Storytelling: Dr. A challenged us at every level

She always prevailed, but we became winners

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Our Storytelling series on favorite teachers continues (click here to read earlier stories):

Her name is Joyce Annunziata. Dr. Joyce Annunziata, if you please, although back on that sweltering first day of my junior year at Miami Carol City Senior High School in 1969, she was just Mrs. Annunziata.

We knew this, of course, because in her refreshingly optimistic way, she assumed that we could read her name when she wrote it ever so carefully on the blackboard in front of us. Upon completion of this task, she began her speech.

I should probably mention up front that I had already decided I didn't like her.

"Good morning, young people," she began in her thick New York accent. "My name, as those of you who can read have already discerned, is Mrs. Annunziata. I do have a seating chart here" -- how she accomplished that on the first day of school is still beyond me -- "and if you will be so kind as to tell me your names, I will tell you where you are from, with extra credit to whomever among you can tell me what was wrong with that statement."

Of course none of the Mensa candidates present that morning could define a preposition, much less declare that a sentence should not be ended with one.

Of course, I responded first.

"Yeah. Right." That was the sum total of my proclamation, and yet she just smiled, glanced at her chart and astonished all of us by saying: "Ah. Yes. Mr. Roth is it? North central New Jersey? Probably Newark, New Brunswick -- perhaps Plainfield or Somerville? We're a long way from home here in Miami, aren't we?"

Did I mention that I didn't like her very much? This cemented the idea.

Of course, she nailed it. I was born on a cold, rainy Thursday morning, Jan. 1, 1953, in the town of my mother's birth, Somerville, N.J. I grew up in Plainfield, where we lived until migrating to South Florida in 1965. South Florida was a fashionable place to migrate to in those days, even if your native language was English.

My life changed in two ways that day.

First, I determined that no one would ever again know where I had been born simply by hearing me speak two words. If, I determined, they were going to work it out, advanced linguistics would be a preliminary requirement.

In this crusade, I was highly successful. I doubt that even the amazing Mrs. A. could pinpoint my origins now. (I'm not, however, taking any wagers. Just to be on the safe side.)

Second, did I mention that I really didn't like her? I threw down a gauntlet: I would engage her in a battle of wills, never really understanding how much I was outmatched.

The venerable Lady (yes -- capital "L") picked it up. But I was somewhat less successful in my endeavor here.

OK -- she slaughtered me at every turn. Attempts at witty repartee left me on the short end of the exchange (but perhaps enlightened for battles elsewhere). Exceedingly clever practical jokes were thwarted, always ending up with the tables turned. Any resistance to the flow of the classwork was met with her overwhelming force. But through it all, my admiration and affection for her grew and grew -- and she responded in kind.

C. Joyce Annunziata (I never did learn what the C stood for) captivated our imaginations! She was appalled that trash collectors in Miami made more money than tenured public school teachers. But she was even more appalled that our education system was satisfied giving diplomas to individuals who were functional illiterates, having gotten by simply through their sports acumen.

Eventually, Mrs. A realized that she could help the system more by changing it than by fighting it. She went back to school and got her Ph.D. in education. The last I heard she was the individual who, in her words, "fires their asses" when teachers aren't teaching.

Do I love this lady?

You bet I do! And to this day I hold her personally accountable for the fact that I finished high school and college, and went on to make something of myself.

And guess what? I wasn't an isolated case. She cared for every student who passed through her doors. Cared enough to try to challenge them -- to make a difference. I don't know about the rest, but she succeeded in my life.

Dr. A. -- thank you.

David Roth lives in Dormont ( ). SEND US YOUR STORIES about favorite teachers, today or days gone by. Write to , send mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222, or call 412-263-1915.


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