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Published in Print: November 1, 2002, as Just Desserts

Just Desserts

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As delicious as the student's eclairs were, his gratitude was sweeter.

My long career as an English teacher is sprinkled with a constellation of highlights, moments when I had my students gaping in wonder at my deep insights into literature. Or at least that’s what I like to think. A teacher never really knows.

I particularly remember one student named Phil, a clever kid I taught a good many years ago at Bayside High School in Queens. Phil was unusually demonstrative. When I came up with a really off- the-wall interpretation of, say, a passage from Shakespeare, he’d hold his book up to the light, pretending to search for the meaning hidden between the lines. Other times, he’d vigorously shake his volume in a feigned attempt to make some secret message from the author come fluttering out of the binding.

That same term, I also served as one of the school’s deans, a position that mostly entailed waiting for recalcitrant students to be exiled to my office. Phil frequently worked in my office as a service aide. One day he reported for duty just after I had dazzled our class by explaining that when the gatekeeper in Macbeth mentioned equivocators, he was alluding to Jesuit priests who would resort to double talk to elude persecution. Phil stuck his head into my cubicle. “Where’d you dig up that?” he asked. Clearly, I thought, he was impressed. But just as likely, he was pulling my leg.

In any case, literature was hardly Phil’s true passion. Instead, Phil loved food—not eating it, but talking about it. Sometimes I’d hear him grilling a kid who’d been bounced from a class into the deans’ office.

“What did you have for breakfast?” he asked one boy, launching into a typical diatribe. “You gotta eat bran and lots of protein. Stay away from sugar. It makes you twitchy.”

When Phil handed me the kid’s record, he gave me a quick diagnosis: “Hyperactive—too many empty calories.” I remember that a few of even the worst troublemakers were glad to see the dean just to escape Phil’s lecture on the virtues of wheat germ and granola.

It all began to make sense when Phil told me that he was in the school’s co-op program, learning to be a pastry chef at an upscale Manhattan restaurant. For Phil, the stint demanded a diabolical compromising of his nutritional beliefs, but it was the only opening available.

One day he showed up in the deans’ office with something wrapped in aluminum foil. “You’re a bright guy,” he said. “Let me know what you think of this.” He handed me a piece of chocolate cake. I tried to explain that my ability to analyze a sonnet hardly qualified me as expert on desserts. But Rebecca, our secretary, knew quite well my vast experience with Twinkies, Devil Dogs, Yodels, and other varieties of goodies. “Phil,” she said simply, “you got the right guy.”

So I had no choice but to make like a maven. The cake was sweet and gooey, the ultimate in junk food, poisonous stuff. In other words, it was wonderful. Still, I pretended to let it linger on my palate as I arrived at a connoisseur’s judgment. “Oh, it’s all right, maybe a little too much . . .”

“Vanilla!” interjected Phil.

“I knew it. Boy, you’re a hard marker.” And he buzzed out the door. The next morning, he showed up with another piece, his “revision,” he called it.

After that, it seemed that every other week I had to “grade” one of Phil’s creations. Talk about a dedicated teacher! I went through eclairs (B minus), doughnuts (A plus), butter cookies (B plus), and all sorts of tortes and tarts. Sure, I was enjoying the sweets, but it was hard work pretending to be an expert. I even began scouring cookbooks for phrases that would elevate my comments.

After a while, I could gab away about pate a chou and beignets souffles as though I actually knew what I was talking about.

I was eagerly anticipating Phil’s end-term project: chocolate mousse. But he showed up empty- handed. “I never did feel right about working on that junk food,” he said. “I got permission to switch to quiches and salads.”

When he left the room, I said only one thing to Rebecca: “If Phil shows up with a zucchini casserole, tell him I’m out.”

The truth is, I didn’t mean it. Anyway, I knew that Phil would track me down. He really wanted to know what I thought of his work. He wanted my approval, and I was pleased with that knowledge. Any teacher would be.

The deans’ office, where Phil and I basically were colleagues that term, was awash period after period with troubled and troublesome kids. And I confess that I really never knew if I straightened anyone out.

Phil, on the other hand, didn’t need my help. He had a solid idea of where he wanted to go and what he had to do to get there. Still, I like to count him as one of my successes.

That term, without much originality, I asked my classes to write a composition about a person who had an impact on their lives. A few nights later, slashing my way through a stack of essays, my red pen in hand, I came to Phil’s paper. The title was, “How Mr. Edmund Janko Had an Impact on My Life.”

I was somewhat stunned, and because I knew I couldn’t be objective, I set the paper aside and later gave it to my department chairwoman to grade. After reading it, she gave the assignment a 92 and called it a wonderful tribute. Later, I saw that Phil concluded his essay with a brief line: “Mr. Janko has shown me that even a teacher can be a great person.” I still blush to think of it.

Over the years, I’ve had literally thousands of students in my classes. Not long ago, I ran into a middle-aged matron I had taught nearly 30 years earlier. After telling me I absolutely hadn’t changed at all, she introduced me to her granddaughter. I bent down to the 1st grader. “You know,” I said, “your grandma still owes me a book report.” The child giggled.

I was only joking, of course, but the truth is that whenever I go into a fancy restaurant, one with tablecloths, I look wistfully toward the kitchen. I know that Phil is out there somewhere, and he owes me a chocolate mousse. But I’ve excused him. After 20 years, I still have a copy of his essay. And it’s far sweeter than any mousse.


Vol. 14, Issue 3, Pages 41-42

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