In honor of his 60th birthday and father’s day—I want to dedicate this piece to my Dad. Never seeking recognition, he very much deserves it as he has played a significant role in helping me to become the person that I am…and aspire to be. I’m set to receive a Master’s of Science in Information Systems (MSIS) from Drexel University this weekend…I have him to thank for helping me achieve this lifelong goal.
Abraham Lincoln High School, at the far end of Northeast Philadelphia, is where I spent grades nine through twelve. At that time, in the 1990’s, neither I, nor many of my peers, were concerned with our passions when it came to our educations. We were ordinary guys attending an ordinary big city high school. To the best of their abilities, our teachers taught us the basics of a static and traditional curriculum. We weren’t encouraged to explore interests that genuinely made us happy. Our role was to earn a high school diploma, perhaps take the SAT’s for college, or study a trade in order to get a good job.
I was raised in a blue-collar neighborhood where adults worked hard for their families because they had no other choices. The vast majority of them were not passionate about their careers. My father was a steam fitter for the University of Pennsylvania, an honorable profession that I admire still to this day. He was up and out of house by 5:30 a.m., not returning home until after dark. Despite those long hours at the University, he somehow managed to take my brother and me to baseball practice or down to Pennypack Creek for a family fishing outing. At night, he found solace in the sweet melodies of his favorite band—Rush. While I never actually heard him play, he had a white guitar in the closet that my mother always smiled over. He is a man who never had the chance to live out his rock star dreams.
It seems to me
I could live my life
A lot better than I think I am—
I guess that’s why they call me,
They call me the workin’ man.
Growing up, I expected to become a blue-collar worker, akin to my father and other men in my family. My brother, Tom, worked as an auto mechanic, a good one, directly out of high school. One of my grandfathers was a car salesman who knew engines like the back of his hand; the other held a front line military position for much of his adult life. Both passed on after long lives dedicated to their families and their work. If either questioned that work, they never discussed it aloud. For my brother and me, however, there was a small voice of curiosity that called to each of us, inviting us to make changes that we had never thought to imagine for ourselves. Tom remained a mechanic for seven years before realizing that he wanted to do something other than auto repair. Returning to school was a huge decision for him, one that helped guide me to consider other alternatives for my life as well.
In my mind, there was always a fallback plan. If destiny wouldn’t have me become a professional hockey player or a lead singer, I could always be an auto mechanic like Tom. Lack of ambition as a teenager had caused me to do just enough to get by in school. The college application process became an iffy proposition for me; I took the SAT’s once, figuring I’d do well enough to get into some school. It didn’t matter where; I just knew that I wasn’t ready, at age eighteen, to settle into a mechanic’s job. Looking back, I often wonder what would have happened had I really committed myself to education at a much younger age. I’ll never know.
After a semester at West Chester University, I transferred closer to home to be near my family and friends. Maybe I’d had a premonition. Shortly thereafter my mother passed away, causing me to re-evaluate my life and take time off from school altogether. I began working full-time at a local food store stocking shelves. It didn’t take long for that quick curiosity to find its way back to me, and I returned to school, this time to Holy Family University. At the same time, I began a part-time job at Springside School in Philadelphia where my brother, Tom, was now working with lifelong friend and Director of Technology, Pete DiDonato.
The position at Springside consisted of carrying boxes, moving computers, and changing printer ink—not exactly what I envisioned as the ideal IT job. I distinctly remember asking my brother if he and Pete had designed the Windows 98 login screen…Bill Gates…who? Despite my naïveté, I became increasingly interested in technology, yet never fully passionate about the backend workings of the field. I stayed many nights working in the server room with my brother and Pete—it was clear that both of them were passionately motivated in their work; I admired that. Still, configuring VLANs and securing internal infrastructure wasn’t what I went home and dreamed about.
I spent several years as a tech support person at Springside while continuing my education at Holy Family, beginning to develop relationships with teachers, administrators, designers, and, most of all, students. I was becoming more reflective in my work and as a result, the role that education was taking in my life was evolving. Sharing my knowledge became very important to me at just the time that I discovered how much I enjoyed writing. Fortunately, a new level of autonomy in my work allowed me the time to do this, and thus I began to blog on behalf of the Springside technology team, ultimately realizing that education in some capacity was where I would make my home.
Following nearly a decade in the server room of IT support, a life-changing opportunity came my way. Springside was in the early stages of a merger with neighboring Chestnut Hill Academy. Faculty and staff restructuring would allow me to pursue an educational technology position that both intrigued and unnerved me. This role combined an appreciation for technology as well as an understanding for teaching pedagogy. The discovery that teaching and learning would become such a meaningful part in my life was a revelation, given that just enough was always my motto in school. Fast forward a few years…I have recently graduated Suma Cum Laude from Drexel University with a Masters of Science in Information Systems. Times have most certainly changed.
Recently, I was lucky enough to travel to New York City with colleague Rahilla Zafar. I listened to Professor Keith Weigelt from University of Pennsylvania Wharton Business School and Agapi Stassinopolous discuss the potential of a course focusing on student passion, social entrepreneurship and creativity. Hearing this discussion prompted me to reflect on my years in high school and college…what if I had been given the opportunity to take such a class at an early age?
I shared a little of my background with the group, that I had been raised in a blue-collar family where my father, whom I hold in the highest regard, dedicated his life to work without complaint. Although he never had the opportunity to become Rush’s lead guitarist, it was the dignity of his work that allowed me to now be creating mine. Sadly, not everybody is fortunate enough to have the freedom to pursue interests that intrinsically motivates them. This is why I believe that we, as educators, have a strong responsibility to teach and guide our students towards career paths that allow them to more broadly develop all of their skills as pathways to becoming strong working adults. I am honored to be part of the SCH Academy community where restraints on dreams do not exist.
Exactly where I’ll be in five years is impossible to predict. What I do know is that it will be in education. In working with students, I’m a part of the learning process. I’ve discovered that I can teach a class of high-school students how to develop an app or game with the aim of creating social change well beyond Facebook. Furthermore, each day I have the opportunity to help a teacher enhance his or her practice with an innovative tool or teaching style. Through education and experience at SCH, I’ve developed a skill-set to help teachers transform a unit they’ve taught for decades into a Design Thinking project. Ask me the question what do you do? My response—I’m a learner and an educator.
Pipe-Fitter’s Son. Still—And More.
I often think of my father’s white guitar, but I no longer wonder what might have been, had he been able to pursue a career in music. I’ve always been amazed that my father never griped about work. Now I realize that what is true for me was always true for him. It is the relationships and what he has created with his mind and his hands, that has given him satisfaction and peace. It gives me that same satisfaction now, even as I write. Whatever the case may be, I’m inspired everyday that I come to work because I’m part of an educational institution where imagination, innovation, and creativity guide students to careers that they’re passionate about, and I’m a part of that…
Well they call me the working man,
I guess that’s what I am…