Paul Zindel: High school chemistry teacher and celebrated author

Many fine educators distinguish themselves in other fields. Such is the case with Paul Zindel, a high school chemistry teacher who is also a celebrated author and playwright.

Paul was born on May 15, 1936 in Tottenville, on Staten Island in New York. His father was a policeman, and his mother was a nurse. When Paul was still a child, his father abandoned his family, and his mother struggled to support the family alone. It was, by his own account, a difficult childhood.

Upon his high school graduation, Paul enrolled in Wagner College on Staten Island. Although he majored in chemistry, he took a creative writing course from celebrated playwright Edward Albee. Albee encouraged and nurtured Paul’s writing talent.

After Paul earned his college degree, he accepted a position as a technical writer for Allied Chemical. He was employed there for six months, but did not enjoy the work. Pursuing a passion for helping young people, Paul decided to go into teaching. For the next ten years, he taught chemistry and physics at Tottenville High School.

While still teaching, Paul wrote the book he is probably most famous for, The Pigman (1968). It was so successful that in 1969 he left teaching to write full-time. “I felt I could do more for teenagers by writing for them,” Paul once explained. “I started reading some young adult books, and what I saw in most of them had no connection to the teenagers I knew. I thought I knew what kids would want in a book, so I made a list and followed it,” he continued. “I try to show teens they aren’t alone. I believe I must convince my readers that I am on their side; I know it’s a continuous battle to get through the years between twelve and twenty — an abrasive time. And so I write always from their own point of view,” he concluded.

Paul’s other signature work includes The Effect of Gamma Rays on the Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, which received an Obie Award in 1970 for best American play. He garnered a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1971.

Sadly, Paul contracted lung cancer and passed away on March 27, 2003. He is interred in Moravian Cemetery in Staten Island.

To learn more about this extraordinary educator and author, visit his website at www.paulzindel.com.

Substitute teacher and award-wining sports newscaster Drew Esocoff

Talented substitute teachers can also be considered chalkboard champions. A superb example of this is Drew Esocoff, a major network sportscaster who has also worked as a substitute school teacher.

Escoff_Drew-150x150Drew was born in 1957 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. As a teenager, he attended Thomas Jefferson High School, an all-boys institution, where he graduated in 1975. The school incorporated a local all-girls school in 1977 and was renamed Elizabeth High School.

Following his high school graduation, Drew enrolled in Colgate University, a private liberal arts university located in Hamilton, New York. There he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science in 1979. During his college years, Drew worked as a substitute teacher at his alma mater, Elizabeth High School, where he earned money to pay his college expenses. One of his students there was New York Jets football coach Todd Bowles.

After his college graduation, Drew  worked as a sports commentator and program director for ESPN and ABC, serving as the director for such national programs as Monday Night Football, Sports Center, the NBA Finals, Triple Crown horse racing programs, and five Super Bowl broadcasts. Drew’s work has not gone unnoticed. He has won eleven prestigious Emmy Awards for his television work.

Drew currently lives in West Redding, Connecticut, with his wife and two children.

Theater arts teacher Donald L. Leifert was also a sci fi/horror films actor

7648_7efe4ce15e731268698a14ae125931e5_centerI have often heard it said that there is a certain amount of theatrics involved in teaching. This must be true to some degree, because there are many examples of talented educators who are also successful as actors. One example of this is Donald L. Leifert, Jr., an English and theater instructor who also made a name for himself as a science fiction and horror films actor.

Donald was born on February 27, 1951, in Maryland, the son of Dolores J. and Donald L. Leifert, Sr. During the Viet Nam conflict, Donald served as a soldier in the U.S. Army. Following his stint in the army, he spent two years studying at the Douglas-Webber Academy of Dramatic Art in London, England.

Donald worked with indie director Don Dohler in such science fiction and horror film roles as the homicidal ghost in The Galaxy Invader, the contemptible lout Drago in Nightbeast, and the good-for-nothing redneck Frank Custer in The Alien Factor.

When Donald decided to change careers, he accepted a position teaching English and theater arts at the Carver School for the Arts in Baltimore County; English and journalism at Dundalk High and Catonsville High; and English and theater arts at Towson High School in Baltimore, Maryland. Donald was also a published author. He authored his biography, entitle Riggie: A Journey from 5th Street.

This exceptional educator passed away from natural causes at the young age of 59 on October 23, 2010, in Parkland, Maryland. At his passing, this chalkboard champion was remembered fondly by his former students. “He always pushed his students to be their best, because he knew we were capable of it, even when we didn’t,” remembered former student Jennifer Wallace. “He was kind, funny, and stern when he needed to be,” she said. Others agree. “As a senior in high school he would allow me to teach his beginner acting class now and then,” commented former student Jessica Wentling. “He gave to me the love of teaching, a passion that I intend to continue pursuing,” she concluded.

Alice Bag: The Punk Rock rebel who became an elementary school bilingual teacher

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Throughout American history, there are numerous examples of exceptional educators who also exhibit talents in artistic endeavors. One such educator is Alice Bag, an elementary school bilingual education teacher who has also made a name for herself on the punk rock scene, author, and up-and-coming painter.

Alice Bag was born Alicia Armendariz on November 7, 1958, in the barrio of East Los Angeles. Her parents were impoverished immigrants from Mexico. As a youngster, Alice had few friends in school, and was often the target of bullies. She experienced the hardship of starting school without knowing how to speak English. This experience led her to become passionate about education, and especially about bilingual programs.

When just eight years old, Alice began her professional singing career. She recorded theme songs for cartoons in both English and Spanish. As an adult, she became the co-founder and lead singer of The Bags, one of the first girls punk rock groups to emerge from the Los Angeles area. The band, which was formed in the mid-70’s, was most active during the years 1977-1981, during which time they released their best-known singles, “Survive” and “Babylonian Gorgon.”

“Rock ‘n’ roll stands for rebellion,” Alice once explained. “and if you’re feeling disenfranchised, it gives you a voice.” Alice had much to rebel against. An abusive father, for one thing; a Chicano culture that favored males, for another; and on top of that, racial discrimination against the Latino community. Music gave her the opportunity to channel that rebellion. For her pioneering work as a Latina punk rock performer, Alice has been featured in the Penelope Spheeris documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, and a traveling Smithsonian exhibition entitled “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music.”

After the break-up of The Bags, Alice studied how to bake pastries with a French patissier, studied painting at a community college, started a daily blog and website devoted to the history of the LA punk scene, and authored two books. In 2011, Alice published her memoir, Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage: A Chicana Punk Story, which describes her childhood of domestic violence. The coming-of-age volume launched a reading and performance tour across the United States, and is also taught in university courses in the departments of literature, gender studies, and Chicano studies. Her second book, Pipe Bomb for the Soul, was released in 2015.

After Alice earned her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from California State University at Los Angeles, she began teaching in inner-city schools in LA using the name Alice Velazquez, her married name. Now aged 57, she has retired after twenty years in the classroom. Alice says her years as a teacher has brought a sense of clarity to the lyrics of her current songs. “I was quick to get in arguments and often get in fights,” she remembers of her pre-teaching years. “Working with children, I found that I couldn’t ever be angry at a child. If there was a problem communicating or reaching the child, I felt like it was my responsibility to figure out how to communicate what I was trying to say,” she explains. “I think I became a more effective communicator. I learned how to clarify my thoughts,” she concludes.

Alice Bag currently lives in San Diego with her husband and three children.

Roberta Flack: Public School Teacher and Grammy Award Winning Music icon

imagesMany people have heard of the Grammy Award-winning songwriter and singer Roberta Flack, whose best-known songs are “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” and “Where Is the Love?” But did you know that this famous jazz, folk, and R&B icon was once a public school teacher?

Roberta Cleopatra Flack was born February 10, 1937, in Black Mountain, North Carolina, although she was raised in Arlington, Virginia. Her mother was a church organist, so Roberta grew up in a musical household. At the age of nine, Roberta began to study classical piano, and by the time she was fifteen, she had won a music scholarship to Howard University. She completed her undergraduate work and her student teaching as the first African American student teacher at an all-white school near Chevy Chase, Maryland. Then Roberta accepted a position teaching music and English in Farmville, North Carolina, a gig which paid her only $2,800 per year. She also taught junior high school in Washington, DC, and at the same time she took side jobs as a night club singer. It was there that she was discovered and signed to a contract for Atlanta Records. The rest, as they say, is music business history.

In recent years, Roberta’s contribution to education came when she founded an after-school music program entitled “The Roberta Flack School of Music” to provide free music education to underprivileged students in the Bronx, New York City. 

Roberta Flack: Truly a Chalkboard Champion.