Let me start by saying that my high-school academic record was, shall we say, less than stellar. While I was a solid “B” student, high school for me was about sports, friends and girls — and not always in that order.
By some fluke, most likely a computer glitch at the SAT headquarters, in the fall after graduation, I found myself enrolled at the prestigious “little ivy” right here in Schenectady. Union College — a premier institution of higher learning, a sure fast track to academic distinction and a good job at the end of the tunnel.
Well, the light was obscured by too many nights at the fraternity house and too many afternoons at the Rathskeller.
Suffice to say that at the ripe old age of 17, I was not disposed to Union and it probably was not disposed to me. So when my final grades for the trimester were delivered home, my father was less than impressed with my “achievements.” While I did well enough to avoid being shown the door by the folks at Union, the above-average performance he was hoping for didn’t quite materialize.
My response was, “maybe I’ll take some time off . . . a respite from the rigors of the classroom,” his was, “enroll at Schenectady Community or find a job.”
Wait a minute I thought, Schenectady?
“You’re kidding, right? Why not Hudson Valley? You really want your oldest son to attend college at an old hotel? Come on, nobody goes there!”
He looked at me with furrowed brow and said again, “Schenectady.” Wow, I thought, how the mighty have fallen. Me, going to a school that represented the bowels of postsecondary education!
“But, I don’t want a degree from there,” I protested.
He said, very calmly, “I don’t care whether you get an associate’s degree, just get your first two years done with good enough grades to transfer back to a four-year school.”
And so began a two-year journey at a college that I had held in such low esteem, which became not only the foundation for my future college success but the bedrock for what turned out to be a lifetime love of learning.
During my first weeks at the college, I would park across the street either in front of the old Terminal Grill or Scautub Insurance Agency, lest my car be seen in the parking lot. I would run, head down and hunched over, across the busy street that brings traffic to the Western Gateway Bridge, hoping to cross in virtual obscurity, leaving little evidence that I was taking classes (I refused to use the word attending) at a community college.
But what I found at SCCC was a dedicated, highly knowledgeable, outstanding teaching faculty. Let me emphasis here, teaching faculty. For they were the best college teachers I found throughout my academic career. While the university I would attend later would have pretenders whose classroom duties were merely an inconvenience to endure on the way to a coveted tenured professorship filled with research, publishing and far more money than their counterparts at SCCC, none was worthy of the title teacher.
Baker, Hughes, Leveroni, McDuffee — these were my college heroes. They were my “Four Horsemen,” not of the apocalypse, but of excellence in education.
• Tom Baker brought such remarkable insight into the study of sociology and history. He was masterfully prepared for each class, providing insight and giving real-life meaning to such topics as poverty, legislative reform, the myths, legends and history of Native Americans, and the traditions and dynamics of social and political institutions.
• David Hughes — he was funny and he was quirky, and boy did he know history, as they say, inside out and backward. The man had a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of European and American civilizations. He always had stories to tell about the people, the times, and the events that made up history. You always felt that he had an inside scoop on history, akin to what today’s ESPN pundits profess to have on sports figures and their teams. I would have taken a course on the History of Wet Paint from this guy. He was that good, and he made me want to study all aspects and all accounts of human history.
• Richard Leveroni was brilliant, and I mean brilliant! His style, his demeanor would come to rival that of any of my future English professors. He loved British literature and even if you resisted it, you couldn’t help but be drawn into Beowulf and Shakespeare and, my favorite, the “Cavalier Poets” by his theatrics and true intimacy with the material he taught. It was because of him that I dared to further my studies with advanced classes in Old English (he actually taught us how to read the damn stuff without the benefit of a translator, which put me well ahead of most of my classmates), and the dreaded Shakespeare course I would need to take in order to qualify for teacher certification in English.
• Mary Beth McDuffee. There is so much to say about Mrs. McDuffee. In my mind, she will always be the First Lady of American Literature teachers. She taught the works and workings of Twain, Hemingway and the didactic writers of Colonial American literature with a wealth of knowledge, patience, and with such dignity and grace. She was one of the first teachers to see in me a glimmer of talent as a writer. Whatever I may have achieved in a 30-year career as a writer, the living I have made through my words, I owe a large debt of gratitude to her. She encouraged me and helped me to define and refine my craft.
There were others too — Bryant and Burian, and a host of adjuncts from University at Albany doctoral programs to folks outside of academia. Each carved in me a niche that remains a part of who I am today.
Since SCCC, I have earned undergraduate and graduate degrees and a university certificate of advanced study. But it was the small two-year school on the banks of the Mohawk that provided not only the strong foundation, but the impetus, the craving, the drive to further my studies. While I might have made it through all the classes, exams and papers without SCCC, my time there made my time elsewhere a lot easier.
Throughout the years, I have heard kids whose high-school records were less than eye-catching, or who were looking to save a few bucks before heading to a four-year school, talk about Hudson Valley as their first choice in their attempts at academic redemption or salvation. I then move into my SCCC speech — telling them that while HVCC is an excellent choice, don’t discount SCCC. I admit my reluctance to begin college there and how, to my astonishment, it proved to be the best educational experience of my life.
The years have come and gone since my days in Elston Hall. I often think of Professors Baker, Hughes, Leveroni and McDuffee. And, I still remember what I learned from them. Not just in the social sciences and humanities, but about myself. I should have thanked these talented, dynamic, underpaid and overworked teachers many years ago. But, somehow, a simple thank you still seems so insufficient.
Frank Ciervo lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.