Thirty-five years ago today, the course of my life was completely changed.
I didn’t know that at the time, of course. Oh, I knew that my life at the time had changed, but I had no way of knowing how profound and permanent that change would be.
March 6, 1978 was my first day at William A. Morris Intermediate School, also known as IS 61. I was in the sixth grade. Before that, I had been a student at Sacred Heart Elementary School, a first-through-eighth school that had educated two prior generations of Kuffners (and employed two of them as teachers, one of whom had been my second grade teacher). All three of my siblings were at Sacred Heart. I had always assumed I would graduate from Sacred Heart. Transferring to a different school – a public school, no less – was never in the picture.
But a funny thing happened that year. I’d always been one of the top students in my class, and that was still the case. What was different was that I was bored, because the curriculum didn’t challenge me. In the sixth grade, we were still doing basic arithmetic, which I’d had down cold for years. We didn’t do any hands-on science. I don’t recall us reading any books of interest. There wasn’t anything to hold my attention.
Sacred Heart had only two classes per grade. There was one teacher for each class. I was lucky to get Sister Rita Flynn as my sixth grade teacher, because she was well-known as the better teacher of the two. The other teacher, Sister Dolores, was the kind of nun that gave nuns a bad name – in retrospect, she was basically a sociopath, who had no business in a classroom. Sister Rita was calm and low-key, and unlike Sister Dolores was not known for using corporal punishment. More importantly, however, she noticed that I was bored out of my mind.
I don’t remember how far along we were in the school year before Sister Rita started talking to my parents about better educational alternatives for me. I do remember that early on, she told me to just work through the math textbook on my own. In a couple of weeks, I had moved several chapters ahead of the class, but it was still arithmetic, and it still wasn’t teaching me anything I didn’t already know. I just know that at some point after Christmas, I was being told that it was time for me to go to a different school, one that would actually challenge me.
You’d think I’d have been happy about that, but I wasn’t. As bored as I was, Sacred Heart was what I knew, and I didn’t want to leave what I knew for something I didn’t know. It was scary, and I don’t do change that well under the best of circumstances. But Sister Rita was insistent, and her urgency on the matter convinced my parents to overrule my objections. And so, on March 6, 1978, I walked for the first time into IS 61 to get acclimated as a new student, in what we would call their gifted and talented program, though they had some other label for it.
To say the least, it was a revelation. In math, they were doing pre-algebra. The English class had just finished “Great Expectations” – I was thankfully exempted from the notoriously difficult test that ensued. We had science labs. I was put into a French class. And I was introduced to Larry Laurenzano, who decided that my impending orthodontic work pointed away from playing a brass instrument, which is how I was given a saxophone and a beginner’s guide to it. Suffice to say, I was challenged. And it was awesome.
What changed for me then wasn’t just my academic coursework, but my trajectory as a student. In the eighth grade, I did was most of my peers in the G&T program did, and took the entrance exam for Stuyvesant High School. I got into Stuy, and later on as a National Merit scholar I drew the interest of Trinity University, which was recruiting National Merit scholars. From Trinity, I came to Houston as a grad student in math at Rice. I’ve been here ever since.
I truly don’t know where I’d be today if my life had not taken that particular turn. I feel pretty confident that I would have gone to one of the Catholic high schools had I graduated from Sacred Heart. Maybe Monsignor Farrell, maybe one of the premier Catholic schools in Manhattan, Regis or Xavier. I did actually look at those schools while at IS 61, but never gave either of them serious thought once I discovered that neither of them had an instrumental music program – I wasn’t going to go any school that forced me to discontinue playing the saxophone. Had I gone to Farrell or Regis or Xavier, I feel equally confident that I’d have wound up at the University of Notre Dame. I mean, I’d have been a lifelong Catholic school student who was also a lifelong fan of Fighting Irish sports. Hard to imagine a path that wouldn’t have led to South Bend. I did apply to, and get into, Notre Dame as a Stuyvesant student, and gave it a serious look. What eventually soured me on it was that nobody told me about a scholarship offered by the local alumni association that I might have won until after the application deadline – I’d have never heard about it at all except for the fact that my dad happened to mention that I’d gotten into ND to a colleague of his who was an alum and who asked if I’d applied for this scholarship, which of course I hadn’t. Trinity’s incredibly personal and focused recruitment effort – they had the chair of the music department writing to me about their symphonic band, even though I was never going to be a music major – really stood out by comparison, and it helped tip the scales in their favor. Had I gone to Notre Dame, I have no earthly idea where I’d be today, or what I’d be doing. I find it hard to conceive of a scenario that would have led to me winding up in Houston, whether in the fall of 1988 or any other time.
So yes, I can honestly say that thirty-five years ago today, my life changed for good, and for the good. And I can say that the person who is most responsible for putting my life on that different path is Sister Rita Flynn. Sister Rita was close to retirement in 1978 – I think she hung up her spurs a few years after I passed through her classroom, and I think she passed away a few years after that. I don’t remember when I last saw her. I know I told her at least once that the transfer had been good for me, and that I was glad she pushed me into it, but I doubt she ever knew just how profound an effect she had. I can’t tell her now, so I’ll tell you. I’m eternally grateful for what she did for me. I can’t imagine my life turning out any differently, and I’m so glad for that. Sister Rita, wherever you are today, thank you. Thank you very much. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for you.