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Jack Zaleski, Published January 18 2014

Zaleski: Mrs. O’Connell’s reluctant student

Talked to an old high school friend last week (gosh, they’re all old) about our 50th class reunion, which is coming up in June. The conversation drifted to the great teachers we had in New Britain, Conn., public schools. That’s not an exaggeration. Nearly all of our teachers in junior high and high school were outstanding educators. Of course, we didn’t appreciate them at the time. Even the teachers we saw as jerks, nerds and relics knew their way around classrooms that were peopled by blue-collar smart-alecks and near-delinquents like me.

Today, when my friends and I consider our academic and professional successes, we credit the learning experiences we either enjoyed or suffered through in those classrooms. The foundation our teachers laid brick by academic brick was so skillfully constructed that by the time we skittered off to college campuses, we were ready for the new challenge, even if we didn’t quite grasp how it all happened. Not one of that group of high schoolers (many still friends) required remedial catch-up during their freshman year. Not one. You know, I can’t recall if remedial anything was offered at universities then. I think we were expected to know how to do college work, and if we didn’t, we studied until we did.

All but one of us graduated on time; all took on advanced degree studies. Several earned Ph.Ds. in everything from English literature to electrical engineering, from foreign languages to chemistry.

One school teacher in particular was as dedicated to her students as any I ever knew. Mary O’Connell, who died a couple of years ago, taught English and drama at Washington Junior High School, and later English at Pulaski High. I was in her classes at both schools. She recognized in me an aptitude for writing that I did not see. At the time, kids who could do science and math were tracked into those disciplines with the goal of studying the sciences and engineering in college. It was the post-Sputnik and Soviet-scare era. The tracking was a political mandate. I could dissect a frog with the best of ’em, so biology was my college plan. Mrs. O’Connell was having none of it.

She pushed me to write every day. She wanted to see my work, whether it was for her class or another class. She insisted I write original material out of class, and show her. I did, and she was critic, mentor and, most importantly, teacher. She was doing her utmost to steer me away from the sciences. I could not have known she was preparing me for a life of writing.

I still studied zoology, botany and chemistry at college. My goal was medical school in New England. But serendipity intervened, and newspapers and writing daily in North Dakota was my lucky fate.

Mrs. O’Connell wrote in my high school yearbook: “Use that pen to good advantage.” I hope I have. I regret never having looked her up during all the years since high school graduation in 1964. I like to believe she would have been proud of her reluctant writing student.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 214-5521.