cream cone” lamp and his giant retractable DNA model — which has become my own personal fidget spinner.

I fidget allot — especially after my morning coffee!

“You can’t play the accordion with RNA,” I often shout in class as I open and close the large double-stranded squeezebox of nucleotides, in a playful effort to capture the attention of eighth and ninth graders, wondering if Mr. P would approve of my antics.

Mr. P also sent a box of wildlife Christmas tree ornaments which we use annually to decorate our Pasel-tree-ner

We grew close and talked often.  Mostly about education, but he always directed the conversation back to me and my classroom.

He taught for at Lindenhurst High School for 47 years and AP Biology for almost three decades. It was like having your own personal mentor on speed dial — and it was beyond amazing to have such a wealth of knowledge at my fingertips.

“It’s like planting seeds…,” he would always remind me every time we talked.

So, I found it odd when Mr. P recently stopped returning my calls.

One day, out-of-the-blue  I saw that I had missed a call from Mr. Paseltiner — and was happy to see that he had left a message.  

“Dubba, it’s Mr. P.  I have something to tell you.  Some of it bad. Some of it good.”

Hoping for the best, but expecting the worst, I called him that night.  

“Let me apologize,” he began, struggling to talk.  He told me that he went into “hiding” per se, after being diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer. 

Then, he started to tell me a story about a turtle…

“Recently,” he said, “a turtle crossed my path.”  He continued to tell me that he and his wife stopped the car to rescue the turtle and place it to the side of the road.   

Though it was safe, out of fear, the turtle instinctively drew itself deep within the protection of its shell.

Like the turtle, Mr. P explained, he had also recently withdrew from life. 

So, he was calling me to apologize for not calling and to let me know that he had decided to finally come out of his shell. 

That was the Good News. 

The bad news was that he sadly had weeks, maybe, at best, only a few months to live.  His goal, he told me, was to make it to his anniversary in June.

We spoke for hours.  We laughed. We cried — but we mostly talked about teaching.

Always an optimist, he invited me down to Florida when life was less hectic.  

Finally, it was getting late and my boys were still up, so we said “Good night.”

I made it a point to stay in touch and reach out as often as I could. 

If I came across an interesting Science article, I sent it his way.  I would text photos of the boys — and I called to discuss my Regents results.

As a man, I hope to be half the father and husband he was.  As an educator, I strive to be as good as he was — knowing I may never attain such a lofty goal.  

If every teacher could be just a little bit like Lee Paseltiner, we would quickly become a nation of envy throughout the world!

Two weeks ago, while driving to picked my boys up at Day Camp, I passed an unusually shaped item in the road.  My experienced-eye told me that it was a turtle, frozen in fear, on the double yellow line of a busy roadway, deep inside its shell.

I turned my car around, parked on the side of the road, and got out to rescue this helpless creature.  Dodging traffic, I cringed a few times as passing cars nearly clipped its delicate, dark carapace.

Finally, I picked it up and planned on placing it on the side of the road in the direction it was going.

But then, I though of Mr. P.

In that brief moment, I decided to make this a teaching moment for my boys — as he most likely would have done.

I safely packed the turtle in my car and drove the short distance to camp.

I introduced the turtle to my boys and explained that we would keep it for only a short period of time — just long enough so they could learn a’bit about its species.  But then, I explained, we would return it to its proper home.

I thought my five-year-old would put up a fight, but he fully agreed — a miracle in itself.

They found a large tote and filled it with water.  Together, we found a large rock with a flat surface for the turtle to sun.

We determined the turtle was a male and then gave him the name Jethro.

For the next two weeks, the boys took care of Jethro daily.

I planned on sending a photo of Jethro and the boys to Mr. P, but life tossed a few curveballs our way this summer, so I never got around to it.

The truth was that I kind of withdrew into my own shell.

Mr. P had become more than just a mentor; he became a father-figure, a close friend — and I feared my next call would go unanswered, a sign of bad news.

Finally, the boys and I decided it was time for Jethro to go back home.

Soccer camp would be over at the end of the week and we determined that it would be a good time to release him safely back into the wild.

Since I knew Mr. P would love to hear another good turtle story, I made a conscious decision to reach out to him after Jethro was set free.

As I sat watching my boys practice soccer drills, I sent Lee a photo of them that I knew he would enjoy.

I usually would have posted a note along with the photo; something like: “Nothing says Soccer like plaid shorts and neon green socks 🙂 Let’s chat soon.”  But, the expressions on their faces were so priceless, I wanted the photograph to speak for itself.

Minutes later, my phone rang.  It was Judi Paseltiner, Mr. P’s wife.

“Hi Dubba, it’s Judi.”

“Is it bad news?” I asked as choked back the tears.

“Yes, Dubba,” she sadly replied.  “It’s bad news.”

That night, I laid in bed reviewing old emails between me and Mr. P.  I kept thinking how much I was going to miss our long phone conversations.

I felt so alone, as if I lost my co-pilot in the classroom.

What’s it going to be like entering my classroom without that tremendous safety-net I always had that was Lee Paseltiner? I wondered.

During one of our last conversations, Lee finally told me his age, something he never revealed in the classroom.   I chuckled to myself as I reflected on that conversation because that’s something I also do!

We shared so many I do that too moments on the phone these last few weeks.

“Dubba, I’ll finally tell you.  How old do you think I am?”

“Well, I never wanted to ask out of respect for Judi,” I said with a smile. “But, when I was teaching at Lindenhurst, I saw a County Champion trophy by the gym for the 1960 Basketball team — and you were the coach.”

“When I was young, a doctor told me to exercise and stay away from red meat and salt,” he told me.  “So, I did.  I would jog every day; and when I couldn’t jog anymore, I swam a mile a day … until recently.”

He paused and then proudly added, “Dubba, I’m 87.  Not a bad run.”

He was not at all bragging.  He was teaching.  He was always teaching.

“Remember, Dubba,” he said one last time. “It’s like planting seeds.  Keep planting seeds.”

Lee Paseltiner — my teacher, my mentor, my friend —  passed away peacefully on July 26 at his home in Parkland, Florida.

He L.E.F.T this planet a better place then he found it.  After a lifetime of teaching, that might be his greatest lesson of all!  

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AUTHOR’S NOTE:  If you have any fond memories of Mr. P, please leave them in the comments section below.  I will print them and mail them to the Paseltiner family.

James Henry is also the author of Corporation YOU: A Business Plan for the Soul,and two children’s books: The Second Prince and Klaus: The Gift-giver to ALL
James Dobkowski
As a writer, James has been featured on Bob Salter (CBS Radio), Mike Siegel, Mancow, and more.
Beyond writing, James worked with At-Risk youth in Southern California for over six years.  His contributions to the classroom where featured on local television and in the LA Daily News and Burbank Leader, and earned him the honors of “Teacher of the Year”.  James was also twice honored by a CASDA Scholar as the teacher who had the greatest influenced that student.  He has also appeared twice, as an educator, on “America Live with Megyn Kelly”.
Today, James lives in Up-State New York where he continues to teach — and his friends call him Dubba.

To contact James or book an interview, please contact Mark of Goldman/McCormick PR at (516) 639-0988 or Mark@goldmanmccormick.com.

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Line Divider Image by Mahua Sarkar from Pixabay

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