The late Charles “Charlie” Rousculp was a veteran educator and Ohio Teacher of the year in 1968. He was also author of the popular and award-winning book, “Chalk Dust on My Shoulder.” And fortunately for me, he served as one of my mentors when I was beginning my teaching career in Worthington, Ohio.
One of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me was “never underestimate the intelligence and resourcefulness of the kids you’re teaching.” It was that bit of wisdom that came crushingly true for me one day when I was teaching 8th grade American history.
The day before my class, the principal had advised me that he was coming to observe and fully evaluate my teaching and not to be surprised to see him seated in the back of the classroom.
So, with a certain degree of nervousness, I prepared what I believed to be a great lesson centered on the American Revolutionary War and the role of the Tories — those American colonists who remained loyal to King George and the British during the war for independence.
The next day came and I was delighted my class was quite attentive and unusually well-behaved (most likely because the principal had quietly taken his seat in the back of the classroom). Moving along with my daily lesson complete with an overhead projector where I had outlined the major points of my lesson, I emphasized to my seemingly eager students that the colonial Tories were a real problem for the American patriots during the war against the British. I pointed out that the Tory loyalists often served as spies and gave away secrets about the Patriots whereabouts and their military strength including the location of their weaponry.
Suddenly one of my brightest students, Richard, shot up his hand and volunteered that he knew how the Americans were able to capture some of those Tory spies. Pleased with his enthusiasm, I let him continue. He said that the American patriots had trained a live chicken to root out the disloyal British-loving Tories.
Then with my complete and naive attention, he added, “You see, Mr. Fitsko, that’s where we get “Chicken-catch-a-Tory”! (chicken cacciatore) You know what happened next. The entire classroom erupted into laughter, but no one laughing harder than my principal seated in the back of the room.
As I stood helpless at the front of the classroom, the only thing piercing through my brain were those words of my masterful mentor, Charles Rousculp, and his insightful caution “to never underestimate the intelligence and resourcefulness of the kids you are teaching.”
Of course, the story made its way to the teachers’ lounge and I just had to bite my tongue and write it off as a beginning teacher’s life-learning experience. Interestingly enough, when I saw Charlie who had learned what happened, he slapped me affectionately across my back and said “you know, that boy in your class did have a point.” “What do you mean,” I replied quickly. “Well”, he said, “you know in Italian, Cacciatore does mean hunter.”
Gosh, I miss teaching!