A Comic Vision of
Great Constancy
Stories about Unlocking the Wisdom of Everyman
A Reading of “The Knight’s Tale”
and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

About Naples

     Naples Central School was a wonderful place to work. I am so grateful for the support I have received—both when I was actively teaching and now that I’ve written a book about the experience—from students, their parents, and colleagues. This is why my inaugural entry is “About Naples.”

    Naples is a small town four miles south of Canandaigua Lake in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State. It grew up in a valley around Naples Creek, one of the best trout streams in the region. For many years I coached the 7th and 8th grade boys’ soccer team, and right next to the field where we practiced there was a vineyard owned by Widmer’s Winery. During the fall season, if a soccer ball ended up among the vines, the kids would take the opportunity to score a handful of grapes while they were fetching the ball. They were high spirited boys. Grape growing and wine making are still major industries in the area. Every fall thousands of people come to the Grape Festival where they buy local products and sample grape pies.

    There are many farms in the low lying fields and valleys, but my students chiefly loved the wildness of the woods and the glens for hunting and climbing. The life they lived there reminded me of my own childhood on a farm in Ohio. When we were kids, we were always outdoors, playing and camping out. That said, Naples also has a cosmopolitan character thanks to business leaders and commuters from Rochester who settled there. There’s a strong arts and crafts culture and a playhouse; creative people for decades have come for the beauty of the place and the lively atmosphere. During the 30s the people of the town built an attractive school, and that building, while added onto and remodeled over the years as the need dictated, is still a strong center of civic life.

    In the spring of 1984 our principal Walt Zerrahn asked me to teach the AP literature course to seniors, and that opportunity gave me a new lease on life as a teacher. When graduating seniors reported back to our guidance counselor Kathleen Duserick that my course prepared them for success in freshman English, she encouraged more students to take AP and eventually convinced our principal Dick Arnold to open up the program to juniors as well as seniors. At open houses parents like Bill Kelly, our elementary principal, and Mary Marshall, a member of the school board, expressed their appreciation for the work their children were doing in AP. As head of the English department, every year I was required to report to the board about the English department’s programs. Pat Smith, Cliff Stone, and Skip Miller, who were members of the board with children who took the AP course, publicly and privately talked about the need for a rigorous program of reading and writing. This support within the leadership of the school encouraged me to continue with my research and experiments in the classroom. After an interval of many years and now that the book has been published, Margo Ulmer, my former colleague and the current president of the school board, has helped with publicity for it by reconnecting me with friends at the school and former students. I’m grateful for her continuing support and knowledge of the district.

    But I’d like to emphasize that the school wasn’t just about kids going on to college. Some of our students went to work after graduation, and the school gave them the skills and the work experiences they would need in their jobs. Mary Griffith excelled as a teacher of business, and she pioneered the use of computers in the building during the time when these were new technologies. Her classroom was a haven for the students she served, for she was intensely loyal to them and they to her. Kids came to Mary because she was a sympathetic but no nonsense listener. Nobody represented the spirit of the school better than she.

    These are just a few of the parents and colleagues who have made such a difference for me in my work and to whom I’m indebted. Even though I’m not native to the town, Naples—I now know from long acquaintance—is a special place. During the 80’s and 90’s the core faculty at the school stayed remarkably stable. The teachers’ commitment to the school was reciprocated by the community’s commitment to the school. We were all in it for the kids, and the kids responded with a remarkable record of achievement—in academics, in music, in special programs, and in sports. During the 80s and 90’s a greater percentage of students went on to college; this reflected Kathleen Duserick’s determination to place our talented kids in the best possible schools for them. It also reflected the excellent teaching the kids received—from Bill Rieglesperger in biology, Dan Robinson in chemistry, Tony Parlave and Mick Salter in Math, and Margo Ulmer in social studies. Some of our students even ended up in the Ivy League on the East Coast and in Stanford on the West Coast. This was a big step for kids from a small upstate town.

    The Naples Jazz Band and Marching Band throughout this period won many awards under the leadership of Scott Kickbush. His musicians loved playing for him, and the band room became an informal clubhouse where the kids developed close friendships. The excellence of their music and the fun of making it brought them together. Complementing the band and marching band, the Naples Color Guard and Winter Guard, led by Barb Hawks, consistently won awards in competitions all over the state. Twice while I was a teacher in Naples the boys’ soccer teams were New York State Champions. Their longtime coach Gary Schenk, a man whose teams were recognized across the state for their sportsmanship, was named the National Soccer Coaches Association of America National Coach of the Year in 1999. Gary quietly and consistently taught his players that there was no “I” in “team.” During those state tournaments, hundreds of people from the town would drive all across the state to show up for the team, and when the kids came home victorious, the entire town turned out to welcome them on Main Street with firetrucks and sirens. New York’s ticker tape parades have nothing on those celebrations.

    These experiences added up to a sense that I belonged to something much larger than my own little classroom and what I did there. We were all part of an enterprise the effect of which radiated out from the school. Back in the days of active teaching, I wrote many letters of recommendation for seniors applying to college, and in the last few weeks many former students have written letters of recommendation in support of my book as part of our press release for it. Hearing about their families and their work has been an unanticipated (and wonderful) consequence of publishing the book.

      So the book I’ve written is about Naples as much as it’s about comic literature. This was a town and a school that did its best for its kids. The town’s continuing support reminds me that this was a special time and a special place.

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