Woog's World / Lessons didn't end with recess bell
In 1972, newly minted industrial arts teacher Sal Cassano was promised a job at a high school in Brooklyn, not far from where he grew up. But at the last minute a retiring teacher changed his mind, so when school started, Cassano was out of a job.
A sudden resignation at Bedford Junior High School provided an opening here. Cassano had never heard of Westport -- "it was as far away as Mississippi to me," he recalls -- but he was hired to begin a few days later.
That Sunday he drove up to look for an apartment. The only place near Bedford that was open was Art's Deli. "There are no apartments in Westport," someone there told Cassano.
But he found an illegal rental behind Bedford Elementary School (now Town Hall), and his teaching career began. "Every planet and star was aligned for me to get a job in Westport," he says.
Cassano stayed for 39 years. Now, as retirement approaches, it's time to look back.
Cassano also created and taught "mass production techniques." In that class students formed the "Riverside Precision Manufacturing Company" to produce, fund and market products, like lamps.
He loved his eight years at Bedford. The staff cared for and supported students and colleagues, he says.
A roommate was teaching what were called "educable retarded" boys and girls. He asked Cassano -- who was studying for certification in special education -- to help design woodworking and graphic arts classes for them.
When Cassano moved to Staples in 1980, he created an innovative "HandiPress" course for emotionally handicapped, learning disabled and life-skills students. Their tasks included making mechanicals, shooting and stripping negatives, burning plates and running a printing press.
They earned 25 cents to $1 an hour, and punched a time clock. They lost pay if they were late or cut class, but Cassano paid holiday bonuses. (He discovered that some students cut other classes to punch in.)
HandiPress handled massive multi-color, multi-page jobs that needed collating and stapling. Students printed holiday cards, certificates and business cards. They made buttons and pressed signs. If it could be printed, Cassano, his aide Gail Harmon and the Stapleites did it.
Job requests poured in from as far as Florida and California. It was all word-of-mouth -- boosted in part by an award from the state Department of Education for creating a "promising practice."
"Kids loved that class," Cassano says proudly. "We didn't use the excuse that because they were special ed, they could make a sub-par product."
When the special ed budget was cut a decade or so ago, the course ended. "All we neded was start-up money for raw materials," Cassano notes.
Since then, Cassano has divided his time between special ed and math. He loves teaching lower-level classes, inspiring even math-phobic students to embrace difficult material.
It was not always easy. He recalls a class with 25 students. Twenty-one were in special ed; three were entering it, and only one was not. The lone mainstream student set fire to a rug with a lighter.
Each Wednesday after school, Cassano takes special ed students -- his and others -- outside for bocce. It's great exercise; they develop hand-eye coordination -- and they have fun.
Cassano is also an avid bowler. He started when former math teacher Ray Wanke ran a teachers' league, then took over when Wanke retired.
Cassano still loves teaching. He beams when discussing the number of students who made the honor roll. But the economics of education and retirement mean, he says, that after 39 years he is working for only one-quarter of his salary. The paperwork always increases, and rising at 5 a.m. to drive to school in the dark is wearing. "Maybe I'm getting crotchety," he laughs.
In retirement he will continue to run the bowling league. He'll tutor and volunteer (his good friend and former English teacher Gerry Kuroghlian wants Cassano to help with Kuroghlian's two favorite organizations, Mercy Learning Center and Kolbe Cathedral High School).
"I've worked since I was 10, starting in bakeries and fish markets," Cassano says. "It will be nice to visit friends and relatives at times outside of the school calendar."
As retirement nears, accolades pour in for Cassano. The ones that mean the most come from former students. He has connected with many on Facebook, and is often invited to reunions.
Last year, at an impromptu gathering at the Black Duck, a 40-something woman said, "You danced with me at a junior high dance, when I had no confidence in myself. That gave me the confidence to be who I am today."
Sal Cassano does not remember that dance at all.
She will never forget it.
Dan Woog's "Woogs World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.