Teachers, former students honor enduring relationships
Robert Druckenmiller spent 40 years as a math teacher -- so to speak.
"I never said 'I teach math,' " said Druckenmiller, 82, who taught at Hauppauge High School before retiring in 1996. "I teach kids about mathematics. There's a difference."
The difference, he added, is the emphasis on the student.
The average person spends about 12,000 hours of his or her childhood and adolescence in school, surrounded by teachers. Many of them wiped tears, calmed fears, instilled in their students lifelong values, and the base of knowledge with which they travel through adult life.
On Long Island, home to more than 100 public school districts that employ thousands of teachers to educate more than 120,000 students, opportunities to forge a lasting bond in the educational process present themselves every day.
Not all students will remember the rules of trigonometry or the finer points of English grammar, but many Long Islanders still recall -- and stay in touch with -- the teachers who have had the greatest impact on their lives.
ESTELLE KOMITO HERT
For Allison Mead, her first-grade teacher was not just a kindhearted presence but a lifeline. Mead, 26, who grew up in Farmingdale, said she enjoyed Komito Hert's class and especially her deep passion for reading, but it was two years later that Komito Hert made her most significant impact.
When Mead was in third grade, she began to get picked on by other girls in the cafeteria. She turned to Komito Hert, who welcomed Mead to instead spend her lunch periods in her classroom, reading to her students. Even throughout middle and high school, Mead said she would occasionally come back to Komito Hert's class to read to her students.
"The relationship was always one of reassurance . . . that an adult teacher not only cared about me in the classroom, but as a person as well," said Mead, who now calls on that kind of reassurance in her job as a physician assistant in the emergency room at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre.
Komito Hert, who is 71 and lives in Farmingdale, said her ability to treat children as individuals is a reflection of what made her want to become a teacher in the first place -- her four children.
"They all had different strengths and weaknesses," said Komito Hert, who began teaching in 1985. "I was so excited about how they learned and their excitement about learning. My main goal was to get children excited about learning."
One of her fondest memories is that of saying goodbye to one of her classes on the last day of school. She told them how proud she was that they had all become such good readers.
"Spontaneously, they started clapping for me," said Komito Hert, who retired five years ago. "They said, 'It was because of you.' I never forgot that. It made me feel like a part of their literacy."
Komito Hert said it "means everything" to her that Mead still keeps in touch.
"First of all, she's a wonderful friend to have," she said. "As far as an educator, it made me feel, at least I touched one life."
It was in her nature to get involved in her students' lives, she said. During her 51 years as an elementary schoolteacher in the Deer Park School District, Hosking -- who retired in June -- purchased and made clothes and food for less-privileged students. One of her favorite moments was sharing Christmas with the family of Phu Nguyen, a Vietnamese boy in her class 30 years ago.
Hosking, who then was a third-grade teacher at John Quincy Adams Elementary School, spent Christmas Eve in 1983 playing Santa Claus for the Nguyen family, who lived in Deer Park at the time but have since moved to Connecticut. Hosking, who never married and did not have any children of her own, bought them a tree and spent the evening filling the space under its branches with presents.
The Nguyens, a family of five, had arrived that August as refugees from Vietnam, and most of them knew no English. Hosking, now 73, became a resource for the family. She came to their house in Deer Park often and even spent a few nights at their home in Connecticut after the family moved. When Phu Nguyen's father, Hai, began taking English classes, Hosking would edit his assignments, said Hai Nguyen, 61, who now goes by Tom.
"She is a very good friend," he said, adding that he and his wife, Thuy, still cherish the Nativity set she got them that Christmas. "She helped my family a lot."
And the Nguyens weren't the only ones. Former student Jackie Read, who also still keeps in touch with Hosking, said she was not just a teacher, "she was your friend."
Read, 27, of Mastic, and Hosking talk like old friends. They reference past acquaintances by first name and help each other remember forgotten details of stories retold many times.
"I have Jackie on speed-dial," Hosking said. "I have many of my students on speed-dial."
Read said the evolution of their relationship from student-teacher to friends was natural. After moving on from Hosking's class, Read would visit her often, even while she went to college to become a teacher. Now, they talk on the phone regularly and occasionally kayak at Hosking's second home in Sag Harbor, where she has begun to spend more time since retiring.
Read is just one of hundreds of former students Hosking said still keeps in touch.
In June at her official retirement dinner -- there was an unofficial retirement lunch at a later date, organized by former students who couldn't make it to the first -- Hosking said students recalled how their peers were always envious that they were in Hosking's class.
"I didn't know that," she said. But of all the students who have kept in touch, she added, "It doesn't surprise me in the least because I was their friend."
These days, Neal Rubinstein considers his fourth-grade teacher Savalas not just a friend but a cherished mentor. The two had a close relationship from the start, Rubinstein said, admitting that he was not the best student and had a rebellious attitude.
"I was probably bored, in retrospect," he said. "I'd get bored and want to do something else. I'd end up in the principal's office."
Savalas, 83, of Huntington, who retired from the Hicksville School District in 1987 and served as a substitute teacher until this year, taught grades fourth through sixth throughout his career, but he also ran the audiovisual club at Lee Avenue Elementary School. He encouraged Rubinstein to join the club, which tasked students with things like setting up projectors in classrooms and learning the technology to operate and maintain the equipment.
"If I had a kid like me, I probably would have killed him, but Ted gave me this outlet," said Rubinstein, 63, of Hicksville. The three-time Emmy winner went on to work as a news producer at NBC before producing independent video, film and, currently, theater.
They always kept in touch, Rubinstein said, and in the 1980s Savalas -- younger brother of the late "Kojak" actor Telly Savalas and a singer and performer himself -- wrote a screenplay, and Rubinstein worked with him to produce it. The film eventually lost its financial backing and they ceased work on it, but Rubinstein still seeks Savalas' input on other projects, including his current work adapting Greek playwright Aristophanes' comedy "Lysistrata" for Broadway.
"I can't say enough about him," Rubinstein said. "I loved him, he was an inspiration to me."
Savalas has another adoring student in Joyce Barondess, 60, of Hicksville, who showed up at his house in Huntington out of the blue about 10 years ago.
Barondess said she was going through a difficult time and it made her think back to her younger years, which were also at times difficult, she said.
Her father died when she was 16, and she said her mother struggled with his death. Barondess said she felt neglected at home but that at school Savalas took an interest in her. Just as he had done with Rubinstein, Savalas suggested Barondess join the audiovisual club. She did, and was the first female member.
"I felt proud to be the only female on the team," recalled Barondess, who is a pediatric dental hygienist.
When she showed up at Savalas' house, he was raking the lawn. She asked if he remembered her. He did and gave her a warm welcome into his home. They've kept in touch ever since.
"He always stuck out in my mind as one of the most influential teachers I ever had," Barondess said. "I still feel that student-teacher connection. We're adults now, but I still feel like he's there for me if I ever have a problem. He's still advising me after all these years."
Savalas, who has four grown children all still living on Long Island, said being a teacher was the most satisfying career he could ever have imagined. He loved every minute of it and having the opportunity to "breathe life" into the textbook material.
"I was a great anecdotal teacher," he said. "I brought all of my experiences into the classroom."
Over the years, he's taken great pleasure in reconnecting with former students and has learned that teaching is a job that also gives back.
"The beauty is that the cycle comes all the way around," he said. "To see these adults remembering their childhood, that's the heart of it. It's a wonderful thing."
Druckenmiller used to tell his students to "be a Maria," referencing one of his most memorable students, Maria Dibble, now 57 and living in upstate Conklin.
Dibble was a perfect student, Druckenmiller said, and he would tell all the students who came after her to emulate her determination and perseverance.
Dibble was born with glaucoma and lost her sight when she was about 7. In addition to considering Druckenmiller a cherished confidante, she said he also went out of his way to make her feel comfortable.
"He would read everything he was writing on the board out loud," she said, adding that later she realized he did not do that in other classes. "He really went out of his way to accommodate my needs. He's a rare teacher that really sought to understand his students."
Druckenmiller started the first school day of every year with a nonmathematical exercise. He handed out index cards and asked each student to write something about themselves, so he could get to know them.
To Druckenmiller, of Hauppauge, the secret to a successful relationship is that both the teachers and the students need to be seen as people first. He remembers former charge Rolf Klemm as a great athlete and "a tremendous student."
Klemm, who also had Druckenmiller as a coach on the varsity football team, said it is Druckenmiller's "lightheartedness, his spirit" that he carries with him today.
"Those are life lessons that he didn't go out to teach us, it was just his way of being," Klemm said, adding that growing up, he lacked encouragement at home, a void that Druckenmiller, a father of five, filled.
More than 30 years after Druckenmiller taught him, Klemm still remembers his teacher's good nature and encouraging demeanor.
"He was a very gentle soul and good-natured," said Klemm, 56, who grew up in Hauppauge and is now a professor at the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
"He had good judgment of students in terms of their capabilities, and he could challenge them to the next level. That's what stays with you."
Though Klemm does not often return to Long Island, on the two occasions that he has, he always paid a visit to Druckenmiller. He said he is always pleasantly surprised to find "Coach Druck" still high-spirited and encouraging.
Their bond motivated Klemm to pass on a piece of advice to his own daughters, ages 22, 25 and 27.
"I told them to find one teacher that means something to them and keep in touch."