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Photo by: Joe Putrock

Speaking in Tongues
Fourteen funloving and feisty foreign-language teachers at Niskayuna High School place levity right up there with learning

By Ashley Hahn

When you’re a high school teacher and you say ‘I love my job,’ people look at you like you’re either lying or you’re a freak of nature and there’s something wrong with you,” says Spanish teacher Mike Jones. “And I think we all love driving to work in the morning, you know?” His fellow teachers nod in agreement.

“I’ve never worked at any place this fun ever,” says Tracy Prebish, who teaches Spanish. Prebish and Jones are both members of the foreign- language department at Niskayuna High School, a membership that means more than just a job.

The department’s space in the school is a cheerful series of rooms with work carrels for students, connected to a swanky and spacious language lab next door, lined with new eMacs. The office is decorated with pictures of staffers, students and their adventures, of which they have many. It’s one of those rare workplaces where people not only like what they do, but whom they do it with.

Photo by: Joe Putrock

The atmosphere is one part giddy like a slumber party and two parts intellectual probity with a sense of play. All 14 Niskayuna foreign language department members get along swimmingly—with the help of a little competitive spirit, creativity and sharp-witted sarcasm. Combined, they have taught more than 15,000 students and visited an estimated 46 countries on six continents. They’ve played department Survivor, complete with food-eating gross-out contests and an obstacle course in the wrestling gym set up by their former chair Vince Bianchi. They joke about being the envy of other departments, not only as the second most attractive one at the high school (science currently holds that title) but because of their spirited camaraderie. They even thought so well of themselves that they entered our cover contest.

Department chair Ed Alston says he was initially flummoxed by how well everyone got along when he joined the department and as he watches new teachers come aboard. “It’s a little magical,” he says. “We’ve had people come in and they get assimilated very quickly.”

“Except Tom,” says Tom Caffrey dryly, breezing through the room as though on cue. Caffrey, who teaches Latin, is one of this year’s new additions who has so adapted.

German teacher Joe Carosella points out that the “biggest division in here is probably Yankee-Red Sox,” a comment that makes this group sound a lot like the House of Commons as they clamor in agreement and opposition.

“Now that you’re here, we can tell you that all of those people there were just hired for the day,” says Carosella, decidedly the department clown, over the amusement still rippling from Caffrey. “The people that we don’t get along with are on a field trip.”

Getting a straight answer from these folks is amusingly impossible at moments. But French teacher Amy Martin stresses, “That’s what makes it so special in here, because this is what goes on in between all of the work we do every day.” But she is quick to point out that the sarcasm took some getting used to. Martin, Carosella says, is the one who “gives everybody the positive emotional support.” And when she asks how you are, “she really wants to know.” That sincerity, Martin says, has let her newfound sarcastic streak trick her fellow teachers on more than one occasion.

Spanish teacher Mena Zarrelli notes that Alston is “a true leader,” and all of the teachers agree that his perpetual perkiness helps cut through some of the more bitingly sarcastic moments.

The pervasive and affectionate barb throwing “comes from loving language, says Spanish teacher Kelly Linehan. “You play with language and you play with ideas,” both key to the department’s shared intellectual curiosity and good humor.

They have pun fests and they really get into the nitty gritty of grammar all for amusement, but these teachers are far from one-dimensional language geeks. Carosella, for instance, writes limericks on demand, walks on his hands and taught the department a form of levitation. He’s the one shown in the cover photo suspended by four teachers using only two fingers each. Martin and Jones both play flute; Alcantará runs the chess and ballroom dance clubs; Koniaris quilts; Prebish makes brilliant Valentines (this year’s depicted teachers’ heads pasted onto illustrations of Dante’s Inferno). That’s just naming a just few.

They’re also a worldly bunch. Francoise Koniaris, former art teacher at the school and now the language department’s maternal secretary, is French. Victor Alcantará was born in Santo Domingo but spent his teenage years in France, and now he teaches both Spanish and French.

Photo by: Joe Putrock

At lunch, the place sounds a bit like the tower of Babel, with several languages flying around at once, and teachers who rapidly switch from one to another. Before I set foot in the school, they called me “the rooster,” which is how my German last name translates. Upon my arrival I was greeted in French. (I replied in my shamefully rusty French, which was summarily outdone by the students who spoke to me throughout the day.) When I visited, however, Alston admitted that “this is more English in this room than’s been spoken in a long time.” Among the languages Alston speaks are French, Russian, German, Czech, Finnish and Vietnamese.

Most of the teachers can speak Spanish and a little French, and often switch which languages they teach depending on the department’s needs. “The thing is that we all like languages, so we have the languages that we teach but we also like the languages that other people teach, so we’re always motivated to go beyond that,” notes Carosella. He spent last year in Madrid as a part of a Fulbright exchange.

The teachers agree that their courses hardly resemble their experiences in high school. Though both speak highly of their teachers, Linehan recalls her Spanish teacher was the witch (la bruja) and Alston’s Latin teacher was an “insane ventriloquist.” French teacher Jane Ainslie was inspired by her French teacher, an aging firebrand who would go to extremes to keep the class interested, to become one herself.

‘We’re kinda cosmopoli- tan in our own way,” says Jones. “We love foreign culture, we’re not afraid to do anything that’s crazy.”

To Alston, that’s the best thing about being a language teacher. “You can do anything and relate it to your class: You can cook, you can sing, you can dance, read, tell stories, whatever.” It’s this creativity in the classroom that liberates the students to use their skills with abandon and, gasp, have fun while they learn.

“I was going to have one of my cheese tastings today, but Mike doesn’t like the smell of my cheese,” says Ainslie. She has also been known for her class’ scavenger hunts and her extracurricular storytelling abilities in the service of learning.

Linehan’s students tried to talk her into a field trip to seeing Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights because it has music from Celia Cruz in it, whom they know from her class. Both Linehan and Ainslie played me excerpts from songs they intended to use in class on the Friday of my visit. The students have also learned by writing their own soap operas, making business presentations, offering tours of a given locale, singing, and playing board games.

The students also get out of the classroom and into the world with their teachers. The French and Latin Clubs are heading to the Cloisters, and the Spanish Club to see an exhibition on El Greco at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. This year teachers are taking students to Spain, France, Germany, and Mexico.

Photo by: Joe Putrock

“The kids that we have that are phenomenal are truly phenomenal,” says Linehan. They frequently take on more than one language and work to learn new ones over the summer. The teachers do admit that they push their students to take multiple foreign languages, and about 30 percent of their seniors do. This could, in part, be because students think their teachers are cool and the classes can be fun.

Students pass through the department with ease. During lunch they gathered in the department munching on the generous spread of food and checking in with their teachers. One student even sang me a French song and played it on guitar. The best part was that it didn’t seem feigned; they all were happy to be there, and it wasn’t just the buffet talking.

Amy Maune wants to follow in their footsteps and become a foreign-language teacher, and says her Spanish teacher Rachel Brewer inspired her. “I’m taking Latin, and I was taking Italian outside of school and I went to Japan and learned some Japanese,” she says, clearly bitten by the language bug. And her experience is not so uncommon.

Elspeth Edelstein took more than five years of French; she’s in German V now, and also is taking Spanish. Why did she take so many languages? “It was just something I really enjoyed,” she says. “The classes are really nice and the teachers are really nice.” Just like that.

“If the kids like you and see how much time and effort you put towards them, they’ll give it back to you,” says Jaffrey. “It really is a quid pro quo relationship.”

At this point Alston pipes up: “That was a really good use of a Latin phrase."

The Metroland Cover Contest

Last fall we put out a call to our readers looking for interesting, unusual, or compelling stories to put on our cover. We were looking for people and stories we wouldn’t usually cover, something quirky and different. After all our sorting through the delightfully varied (and often surprisingly risqué) entries, we offer you our winner: the extraordinary foreign language department at Niskayuna High School. And because we couldn’t, in the end, pick just one, we also introduce you to three runners-up as a bonus. All four won our hearts—we think they’ll win yours too.

Hoeing Her Own Row

When Erica Walz sent in her cover-contest entry she had a mohawk, was taking 18 credits for her math major and double minor at UAlbany, and was planning to join the Schenectady curling club. A few months later her hair is a uniform short length, her classes are pared back to a “more sane” 12 credits, and curling turned out to be too pricey, despite its fascination. But don’t worry about Walz getting bored: Between Argentine tango (she may co-instruct with a friend soon), singing with Schenectady’s Octavo Singers, working at the Spectrum, attending classical concerts, playing kickball and four-square with her friends, and taking long walks around her Ten Broeck Triangle neighborhood, lack of things to do is never a problem for this 25-year-old Scotia native.

In fact, if anything, Walz sees what she repeatedly and unselfconsciously refers to as her “distractability” or “scatteredness” as a positive thing. She loves being different—to the extent that when her friends expressed interest in accompanying her to the classical concerts she used to seek out on her own it took a bit of an adjustment. She is curious about everything, loves learning, and even loves her classes. But don’t confuse that with loving being a full-time student. That, according to Walz, is a barely tolerable necessary evil that demands a practically painful level of focus.

Walz is on her third stab at a bachelor’s degree, not counting a stint as a midwife’s apprentice, and she plans to finish this time. Not because she thinks there’s anything all that important about having a degree—in these times, she points out, it hardly guarantees you anything by way of a job, and she’s learning all the time anyway. But because this time she has a plan: She wants to be a high-school math teacher, because she thinks there’s a need for more female math teachers, especially “wacky ones.”

And Walz does enjoy cultivating a wacky image. She writes letters, and sometimes class assignments, on a manual typewriter with seafoam-green keys; despite being a computer science minor, she doesn’t own a printer. And she’s even fairly chipper about her alopecia, an autoimmune skin disorder that causes hair loss. Walz refers almost affectionately to the bald patches that come and go on the sides and back of her head, calling them “my spots,” and says they are both a built-in way of being unusual and a “necessary check on my vanity.” Not that it’s always easy. She has also lost all the hair on her arms and legs, and notes that some women exclaim how lucky she is that she doesn’t have to shave her legs. “The things is,” she says wryly, “the ones who would care about that, couldn’t handle the spots [on their heads].”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Opinionated and Active

Take a second to witness the force of life that is Gladys Samuels.

Samuels has been a one-woman drawing-painting-crocheting-volunteering- cause-adopting machine for oh, about the last 60 years. If you’re still having trouble, sit for a chat with the 83-year-old and watch the flutter and spark in her slate-blue eyes as she shifts conversation from her staunch support for the labor movement to her life’s joy, her grandchildren. Watch the ease with which a broad smile broaches her face as she leafs through her decades-old, denim-covered phonebook containing the names and numbers of all her friends from days past, and you’ll get the idea. She’s outlived her doctor, for Pete’s sake.

These days Samuels spends much of her time volunteering, at both the thrift shop at Albany’s St. Andrews Episcopal Church, where she works as a bookkeeper, and at Holy Cross Church, where she spends time working with children. Until recently, Samuels also volunteered as the treasurer of a local office of the National Association of Mentally Ill Veterans, a position she held for 13 years, but she has been forced to slow down of late. She doesn’t drive, and many of the friends she relies on to bring her about have stopped driving or have passed away.

But Samuels is undeterred. She now focuses much of her energy and effort on her art, attending regular drawing classes at the Delaware Avenue Senior Center in Albany. In a slightly weathered, woven wicker box, Samuels keeps the paints, pastels, brushes and pencils she uses to create. Framed paintings, murals and drawings fill her home’s every nook and cranny. Her walls are covered as well, but mostly with works from her grandchildren, who carry her artistic sensibilities.

Samuels isn’t shy about sharing her opinions, and is rather fond of the Capital Region’s alternative newsweekly for the same reason. “I love the paper because it’s ultra-liberal and I’m ultra-ultra-liberal,” the Albany resident states.

Samuels, a widow and retired office manager, has a rather nonchalant, what-else-would-I-be-doing attitude toward making the most of her later years. It’s the kind of joie de vivre that one hopes to possess heading into the golden years, but it’s easy to question whether one could maintain a vibrancy like hers.

“I always feel as if I should be doing something,” Samuels said. “If I’m well and I’m able there is no reason to just sit around.”

Amen, sister.

—Travis Durfee

The Accidental Celebrity

Sometimes the road less traveled leads to the greater reward. Albany resident Roger Green began his pitch letter for our cover contest by writing, “It’s your basic nonlinear life.” Many people flounder about without any clear goals or destination in mind—but few have their progress as closely chronicled as Green’s.

The Binghamton-born 51-year-old Green began his Zelig- or Forrest Gump-worthy string of media appearances while working at Albany’s FantaCo comics store. “[The owner] hated talking to the press . . . so I was the guy they would always talk to,” says Green, who was interviewed and photographed for articles in both the Times Union and the collectibles magazine Rarities during his tenure at FantaCo.

After leaving FantaCo, he spent a year as a customer-service agent for an insurance company (a job he “hated”), then worked as a Census enumerator in 1990, during which time the Daily Gazette did a story on him. “A good part of this job is playing James Bond,” he said in that article, citing his above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty efforts at his position.

After his time with the Census, at the insistence of friends and despite a nagging fear of rejection, he enrolled at the University at Albany for library science (his second stab at graduate school) and, to his surprise, realized it was “exactly what I ought to have been doing all along.” He has been the librarian for the New York State Small Business Development Center for the past 11 years.

During a vacation to Washington, D.C., in 1996, Green tried out for a spot on the game show Jeopardy! When he traveled to Boston to tape his appearance on the show, he again found himself in the news, this time on the front page of the Boston Globe’s Arts section. Part of his winnings on that show included a trip for two to Barbados, which he and his new wife used as their honeymoon.

Despite an undergraduate degree in political science, Green now considers himself only “sporadically” involved in political and social issues. But that didn’t keep him from appearing on the front page of the Times Union and on more than one local television news program for his participation in a number of protests over the war in Iraq.

He’s also an avid music enthusiast with a collection of “over 1,200 CDs and an equal number of vinyl LPs,” some of which were displayed at last year’s Beatles exhibit at the Albany Institute of History and Art. Of course, when the news cameras came around, there he was again.

His next adventure: fatherhood. The Greens will welcome their first child around the first of April. Keep an eye on the papers.

—John Brodeur

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