30 August 2010

Pathfinding: A Loyola Memoir

The first week of my freshman year at Loyola was unseasonably hot, even for late summer. The wool blazer—which took some getting used to under any circumstances—was even harder to tolerate during that early September of 1978. So the deer-in-the-headlights feeling familiar to any new freshman was compounded by the stifling New York City heat. I can remember feeling basically stunned that whole week.
So when Louis Tambini began one of our first history classes by standing in front of us, silently holding up a silvery dime, I felt completely mystified. He was an impressive figure to begin with, sartorially elegant, with a laser gaze and a bottom-line voice. In my years of parochial school in Queens, I’d never seen a teacher like him. Then he spoke, emphasizing his words with the dime between thumb and forefinger. “This is all you need to get into the Metropolitan Museum,” he said. “Don’t ever feel like you can’t go there because you don’t have enough money to get in. It’s a suggested donation. So go to the Met.”
Many teachers at The Loyola School made a lasting impression on me. Charles Winans, who nurtured my writer’s soul and extolled my Irishness; Ellen Fee, the calm, collected artist, who helped us all create in the serenity of her studio; Father Ferrand, the unforgettable dynamo en français; Daniel Sullivan, a rigorous communicator of the events that shaped our modern world; Richard Vogel, under whose tutelage I became a full-fledged writer and editor; Sister Maureen, a most unique theologian with a sunny outlook; Joe Hanser, who tolerated my mathematical blocks with gruff kindness; Colleen Ranney, with her unabashed enthusiasm for science; and Jim Lyness, who taught so many of us how to express ourselves before a crowd with confidence. These people truly set up the building blocks of my life and career—what I learned from them I still utilize to this day. But as I seek to summarize my Loyola experience, I turn to Lou Tambini. He opened up this scholarship student’s world with that dime.
Does anyone else still have their “Tambini Bible”? (For the uninitiated, that was our history class notebook.) Mr. Tambini’s approach was brilliant: he wrote carefully outlined notes on the blackboard which we copied word-for-word into our notebooks. Those notes described the great ancient civilizations, starting with archeological evidence of early man and ranging through Egypt, Greece, Rome and Europe. They were matter-of-fact and tailor-made for efficient exam studying. But he took our note-taking to a higher level by demanding that we illustrate our Tambini Bibles. Not with drawings, but with photographs clipped from any source we could track down. Travel agencies were our best bet, he advised—they were chock-full of glossy, free brochures that depicted the wonders of the ancient world. Old encyclopedias, National Geographics, any source would do. And each picture had to have a caption. Thanks to this latter requirement, my Tambini Bible still serves as an excellent learning tool about the development of civilizations. I’ve proudly shown it to my own kids, who love to see the pictures of old statues, ruins, castles and other remnants of the distant past…the ancient world at our fingertips.
Moreover, I took to heart Mr. Tambini’s admonishment that we should go to the Met. I spent many happy afternoons there as a Loyola student, particularly in the Egyptian galleries and the beautiful Temple of Dendur hall. For a kid from Astoria, Queens, this was a transporting experience. In fact, all of Loyola was. “Diversity” is an oft-heard buzzword in education these days, and well it should be. But Loyola represented a kind of reverse diversity for me: an introduction to the world of diplomats’ children, Park Avenue dwellers, students attired in haute-preppy wear and accustomed to more freedom than I had ever imagined. It was not an easy transition to make; I suffered silently about not being able to shop at Bloomingdale’s and wear Izod-Lacoste shirts, and excursions into New York’s nightlife required Herculean arrangements to get home safely and on time. It seems trivial now, but my otherness was a major heartache then. As my sophomore year commenced, however, the school’s accepting atmosphere finally penetrated my psyche and I realized it didn’t matter. I was valued for my own self, not for what I looked like or where I came from.
And along with that brand-new revelation of individuality came the expansion of my intellect. I was by no means a model student, but I learned that certain subjects were native to me, and teachers in those areas helped me to thrive. That prepared me for the challenges of college, where one has to select carefully the courses that will advance one’s goals. But the social lessons of Loyola also prepared me for my stint at Bowdoin College, where my Queens-ness really stood out against the L.L. Bean-dominated, ultra-preppy landscape. I made my way regardless. Loyola had taught me to do that.
Ten years ago, I married the son of a classical history teacher (she taught at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia). My mother-in-law still drills her children on significant dates, events and places. She took her son to Greece and he experienced the beauty of that civilization firsthand. So in a way, Lou Tambini even helped me prepare for my married life! I deeply mourn his loss but am fortunate indeed to have been his student. And I thank the Loyola family, too, for helping me to find and follow my own path.

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