By Jane Weinkrantz


Just when you’d thought they’d exhausted ways to insult teachers in the media, The New York Times Magazine found a new angle. Susan Dominus, in her recent article about financial icon Suze Orman wrote, “[Orman] has been reluctant to work on school curricula on personal finance, because she says students can’t learn empowerment from people who aren’t empowered, and teachers, she says, are too underpaid ever to have any real self-worth. She told me: “When you are somebody scared to death of your own life, how can you teach kids to be powerful?”

            Obviously, Ms. Orman has never met Tom Syrett.

            As social studies teacher in POBJFK’s Alternate Education Program, Tom has been a role model to thousands of students who have not met with success in the mainstream classroom and felt out of control in their own lives. Using his own blend of social studies, psychology, tough love, role modeling, wake up calls, social studies bees, timelines, self-defense lessons and the occasional classic film, Tom has sent an unmistakable message of empowerment and self-respect to his students. Not only isn’t Tom “scared to death” of his own life, but sometimes one gets the distinct impression that he’d like it if his life threw him a few curveballs just to keep things interesting.

Tom’s and my Alt. Ed. students often start out as the most out-of-control kids in the building; some are aggressive and have multiple discipline referrals or suspensions while others are more passive, cutting classes or attending but refusing to put pen to paper or even lift their heads off the desk. None are initially compliant. After Tom has pulled our students out of class a few times to express his intolerance for “tough guys”, called their homes at six a.m. to command them to come to school, gone to their homes at six a.m. if the first approach didn’t work, monitored their attendance and grades with the scrutiny of the Patriot Act, struck terror in kids’ hearts when they didn’t finish a homework packet, brought in books and magazines on topics they’ve expressed interest in, given them money to buy a snack on a field trip, and gone above and beyond on more occasions than students can count, our kids begin to think: this man is either crazy or he actually cares about me. In fact, Tom can see the worth in his students; every day he tries to get them to see it in themselves. 

            Sadly, the class of 2009 will be the last class touched by the Syrett magic.  Tom will be retiring at the end of this school year.  While organizing a very modest, in-school celebration of Tom, I’ve been in contact with many people who feel they owe him a great debt for getting them to stay the course when they were about to drop out or worse. One young man emailed, “This is going to be a sad day for the high school.” A young woman who graduated two years ago wrote, “I’m in shock. The high school will never be the same without his empowerment.” Another student thanked the Alt. Ed, program because “it made me happier and I do not feel like an outcast.” Someone else said he learned that, “I’m not worthless.” I remember one young man who applied the “What would Jesus do?” litmus test to his problems, substituting a much less forgiving personal Messiah: “What would Syrett do?”

            I, too, will miss Tom Syrett. He has been a great partner and colleague.  I have always been in awe of his devotion to his job which has not flagged but actually intensified with age. I’ve always appreciated Tom’s understanding that my teaching style, although nothing like his own, has its own merits for our students. I’ve also loved the way he expresses his kinder side by leaving little gifts and snacks for the students in my classroom anonymously.  Likewise, I can’t thank him enough for teaching me how to make my son’s completely illegible handwriting readable.

            As teachers, on our darker days, we always wonder who remembered what we said, what we did and whether or not it made a difference. We wonder how much of our content, our philosophy, our anecdotes and our humanity stuck.  Did our efforts do any good or are we just standing in the front of a room talking to ourselves? Sometimes, if we are lucky, we are surprised with a note from a kid---now a responsible adult---who looked like she was dying of indifference through every class, but now writes, “I am who I am because of you.”  Many people are who they are because of Tom Syrett. He will never have to wonder.

            Enjoy your retirement, my friend.

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