Back to School / Stern, great teacher challenged students mentally, physically

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After being taught by nuns and several female lay teachers for eight years at St. Mary's School on Pittsburgh's North Side, I began my first day at North Catholic High on Troy Hill in 1959.

It was an all-boys school with only priests, brothers and male instructors, and I was a shy and naive kid. Assigned to homeroom 9-H (I had no idea what in the hell a homeroom was), I entered the classroom and observed a gray-haired man, about 5-foot-2, in his late 50s, scrawling on a green "blackboard" with yellow chalk.

Standing on tiptoes to reach the top, he had written "Good Morning," with "JMJ" (Jesus, Mary, Joseph) directly underneath -- as he did every day thereafter, together with several sentences of thought-provoking words of wisdom. He included his name, Mr. Albert Schon, and our schedule.

When speaking, he called us "Sir," "Men" and "Gentlemen," a total deviance from the nuns who used "boys." He said if we forgot to wear a coat or tie, we'd receive a "blueie" from one or more teachers. It was a slip of blue paper with the number of demerits (points), delineated arbitrarily by the assessor against our then-perfect conduct record.

Mr. Schon kept neckties in his desk and rented them for a quarter to students who forgot to wear one, if they wanted to avoid receipt of a blueie from educators, including him. At day's end, he'd return the money in exchange for his property. Narrow, 2-inch-wide neckties were in vogue. His were from the 1940s, three times as wide. Thus, for vanity's sake, some students settled for demerits.

Mr. Schon was an excellent English teacher, an "institution" who had taught at North since its opening in 1939. Although diminutive in stature, he didn't take "crap" from anybody.

"You only have one chance to make a good first impression, gentlemen," he frequently said. Truer words were never spoken!

Unlike in today's protective society of parents who sue at the drop of a hat, if someone goofed off during class, Mr. Schon threw his chalk or a blackboard eraser and usually succeeded in hitting the offender harmlessly on the side of his head. Sometimes, he deservedly punched a wayward kid in the noggin, slapped his face or pulled him by the scruff of his neck or greasy hair, dragged him to an empty seat up front and threw him into it.

In my opinion, he, and most other North Catholic teachers, treated us like men -- not pampered sissies.

The man was a witty, eccentric character. And frugal. One morning he bought $50 worth of "Carchex," or tokens, from Pittsburgh Railways Company (predecessor to Port Authority), because of a pending fare increase. He extracted hundreds of these metal tokens (along with several pieces of burnt toast) from his sagging suit pockets to show us. He also once sent Christmas cards in July -- postage was increasing!

He was in charge of the school's annual "Penny Raffle Drive," wherein people could win monetary prizes by buying chances for a penny apiece on long, green cardboard cards, each containing 25 lines. Every student was expected to sell 40 cards, totaling $10. A wiseguy once cracked to Mr. Schon, "I can't give you my money; I'm busted."

"Only women and statues are busted, sir," Mr. Schon replied, using one of his favorite expressions. He then charged down the aisle and grabbed money from the joker; they wrestled on the floor while numerous pennies rolled everywhere.

In English class, Mr. Schon often imparted the works of William Shakespeare. He brought an old, windup Victrola to class and played ancient, scratchy records of Shakespeare's plays. We listened repeatedly to "The Merchant of Venice" and memorized "The Quality of Mercy" from it. He forced us to study "Othello," "King Lear," "MacBeth" and other tragedies.

We read them aloud in class -- over and over! He made us put stern emphasis on all our spoken words by acting them out phonetically, but not physically. If he didn't like it, we re-read and re-read until we satisfied him. Today, still, "The Merchant of Venice" and "The Quality of Mercy" are unforgettable to me.

Mr. Schon was a hell of a great teacher -- the best I ever had. He taught us how to show respect, to be men and a lot about English, religion, life and, of course, Shakespeare.

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Bill McKinley of West Deer, a retired administrator for United States Steel and Carnegie Pension Fund, can be reached at PG Portfolio welcomes "Back to School" submissions about memorable experiences at all levels of education, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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