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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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moth-to-the-flame-3

It was a brutally humid summer night on Long Island.

To stay cool, we sat outside with my next-door neighbors, the D’Angelos. You know what they say, “Misery loves company.”

Oddly enough, I don’t remember it being miserable.  Maybe it’s because we didn’t realized that we were supposed to be.

That’s because none of us on the block owned air conditioners — except the Cornelias, my next-door neighbors to the north, which is probably why they weren’t outside that evening.

Our small houses sat on small 75′ x 100′ plots of land. So, we were all a close knit group. “Back in the day” beating the heat together outdoors was just the norm.

That night, the boys drank soda as our dads drank beers and our moms chit-chatted, as we all sat around a picnic table that none of us could fit around today, and ignored our bodies as they dripped with sweat.

I will never forgot what happened next.

A mammoth, threadbare brown moth flew into the light and started fluttering around the table.

Not monumental, right?

However, what happened after the moth flew in changed my life forever.

Mrs. D’Angelo raised her right hand to his forehead, then touched her chest with the same hand, followed by touching his left and right shoulders, making the sign of the cross.

“Amen,” this devout and loving woman added to the end of her silent prayer. Filled with joy, she turned to me and catechize, “Every time you see a brown moth, it’s St. Anthony coming to visit. So, I say a prayer.”

The Saint she was referring to was St. Anthony of Padua, the Patron of Lost Things and contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi.

I laughed — and also remember being somewhat disrespectful. To her credit, she returned my offense with only love. When I look back on that day, I can’t help but becoming a bit saddened by the way I misbehaved.

A few years after, my father would become sick and have less than six months to live.

My mom accompanied my dad on his extended stays in a New York City hospital for cancer treatment.

During those periods away, my brother and I stayed with our neighbors. Often, it was with the D’Angelos, where we ate dinner together; broke bread together; prayed together.

I think back on how difficult it must’ve been for Mr. D’Angelos to stay positive during dinner as my brother and I must’ve been a constant reminder that he was on the verge of losing one of his best friends.

But then again, he was also a man of Faith.

Mr. D’Angelo and my father were an Odd Couple of sorts. My dad was a white collar salesman for General Electric. He was a blue collar typesetter for a major New York newspaper. He loved the Yankees. My dad, though a Mets fan by default, bled Dodger Blue. (Brooklyn Dodger Blue)

However, they were bound by their commute home on the LIRR, their love for baseball, of family and of beer — the cheaper the better, it appeared. But above all, they shared a common love, their Faith.

Eventually, my father passed away — and the D’Angelos where with us, standing in the landing, when my mother hung up the phone and shared the sad news.

My View - Corporation YOU

Today, I live far from where I grew up. My home has a view that I never could’ve dreamed of when I lived in my Long Island hometown.

The summer evenings are drier, cooler and much more quieter here.

Time-to-time, when the humidity rises above normal, I grab a beer, then go sit outside on my deck, put my feet up, and watch night fall.

Every now and then, I turn off all the outside lights, except one as I reflect on that brutally humid night on Long Island, and wait….

I wait for a moth to appear.

Not just any moth. I look for a threadbare moth, one cloaked in brown.

Its arrival always gives me great comfort as it reminds me that we are surrounded by heavenly angels and the communion of saints, where my dad now resides.

As the moth begins to circle the light, I make the sign of the cross and offer a silent devotion to St. Anthony of Padua.

I ask St. Anthony to pray for my family; to pray for my boys. I also ask the Patron Saint of Lost Things to pray for The Lost.  Finally, I give thanks as I ask St. Anthony to pray for my neighbors on North Kings Avenue in my hometown, Lindenhurst, New York.

Oh yeah, like Mrs. D’Angelo, I also teach my boys to do the same.

 

James DobkowskiJames Henry is the author of Corporation YOU: A Business Plan for the Soul, ‘Twas, and the new book series Hail Mary. 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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Accidents can lead to greater understanding.

On an overcast day in 1896, Henri Becquerel accidentally discovered spontaneous radioactivity. Madam Marie Curie’s discovery of radium also came about by accident. So did Fleming’s discovery of penicillin – by accident. Likewise, I became interested in the study of learning – by accident.

This accident occurred when I was working as a counselor at the North Lindenhurst Youth Center. I can now say the kids at the center represented a heterogeneous spectrum. At the time, these kids were just simply referred to as motley.

This motley crew was from the other side of the highway. I was from the other side of the tracks. The other side of the highway was much worse.

What amazed me most about this crew was their ability to learn almost anything they wanted. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Algebra or Biology. It was foosball and billiards; and I marveled at what these kids could do at those activities.

The angles they controlled on the felt. The spins they put on the ivories.

One day, I watched as a 14-year-old named Johnny controlled the foosball table. What was to follow came to be the greatest foosball move I ever witnessed – before or since!

Johnny controlled the ball with his far defenseman. Slowly, he positioned this defenseman to the right of his own goal. Next, he positioned his goalie directly behind his defenseman – in straight alignment. The scene looked as if he was going to shoot the ball at his own goalie – which he did, in lightning speed.

As the foosball ricocheted off the back wall, Johnny pinned it with his goalie. Slowly, Johnny crepted the ball up the wall until the goalie rested parallel to the playing field and the ball rested on the plastic goalie’s back legs.

With care and precision, Johnny advanced the goalie and ball to the left – over his own goal. Then, with the flick of the wrist, the ball sailed in the air, above the foosball table, with perfect projection and velocity, and landed in his opponents net.

The practice to perfect such a feat must have taken Johnny hours. If he only put that much effort into his schoolwork, I thought, Johnny could be an engineer! A CEO!! A College Professor!!!

For what was true for Johnny was true for all these kids.

Be it foosball, pool angels, joint rolling – whatever, these kids developed the patience, docility and relative quiescence for success in each task.

So why weren’t they successful? I remained baffled. Then, the accident occurred.

One day before work, I had to pick-up my mom’s dog at the vet. Things took longer than expected and I had to make a choice: Bring the dog home and be late, or bring the dog to work.

The dog was a Golden retriever named Buttercup. Buttercup loved kids, so I chose the latter.

The dog received a royal reception.

Buttercup was accepted and cared for by most every kid – except for those fearing that she a drug-sniffing K-9. Simple questions were soon asked: Is it a boy or a girl? What’s its name? How old is she? What kind of dog is it? Is she really a narc-dog?

Day 1 ended a success. The dog wasn’t set on fire and even better, the topic of conversation finally moved from sex, drugs, and Metallica to questions and answers relevant to a present topic – even though the topic was a dog named Buttercup.

The next day, I went to work without Buttercup.

However, she was still the topic of conversation. So, I started bringing her in for weekly show-and-tell.

Soon, I felt myself gaining the trust of these kids. As I did, I began to ask them questions about their school careers. Few had any positive stories to share. Most hated school. All felt stereotyped or left out.

Overtime, Buttercup retired.

Later, I would bring in different pets: my red-eared sliders, my Garter snake, and my friend’s parrot. The kids would touch and hold and interact with these animals. Slowly, our conversation moved from MTV to PBS as the activities moved from indoors to the out-of-doors.

Skateboarders started noticing the environment that surrounded them as they sailed through intersections. Head bangers – at times – removed their headphones to listen to a bird sing. Diesel heads started finds science bitchin’!

Later on, I was no longer the focus of information. More important, the conversation at the center expanded. I was amazing, a miracle discovery, an accidental espial that has led me to the investigation of learning through STEM in the classroom.

No miracle cures were found by any of these kids. In fact, most still hated school. However, for a moment in time, I struck gold in the minds of some forgotten youths.

Today, I cannot say I have all the answers, but I am closer to understanding hands-on learning that I was back then.

What I have learned from this experience and research that followed is neither innovative nor original. In fact, the technique I used in the rundown Youth Center is as old as the ancient Greek ruins from where it was first used.

However, did learn two things: (1) children are stymied by stereotypes – those given and those perceived; and (2) nature can be a powerful catalyst for learning science.

I believed by educating all grades in science about the environment that surrounds them with hands-on experiences (in and out of the classroom), we can break the chains that bind, and produce positive-learners who will retain more and practice more of what they learn – if you only let them.

AUTHOR NOTE:

Taken from James’s upcoming book: WHY CAN’T JOHNNY?

 

James DobkowskiJames Henry is the author of Corporation YOU: A Business Plan for the Soul, ‘Twas, and the new book series Hail Mary.   For six years, James taught At-Risk kids in Los Angeles.  Today, he lives in New York where he continues to write — and teach. 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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