“I never wanted to do anything but what I’m doing now.” That is how Thomas Straczynski describes his years of teaching at St. Bartholomew School in Elmhurst, New York. Now in his 30th year at the school, his enthusiasm for his students and his work is contagious.
“I spent my whole life in Catholic education,” he reflected. “My parents enrolled me in Sts. Cyril and Methodius School in Brooklyn. From there I went to Bishop Loughlin Memorial High, also in Brooklyn, where the Brothers of the Christian Schools taught,” he continued. “They’re great educators, in the Catholic tradition, and I followed them to Manhattan College in the Bronx. I had to travel an hour and a half on the subway each way, but it was worth it.
“I’m really grateful for my Catholic education and I want to pass on its values. That’s why I’m here.”
St. Bartholomew’s, with its 357 students from prekindergarten through eighth grade, reflects the ethnic mix of the neighborhood, he said, and in this respect it resembles his childhood parish, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, which had a large Polish population.
“The mix here, though, is mainly Hispanic, but we also have Chinese, Korean and Indian students. We have Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. Of course, as a Catholic school, all the children receive religious instruction.”An amusing anecdote he told is of a Sikh boy in the seventh grade who, according to his religious custom, wore a turban. He suggested to the lad that he wear the school colors and the teacher was surprised a few days later when the student came to class in a maroon turban, matching his school uniform.Mr. Straczynski teaches social studies to sixth, seventh and eighth graders and strives to make the lessons come alive. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East and brings his personal observations into his history classes.
“This is what I like about teaching here,” he said. “I have the latitude to improvise.”
Over the years, he has amassed a large collection of ancient coins, relics and Byzantine objects. “I like to show them to the children. It’s a reversal of show and tell,” he said, “with the teacher doing the showing.”
Another way of bringing the “real world” to his students is through the pages of CNEWA WORLD, the bimonthly magazine of Catholic Near East Welfare Association. He had been reading the magazine for several years and was surprised how the subjects it covers dovetails with his classroom curriculum. Articles on the Middle East particularly interested him since he visited many of these countries on summer vacation. Some 10 years ago, he said, he began using the periodical to supplement the class textbook.
“The magazine shows the students what life is like there today,” he said. “A garbage treatment plant in Lebanon, work programs for Palestinians, jobs for the handicapped in Egypt. This information just isn’t available anywhere else,” he said. “It’s what’s happening now. You don’t get that in textbooks.”
Of particular interest to the Indian students, Mr. Straczynski said, are the articles about the subcontinent. “They are learning about the land of their forefathers and India’s ancient Christian tradition beginning with St. Thomas the Apostle bringing the church there in the year 52. We bring religion, history and geography together.