by: Joe Putrock
Fourteen funloving and feisty foreign-language teachers
at Niskayuna High School place levity right up there with
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.
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.
by: Joe Putrock
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
by: Joe Putrock
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.
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
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,
by: Joe Putrock
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.
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."
Metroland Cover Contest
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 wouldnt 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 couldnt, in the end, pick just one, we also introduce
you to three runners-up as a bonus. All four won our heartswe
think theyll win yours too.
Her Own Row
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
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].”
a second to witness the force of life that is
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
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.
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.”
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.