Every Breath a Gift: a Memoir – My Life’s Work, Teaching

Larry Pearce

Mount Aloysius College
Cresson, PA

Chapter 4C – My Life’s Work, Teaching

In this chapter I’ve discussed odd jobs, part-time work, and even avocations. The last installment reviewed the many memories from my 20-plus year broadcasting career, at  both public and commercial radio and TV stations. Having moved from writer and announcer to management in the early 1970s at WJAC and then to sales in 1978, I resigned from there to take a marketing position at Northern Propane in 1981, which lasted only a short time until the lure of the air waves called me once again. But my days in broadcasting came to an end when I left WVSC-AM and FM, The Voice of Somerset County, in 1990, to sell insurance and investments.Anyone who wants to and can “sell” something will never be without work. But I believe that while aptitude is more important than intelligence for selling, having some of both certainly helps. One definition of “smarts” is “the score you happen to get on the Stanford-Binet test,” but paying attention to a book, a teacher, and a circumstance is very important. I was fortunate to have the best of each and was at least able to keep my head above water throughout life. As I’ll explain later, I was blessed in college to have been selected to Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges. I am still not certain what that meant except to sell a copy of the registry to parents of the students named. It helped that I made the Dean’s List first semester. My late Aunt Edna even put the announcement along with my picture in the Butler Eagle, the local newspaper that had contained so much family information when we lived in Cooperstown six years earlier. It seemed like my older brother Paul always had something in print there about his high school football heroics. Needless to say, I felt honored to continue to carry the torch.

Having jumped through the right hoops and passing the appropriate exams, I became a licensed insurance agent and Registered Representative for mutual funds with New York Life in 1990. Now that I think of it, much of my sales work in both broadcasting and insurance and investments involved teaching: How does one achieve Top of Mind Awareness (TOMA)? How does one protect oneself and family financially? Unfortunately, New York Life also wore out its welcome and I hung up my insurance license in 1992. I did, however, maintain my Federal qualifications to sell and maintain mutual fund investments, and worked for several local brokers, still conducting that business even today. But, when I no longer had an office or regular business hours to lean on, I joined my wife Susan in teaching private music lessons. Our undergraduate degrees in music education gave us all the qualifications needed to help our students find success with piano, organ, voice, and even guitar. In addition, I was playing for church services around the area. But by the fall of 1992, Susan and I were living on our wings and prayers. As you read earlier, the kids had flown the coop to attend colleges in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Our low income along with their brains and work ethics no doubt helped them get plenty of scholarship aid. In addition to teaching music privately from our home, we were also substitute teaching around the area. I was fortunate to serve a year as full-time substitute band director at Rockwood Schools, just south of Somerset. The money had been good for me, but now that the contract was over – what? Again, the Good Lord was working His ways, and our timing was perfect. Johnstown and Cambria County had plans in the works to join the State in developing a number of two-year colleges. In those old days they were called “junior” colleges. Now they are “community” colleges. I was accepted to teach a public speaking course in the spring, at the Cambria County Area Community College (CCACC), but the class didn’t have enough interest to “roster.” Meanwhile, as I’ve related earlier, Mount Aloysius College, a four-year school just up the road between Johnstown and Altoona, accepted my graduate credentials and asked me to teach the same course, and thus officially began my 21-year career as an adjunct professor. I explained my good fortune in finding that position at the end of the “New Opportunities” installment.

The next fall the class at the new Community College did meet with me at the helm, and the school enlarged that department to include Technical Writing, Interpersonal Communications, and several other courses which I was qualified to teach. Their unusual slogan was, “We’re the college without walls,” meaning that one could take classes in a variety of locations. I taught in Ebensburg, Richland, and several sites around Johnstown. I taught for them from 1994 through 1997, during which I was gradually moving my main allegiance to “The Mount.” I was starting classes for a second Masters degree at IUP, all the while playing the organ and directing the choirs at Mt. Calvary Lutheran in Johnstown. I just couldn’t do it all. The community college also expanded its reach, renaming itself the Pennsylvania Highlands Community College.My course load at Mt. Aloysius College also expanded, and my schedule moved from just one night a week to six credit hours during the day. Occasionally, I had the opportunity to teach a night with the nursing students at Conemaugh Hospital in Johnstown. They were some serious students. Grading on “the curve” was out of the question. Everyone wanted an “A.” I taught similar classes across the street on the second floor of Bishop McCort High School in the summer, where my wife directed the chorus. With no air conditioning there, those hours were torture. The next semester I taught at the Greater Johnstown Vo-Tech school in Richland, where there was plenty of cool AC. Eventually, The Mount moved the Public Speaking class to part of its English Department and I was asked to begin graduate classes in English, far beyond just the Communications classes I had had at Penn State. As I said in the last installment, I considered programs at Penn and Pitt but settled on Indiana University of PA (IUP) because of its proximity to Mt. Aloysius. You heard me say that I had my eyes on a Ph.D. but settled for another MA for various personal reasons. I don’t regret that decision. There were days when I was both teaching AND taking courses. I would start the day 40 minutes away from home in Cresson, then drive 30 minutes over to Indiana, and perhaps end the day 40 minutes back in Richland, practicing the organ or directing a rehearsal as part of my quarter-time music directorship at Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church. No wonder I quit teaching at the Community College and later at the church. More about that in the next chapter on “Missions and Ministries.”

My most vivid memories of college teaching involve not so much individual course content but the positives and negatives that day-to-day classes with human beings of all ages offered. And the thing about a new two-year community college and the four-year area  college with a history going back 170 years is that the students at either of these institutions are mostly “nontraditional.” They often have to balance family, work, and school life all in the “course” of a day. I feel I was uniquely qualified to teach them, having had lots of experience in all three of those areas.

Unless a student was really upset about something, most of the evaluations, reviews, and cards I received were complimentary and kept me going. I’ve saved the good ones! Aside from the chalk throwing incident while student teaching at Wilkinsburg and the chair kicking episode while directing a band rehearsal at Rockwood, the more mature me was able to keep his cool. However, like most things in our ever-changing world, my expectations in a lifetime of teaching were always changing and never turned out the way I expected. While I told my communications students back then to anticipate a variety of reactions among their audiences, today I think I’d be lost with the irrationality of politics and the unpredictableness of social media.Perhaps the most frightening moment in all my years of teaching came one night at The Mount when a knock came to my classroom door. It was Campus Security informing me that one of my students had threatened another teacher earlier in the day. They asked me if I wanted him removed from the building. At first I was dumbfounded, but then as I thought about it, I felt that I knew the young man and even considered him with some esteem. I allowed him to remain, and there was no problem the rest of the night or the semester. Honestly, I might have more concern today. Thirty years ago I recall making an inconsiderate comment about gays in front of a class and was met with a counter-comment from a woman who was probably gay. I regret that incident, but culture, especially at a Catholic school, was different back then. Part of the requirements in my Public Speaking classes 30 years ago was to be able to get up in front of an audience and tell a joke. Some of the subjects were risque to say the least. In perhaps the only criticism of my teaching by my department head, I was asked to “tone it down a bit” because someone had been offended. How would that all fit with “academic freedom” today? I don’t know. I do know that I enjoyed playing George Carlin and his “Tonight Show” bits on VCR tape recordings, which would be considered tame by today’s standards.

In preparing this installment I chose whom I thought, personally, were my best and worst teachers and tried to establish the bases for such an evaluation. Of course, in first grade was beautiful Miss Long, who smelled so good. I guess I was in love and could hardly concentrate. I don’t think I met that criteria with my students. As history was a favorite subject, Mr. Potts in seventh grade and Dr. Smiley at IUP were absolutely inspirational. It helped that I met Susan in the latter’s class. Any of my music teachers or band directors were also held in highest esteem. So which came first, “The chicken or the egg?” Did they inspire my musical aptitude or enable it? No doubt a little of both.

As for the worst teachers, I believe they were found in the areas of language, art, and gym classes. By getting to play very little in junior high football, I was inspired to quit and stick with the marching band for the rest of my public school days. My only “D” in college was in a spring French class, which I would skip to enjoy the beautiful weather, something that had more of an appeal in those days. Come to think about it, how do you explain my getting “Bs” and “Cs” in high school and “As” and “Bs” in college? I attribute it to the expectations of my teachers and counselors. Unfortunately, this held true in graduate school: a student moving into a different field of study without all the necessary knowledge is expected to accept a lower grade. As I said in my “Indiana” piece, I survived the insults of my Ph.D. committee to accept another Masters instead. As far as I am concerned they insulted my career choices, my teaching experience, and misrepresented the requirements for the higher degree. I don’t, however, regret accepting that second MA and was able to live another day to teach without the doctorate.I’ll leave you with several hilarious, if not shocking, speeches given by my college students over 21 years. My syllabus called for three varieties  of presentations: informative, persuasive, and an old-fashioned “How to” speech. The latter always came after mid-term, when the students felt comfortable with each other. I encouraged them to pick a topic that they knew well and wanted to share from experience. Most of the time the presentation involved a hobby, a career choice, or something they were passionate about. So the first example I’ll relate involved a class of nursing students, men and women, up in what I called “the rafters” of the Mount’s main building, third floor. There might have been 20 uniformed undergrads crammed into that tiny room. The presenter in mind had a human subject laid out on a table in front of the class covered with a sheet. The student announced that she would be teaching us how to give a shot. We were each given a hypodermic needle, a syringe filled with water, and an orange. The young lady then proceeded to have us carefully inject the fruit with the liquid. No matter how many Covid shots one has had recently, it’s an experience we generally want to leave to the professionals. Now for the climax: she would give the human subject under the sheet an injection in his rear end. She explained with a smile that he was her brother, also a nursing student. As she slowly and carefully pulled back the cover, she and the entire class saw that he was buck naked. At first there was a roomful of “gasp,” and then unmediated laughter. What an embarrassment! The dear girl did give her brother the shot, for an “A” I might add, and I’m sure a piece of her mind after class. The speech was memorable, I have to admit.

Federal Correctional Institution
Loretto, PA

My final classroom example comes from the Federal Prison in nearby Loretto, PA, a jail that has made national news in recent years for some famous “guests.” Periodically, The Mount and other colleges would get grants to offer offenders classes toward their post-secondary degrees. It was a chance for us professors to earn extra money and experience a population we wouldn’t otherwise encounter – we hoped. My class, I later found out, were mostly “lifers,” drug dealers, and serious criminals. We were instructed to keep our windows rolled up while parking in the lot outside the front entrance. Apparently an inmate’s accomplice could easily slip evidence into your car through a “cracked” window, if you’ll excuse the pun. We instructors then went through two or three checkpoints that made getting on an airplane seem simple. Finally, we were locked in a glass-enclosed classroom with several armed guards looking through the windows. So, after a few sessions my students came across to me as regular learners from any other academic situation: ranging from the shy to the serious with lots of comedians in between. One final speech-giver, however, still stands out in my mind today – a hard-working, serious gent who got up to announce that his topic would be, “How to dispose of a murder victim.” OK! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This teacher wanted to come across as if he had heard it all and could take it, but the fact was, I HADN’T heard this topic before, and I wanted run out of the room. I managed to contain myself and began to fill out the evaluation sheet as the speaker presented his information. I know you want to know what he said, so here’s a brief summary: 1. After you’re certain the victim is dead, take a sharp knife or saw and sever the head, arms, and legs from the body; 2. You should have dug one round hole as deep as possible with a posthole digger and at least two rectangular graves with a regular shovel; 3. The head goes in the round hole, the torso goes in the larger of the other two, and the limbs in the final space; 4. After mopping-up all the blood, throw the soiled articles, including clothing, in the largest hole and cover all, placing sod with grass on top to eventually grow everything shut and be indistinguishable from the surrounding area. The speaker got a rousing round of applause, and having admitted that this was all new to me and well-presented, I gave him a top grade. Do you understand now why I remember that night?

A teacher’s life, whether involving elementary students, Sunday schoolers, music ensembles, or prison in-mates, can be memorable to say the least, and mine certainly has been. Sometimes I feel as though I should pay the students for their hard work and information. As we move into a new chapter, I see teaching as a blessing in my life and a basis for my “Missions and “Ministries.” While I certainly don’t meet the most minimum standards set by the Son of God, I believe that His chief purpose on earth was to teach. In accepting His being part of the Trinity and the Plan of His Father, we too become teachers. In the spiritual realm I’ve taught mostly adult Sunday School classes, choirs, and special groups at local churches, but I feel that my real calling is through similar dynamics in my local community. I believe God placed me in college classrooms as a final paid career. One of the further blessings I’ll present in the next chapter, however, is an audience – consider them students if you will – around the world via my E-gen.info website. I’m amazed at the readership and their willingness to share family history. Have a look for yourself. Furthermore, I’m sure I never expected to see the role that people’s faith and the Church has played in inspiring families’ migrations and preserving the identities and geographics of those on the move and eventually settling. We’ll talk more about all of that, so read on if you will.

Move to: Interlude to Chapter 5 (expected 6/6/22)

Return to: Table of Contents

Last revised 5/27/22