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:
- Give voice and agency to your students.
- Be authentic.
- Be compassionate.
- Be about social justice.
- 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.