Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Inspiring Teachers


Scanned photo of Norman Erickson. Source, 1972 Lariat (photographer unknown)

Believe it or not, kids in many communities will be starting back to school in the next few weeks. In elementary school, we would always stand around outside on the first day of school, waiting for the bell to ring, and asking each other who we were going to have for a teacher and wondering what he or she was like. Some kids would always have the “down low” and could tell you who was interesting, fun, or mean. Then the bell rang, and there was the moment of truth. You took your seat, the teacher took the role and you started figuring out just what kind of year it was going to be.

I’ve been thinking about inspiring teachers recently because of a book I’m reading that talks about the beauty of math. It brought back memories of Mr. Erickson, who taught algebra, geometry, and computer science at Chaney. I didn’t always enjoy math, but I enjoyed his classes because he enjoyed math. He’d come up with great illustrations, sometimes corny, as when he used the imaginary friend “Harvey” to talk about imaginary numbers.

That set me to thinking about all the inspiring teachers I’d had during my years of school. It all begins with Mrs. Smith, who taught first grade at Washington Elementary. She taught me how to read, opening up worlds of wonder I continue to explore to this day. Mrs. Vidis was tough and strict as my fifth grade teacher. I could be lazy at times and she pushed me to do my best when I was willing to settle for “OK.” I had terrible handwriting. It is marginally better today because of Mrs. Vidis. In sixth grade, Mrs. Welch opened my eyes to the world. I still remember a mock United Nations unit we did, and having to learn about so many countries. She made world affairs and geography come to life.

Miss Stephenson taught music at West Junior High, and I think it was here that I realized how much I liked choral singing. I’m only sorry that I was too busy being “macho” to admit it until much later in life. Mr. Crann taught English and I remember how hard he worked to help us express ourselves clearly and to inspire us with great ideas. It was in his class that I first encountered William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” with its closing verse:

It matters not how strait the gate, 
      How charged with punishments the scroll, 
I am the master of my fate, 
      I am the captain of my soul. 
When Mr. Crann read it, he made it sound like the anthem of his life. Perhaps it was.

I’ve already written about Mr. Erickson, my high school math teacher. I also remember science teachers like Mr. Tanoff  in Chemistry and Mr. O’Connor in physics. Mrs. Stamler was a young English teacher who introduced us to the classics and helped us relate what we were reading to our own lives. Miss Foster taught an innovative Art of the Motion Picture class that taught us to really watch rather than passively enjoy a film. Mrs. Bisciglia and Miss Kemp both taught me about writing, mostly through a lot of red ink!

I went on to Youngstown State for college. Dr. Mark Masaki in psychology (my major) was always the toughest but whether we were talking about the uses and abuses of statistics, behaviorism, or neurophysiology, he pushed you, made you think, and brought his “A game” to every class. Dr. Leslie Domonkos made history interesting for the first time in my life and it has been ever since. Dr. James Houck in English did the same thing. I only took his class in the Romantic period of English lit because my girlfriend (now my wife) was and I still love the works of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and T. S. Eliot because of him. He also led a discussion group over Lent one year on the works of C. S. Lewis who I was just then discovering.

Our parents sent us to school because they wanted us to have a better life than they did. It will be an interesting question on the other side of eternity as to who really has had the “better” life. What I do know is that I was inspired and enriched by a number of teachers along the way who taught me not only how to do things, but also helped me understand the world I live in and delight in it. They helped me ask big questions and aspire to high standards. As I remember them there are two words that summarize my feelings toward all these men and women who passed along to me their passion for what they loved:

Thank you.

12 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Inspiring Teachers

  1. Your Mr. Tanoff was my Mr. Tsvetanoff. He shortened his name. Loved him and Mr. Erickson. Had Mrs, McCandless for geometry, and she was great, too. We were lucky to have these people for teachers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bob, we were both privileged to share many of the same teachers from Mrs. Smith at Washington to Dr. Houck at YSU. We were so fortunate to have such amazing people framing our education. I learned literature from Volney’s Miss Thorne and grammar from Chaney’s Ruth Wean.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There is not a week that goes by that I do not think of Mr. Erickson and the positive impact he had on my life and career. Because of his ways of teaching, his humor, his caring, … I became a math teacher at Fitch High School and YSU. And I even used Harvey in my classroom. He found out about that and sent me a letter giving me “custody” of Harvey. I also have three of his ties. He was an outstanding educator – far ahead of his time – and a great person. Many of his teaching ideas are being used today – some cited as new and innovative. He was unique.


    • Wow, it has been incredible to find that I’m not alone in my appreciation for Mr. Erickson. What a wonderful example your comments are of the impact of a good teacher. Thanks for taking the time to write.


  4. Pingback: Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Your Favorites of 2017 | Bob on Books

      • I think it was 1955. He taught 7th grade math. He solved all word problems using x for the unknown we were seeking. He really had an algebraic approach to 7th grade material. I think it helped me when I actually took Algebra….a gentle introduction.
        I posted a story about him but can’t remember where. Mr Erickson is one of my lifetime heroes. In 1955 or 56 my younger brother was bitten while trying to break up a fight between our dog and a dog that we did not know. The dog ran away and when my father took my brother to the doctor he insisted that my brother have the rabies vaccine. He took the first of 12 shots in his stomach! The shot made my brother sick. When I went to Princeton the next morning the dog was in the school parking lot. I ran into the school. Mr. Erickson’s room was by the door. I ran to him breathless saying that the dog that bit my brother was in the parking lot. I explained the shots. Mr. Erickson said “Show me.” We went outside.
        The dog had a bone in his mouth. Mr Erickson walked right up to him and took the bone and lured him into his car. He told me to show me where we lived. There was a baby car seat in the back. I remember thinking “Mr. Erickson is a dad!” We went to our house and he tied the dog to a tree in our backyard where it stayed until it was proved that he did not have rabies. My brother didn’t have to take any more shots. Over the years I have often thought how wonderful that he could do that. In those days teachers were by law “in loco parentis” and could legally do what a reasonable parent would do. Now no teacher could do this in any school I have worked in without a notarized permission slip from the parents.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Chaney High School | Bob on Books

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