Most of us remember our high school years with something of a cringe. I am no different. Quiet and unassuming, I hoped that if I stayed under the radar I’d be safe from the public humiliation that could befall anyone who wasn’t popular at any given moment at my Catholic school.
Although at home my father criticized the church for practices that he considered hypocritical, this school promised me a better education, so off I went. Needless to say, I had my first brush with imposter syndrome the minute I walked into the building.
It didn’t get much better from there. So few of my friends from middle school attended that it felt like a whole new universe. There were regular Mass services, from which I felt completely disconnected, and Religion was a required subject of study.
I was a good student, so while the academics came easily to me, fitting into this new environment did not. Most of the classes were taught by clergy. They seemed old, strict, and unfriendly. There were no wooden rulers, but there were stiff consequences for rule breakers. I did my best to steer clear.
One class, however, was different. It was taught by one of the few non-clergy members, an enthusiastic young teacher named Mr. Leone. The class was based on the biblical teachings of Matthew. Having no idea what that meant, I just remember groaning as I pictured a tortuous hour of studying passages I didn’t understand, being droned on about by a checked-out teacher.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Mr. Leone had a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, and he was so excited about the philosophy he was teaching that he literally bounced. He made it his daily mission to engage the room full of distracted high schoolers with as much humor and energy as possible.
I’m smiling as I remember the time one of his students fell asleep during class. “Andrea!” he exclaimed. “Why are you so tired?” “Sorry,” Andrea smiled as she replied. “I was at a Grateful Dead concert last night.”
“Grateful Dead? Grateful Dead??” He loudly repeated in his jovial tone, shaking his head as he chuckled in disbelief. ”What about the grateful living!?” He laughter was infectious, and he always managed to get us thinking.
Mr. Leone’s message was colorful yet clear. Not only could we make the world a better place, it was our responsibility to do so. I’ll never forget him articulating in his happy, impactful style the saying that shaped my life, and which I believe to this day. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. There is no neutral zone.”
Although I didn’t leave the classroom an enlightened teen, a door to conscious awareness had been cracked. As I grew into adulthood, it was a passageway I’d continue to explore. It led me to start a business dedicated to promoting sustainability, then eventually to coaching others to recognize and reach their highest goals.
Over the years, I’ve thought back to Mr. Leone, and how his words have shaped the choices I’ve made. Periodically, I’ve wondered about him, about whether he was still teaching, and if he’d managed to keep his youthful enthusiasm after all of these years.
Recently, I got my answer. No matter where I go, my alma maters seem to find me. I opened the high school newsletter that arrived in my mailbox last year, and to my surprise and delight, there was Mr. Leone’s smiling face!
He was being honored by the Bishop at an annual dinner, and was named the 2017 Italian of the Year by his hometown cultural committee, the article read. I was so happy to see that he’d retained the twinkle in his eyes. I was also amazed. I graduated from high school in 1983!
I cut out the picture and pasted it to my bulletin board two years ago. Did I tell Mr. Leone about the impact he made? No.
Thinking back, I realize there have been many Mr. Leone’s in my life. And at the time, I didn’t have the foresight to fully appreciate them. In fact, their most important life lessons took years to manifest. I’m embarrassed to admit that many of these teachers have gone unthanked.
The aha moment in retelling this story is, as parents, mentors, coaches, and teachers, we may never fully recognize the extent of our impact. But the world needs you to keep going forward, because your work matters. And from the bottom of my heart, thank you!
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