Tribute to a Tough But Talented Teacher

Written by Braiden on November 29, 2012

Braiden’s sixth-grade photo, with Dr. Zucaro and 28 classmates; Braiden is in the back row, third from the right; Winky Miller Merrill is in the front row, right-hand side

When I came upon the faded, slightly dusty class photo from sixth grade, I knew that one day I’d have to write about it.

The Grade 6C photo was taken sometime in 1967-1968 in suburban Philadelphia at Gladwyne Elementary School, which still happily houses and educates 560 students from kindergarten to grade five.

Looking at this particular photo  brings back both pleasant and unpleasant memories. I was such a gangly and self-conscious youngster, often teased and even bullied by the other kids. Yet I loved going to school because I wanted so desperately to learn about new ideas, places, and things.

It’s so weird. . .I can’t remember what movie I saw last weekend or the person I had lunch with two weeks ago, but as I look at the young faces peering out from this photo, I can name practically every one.

There’s Betsy Fink (the flirt) and Tim Roach (the brain). Eddie Ludwick (the sensitive nerd) and Tina Waldo (“the frog”). Nancy Bowden (athletic and popular) and David Carey (hip). Sonya Villalba (quiet and beautifully ethnic) and Tony Cocoa (the bad boy). If memory serves, Tony (who was from the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak) wore a black leather jacket and used to stand outside the gymnasium and beat up kids and smoke cigarettes. We all thought he was sinister and way cool.

Dr. Blaze Zucaro, a tough but talented teacher

Our teacher was Dr. Blaze Zucaro, a.k.a, Dr. Z. Other than our gym teacher, Mr. DiBatista (“Mr. DB” for short), Dr. Z was the only male teacher in the school and probably one of the few teachers who had earned his doctorate.

He was knowledgeable about every subject, but especially liked science and ancient history. One day he made us all stand outside in one of the playing fields while he drove by in his car honking his horn to prove the Doppler effect of sound.

He also taught us about Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Rosetta Stone. That world seemed so strange, foreign, and fascinating to my young mind.

He taught me so much and opened up my mind in so many ways. . .he was truly ahead of his time.

Dr. Z. knew a lot and expected a lot from the students in his class. A compulsive sort, and a chain smoker, I remember him always neatly dressed in a button-down white shirt and black pants. He was clean shaven with dark eyes and glasses; his curly hair was always neat and closely cropped.

When I e-mailed the only sixth-grade classmate I’ve remained in contact with over the years–Ella Warren Miller, a.k.a “Winky”–to tell her I was reminiscing and writing about Dr. Z., our memories were much the same:

“Here is what I do remember. He called me “Ella W.” I sat in the front row center (I was short) and Cathy Brandt sat behind me. He would pace across the front of the room and when he walked by me, he’d grab my nose between his index and middle finger. I used to worry that snot would come out on his hands!!

“We had Tina Waldo in our class and he kind of picked on her. He definitely played favorites and I was on his good side.

“He would brush his teeth in the sink in the back of the classroom after lunch. After tests, he had us read our grades out loud while he recorded them and we had to use Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog and Easy. Many kids were humiliated when they had to say their grades out loud.

“He taught us about Mesopotamia, and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. He loved ancient history. He was a hard teacher, but not if you took notes, studied (memorized), and paid attention. I got straight A’s that year from him – of course that changed when I hit seventh grade!

“I also remember him driving by leaning on his horn to demonstrate the Doppler effect. Do you remember that he had to leave school one day in an ambulance because he had a kidney stone? He had a bad back, too.

“We would come to school and ask one another, ‘Is Dr. Z. in a good mood or a bad mood?’

“We were totally tuned in to his ups and downs. When he was angry, he would ball up his fists by his sides and his eyes would bore into the offending person. He would yell and throw chalk when he was pissed.

“He had a great deep laugh, I remember him always wearing a white shirt and baggy pants like the Marx brothers. Mr. Fetter (the school’s principal) dealt him all of the troublesome boys because he was the only male teacher in the school except for Mr. DB.”

Dr. Z. married our dental hygienist, they had two sons, and later divorced.

Years later, I heard through the proverbial grapevine that Dr. Z. died of a brain tumor.

Sadly, I never got a chance to go back and thank him for being such a tough but talented teacher.

Do you have a Dr. Z. in your life, a favorite teacher who helped shape, guide, and inform the person you are today?

If so, isn’t it time to write a tribute to him or her. . and thank them for all they did in your life?

More stories from: Featured Story,With My Teacher