Honoring an Educator Who Cared

Several Saturdays ago, I sat with wonder at the talent on stage at the Bellarmine College Preparatory campus. I was attending “A Celebration of Life” for my 1969 classmate, Tom Alessandri. Tragically, Tom’s life was cut short by a heart that stopped way too early.

Tom and I walked the same corridors, sat in the same assemblies and classrooms from 1965 until graduation day, May 30, 1969. The political maelstrom formed our minds and values over the years, including the Summer of Love in 1967, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Chicago Seven at the Democratic convention in 1968. And not to forget the unbelievable event of landing a man on the moon in the summer of our graduation (July 1969), which was done with far less computing power than what’s found in a basic smart phone today.

Tom and I both became teachers as a result of these collective experiences. It was a calling that we felt was noble and right. That calling, however, for teachers, especially men, is not as strong today.

As a trustee on the Santa Clara County Board of Education and a lifelong teacher and administrator, I know the influence and power of a great role model in the classroom. Especially a teacher who possesses the “gifts” highlighted at Tom’s memorial.

Unequivocally, Tom was one of those special educators America should hold in the highest esteem. He was a teacher who did incredible work in a difficult landscape, each and every day.

For far too long, America has diminished the importance of a teacher’s role in shaping the clay of human beings and society. In other cultures—China, New Zealand, South Korea and Singapore to name a few—teachers are revered for their dedication. John Steinbeck wrote, “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

TA, as Tom was affectionately called, was that kind of artist.

He was passionate about his work in English and theater, and he was highly respected—as evidenced by the fact that more than 1,000 of his former students, colleagues, parents, and alums turned out to honor his extraordinary career. I sat spellbound at the quality of the 90-minute performance of his life set to music, rhyme and dance in 14 tight, one-act vignettes.

One of those acts was titled “Speech and Debate.” TA was the speech and debate coach for many award-winning years for the Bells. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo delivered this one-man portion of the memorial by relating the meetings he requested with his former mentor prior to seeking his first seat on the San Jose City Council.

TA insisted that his former student be able to tell riveting stories about his life and values as he grew up in San Jose. Alessandri also implored the future mayor to go back and rewrite his drafts until his former high school English teacher signed off on the final product. Liccardo sought TA out again for advice during his successful mayoral run.

Also seated in the audience was former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery, who wrote the screenplay for Swift Justice, a nonfiction book by Harry Ferrell. TA was producing the play at the time of his death. The show must always go on, though. So, with his notes on the margin of the script, his co-director, Brendon McCall, worked with TA’s daughter to finish the job. The production of Swift Justice was performed July 6 to rave reviews.

At the Celebration of Tom’s life, the last act brought Bellarmine’s president, Chris Meyercord, to the stage. Chris announced that from that day forward, the theater would be renamed the Tom Alessandri Main Stage Theater. The venue’s audience erupted in a sustained standing ovation. I heard those who attended in the packed Bell gymnasium reacted in the same manner.

Peace to you, TA.

Congratulations on a stellar career. My son, Zack, class of 2000, felt you were one of his best teachers. I wrote down a list of attributes mentioned by those who spoke at your celebration of life. It is a list we should all try to emulate:

  1. Give voice and agency to your students.
  2. Be authentic.
  3. Be compassionate.
  4. Be about social justice.
  5. And always hold high expectations for your students.

I hope more high school and college students will consider a career in teaching. For certain, teachers can have a more positive influence on the lives of young people than any other career choice. Remuneration may not come in the form of an annual salary, but in the knowledge that one has changed lives, and the future.

Below is a video of the Celebration of Life for Tom Alessandri.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

23 Comments

  1. Thank you for this, Joseph. I was one of those performers at the Celebration of Life and a cast member of SWIFT JUSTICE.
    I miss TA every day and reading this and pieces like it continue to help me process his passing. And it keeps him alive.

  2. > Be about social justice

    Why do we have to be about “social justice”? Why can’t we just be about justice?

        • Bubble,

          You should’ve realized this piece on the celebration of this educator’s passing was not the proper forum for critical comments. The proper forum for such comments is a post as of yet unpublished, but you will recognize it as not the next piece commenting on the impact of this piece, but the follow-up post to that. Decorum dictates that one be at least three degrees and several months removed whenever criticizing someone lionized by Progressives.

          Your questioning of one of the teaching attributes got me thinking about how so many of my own teachers, whose dedication was unquestioned but whose attributes were far more traditional, were never honored with such praise, despite their having been saddled with the impossible task of taming and teaching the dumbest and most unruly young people in the city. Ruthlessly branded as racist and incompetent — by political brutes toting the banner of Social Justice, blamed for student failures of the particular type that continues to plague our progressive schools today, my teachers, along with their professions dedication to merit and effort and standards, have permanently left the school building.

  3. TA was my brother’s debate partner at Bellarmine, and always spoke so fondly of him. My son was lucky enough to take his science fiction class, which was one of the high points of his time at Bell. RIP TA. You were a force of nature as Fr. Prieto said. The world and academia is better for your time in them. Go Bells! Ellen Roeckl (Furniss.)

  4. > That calling, however, for teachers, especially men, is not as strong today.

    Might have something to do with the takeover of liberal arts colleges and and teachers colleges by radical feminists.
    There are no manly men in colleges anymore, just snowflakes.

    Evergreen College

    http://nypost.com/2017/05/31/college-melts-down-over-plan-for-white-people-free-day-on-campus/

    Burlington College

    http://nypost.com/2017/06/24/bernie-sanders-wife-lawyer-up-amid-college-investigation/

    Whitman College

    57% female, 43% male

    http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/college-search-selection/1743522-ratio-of-women-to-men-in-various-liberal-arts-cs-does-60-40-ever-become-a-problem.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/07/fashion/07campus.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    University of North Carolina

    “Women have represented about 57 percent of enrollments at American colleges since at least 2000, according to a recent report by the American Council on Education.”

  5. Tom was in a class of his own, by far the best teacher I ever had in my eight years at Bellarmine College Prep and Santa Clara University. I know I speak for many: it was Mr. Alessandri who taught me how to write, and how engage in critical thought. He was truly an institution who will sorely be missed; I was blessed to have him as a teacher.

  6. WHY DOES NO ONE SEEM TO CARE THAT THIS MAN SEXUALLY ASSAULTED SOMEONE? WHY DOES THE SEEMINGLY ENDLESS ADULATION OF THIS FALSE HERO CONTINUE? WHY IS YOUR STORY EVEN STILL UP?

    I usually try to avoid all caps, but it’s the only way to capture my disgust that the victim of Tom Alessandri has been completely shut down by the press. I’m sorry that it’s upsetting to hear that somebody you respected led a double life that involved grooming and sexually assaulting a young woman, but perhaps you should think about this from the victims point of view, and consider how deeply painful it is to read article after article praising her abuser?

    • John,

      I read the accusatory post and found it persuasive. Nevertheless, as an unsupported denunciation it falls far short of the kind of conclusive evidence that would justify the silencing of the many who praised Mr. Alessandri. Were SJI to remove this piece based solely on the unsupported accusations of an anonymous blogger it would be tantamount to surrendering control of its content to unaccountable strangers. But don’t be disappointed: the longer this opinion piece stays up the more likely those who loved and admired Mr. Alessandri will have the opportunity to be crushed by the allegations of someone to whom they did nothing.

      By the way, the relationship alleged by the accuser in no way constituted sexual assault. By her own admission, the accuser was of age and not incapacitated by substance or disability, so let’s not let our feminist passions get the best of us.

    • John,

      Let’s ignore the emotion for a moment (and the begging for ‘applause’… for what?) The link shows an adult woman being pursued by an adult man. Happens all the time.

      But was any criminal/illegal activity was being alleged?

      I didn’t read about any wrongdoing—and the “victim’s” hurt feelings aren’t an appropriate reason for her to speak ill of the dead so soon, and the way she did. Particularly her last sentence.

      (As they say, ‘YMMV’. Mine varies.)

  7. Even if it’s legal (because there have yet to be laws for emotional abuse), anyone with a strong moral compass can admit that emotionally manipulating, abusing and grooming underage children into legal “adulthood” is morally wrong and an inappropriate abuse of power who shouldn’t be allowed to be around young, vulnerable and impressionable kids. Just because she turned 18 doesn’t make what he did morally correct. He was calculated.

Leave a Reply to Keith Larson Cancel reply