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New York City
May 2002

My Teacher is My Hero
By Tom Kertes

He may defy gravity on his “can’t miss jump-shot” but, unlike the overwhelming majority of sports multi-millionaires, Allan Houston also has his feet planted firmly on the ground. The Knicks guard admits that he’s only gotten his priorities properly ordered for one simple reason: both of his parents are teachers. And, so is his wife.

Okay, that’s two simple reasons. But who’s counting?

“I am,” said the soft-spoken Houston and he flashed a warm smile. “I’m counting the money ourselves, and television personalities, and Hollywood actors are making as compared to teachers and I’m outraged. To say that teachers are under-appreciated is merely stating the obvious. Besides parents, they have the greatest impact on the children who are indeed our future. Children are potential and they are the ones in the position to unlock that potential.”

To recognize excellent teachers, Houston and his team, for the second year in a row, sponsored the “My Teacher is My Hero” contest. The Knicks received more than 2,000 essays from students in all five boroughs who nominated their teacher for the award. The three winners–representing one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school–and their teachers were the team’s guests during a recent Knicks-Chicago Bulls game and the awards ceremony took place during half-time.

For all involved the evening was meaningful, funny and more than memorable.

“In the sixth grade, I was about to take a wrong turn in life, slacking off in my studies and hanging around with the wrong crowd,” said Jessica Cardona, an 8th grader at IS 141. “And the only person who noticed was Mrs. Tzimas, my Language Arts teacher. She talked to me, and talked to me. She never stopped talking to me, it seemed. Finally, one afternoon, she made me stay in her class after school until I promised that I wasn’t going to do the wrong thing…I have no doubt in my mind that, without Mrs. Tzimas’ intervention, I would now be lost.”

“The key is love,” Tzimas explained. “You have to love what you’re doing, you have to love the kids. I have the advantage of teaching English, so I can deal with the expression of the students’ emotions. I have the freedom, and the duty, to communicate.”

But, high schooler Vulla Muckalli had all kinds of troubles communicating. “I thought I lost everything,” says Muckalli of having just arrived from Greece at the sensitive age of 16. “At the beginning, I had no friends and the kids were laughing at my accent, my misspellings, even the way I dressed. I was crying every night. I didn’t speak English, I couldn’t understand anything and I couldn’t write.”

Then one day she saw on her program card the name of a teacher that sounded Greek and a hero was born. “Finally someone could understand my feelings,” Muckalli said. “I went through the same thing she did, 30 years ago when I first came to this country,” said Argyri Apostolou, an ESL teacher at Fort Hamilton H.S. in Brooklyn. “So, naturally, I had to be there for her. I feel that as a teacher it is my obligation to do the best I can for my kids.”

“And then do some more,” she said.

Two years later, Muckalli, who now has dozens of friends and is going to be a lawyer, has less of an accent than Apostolou. “I told you everything was going to be all right,” said Apostolou, as she hugged her student and both of them got just a little teary.

There were no tears–only laughter–for elementary school winner Stanley Suponitsky whose hero was Helene Kinsberg, a speech teacher from Brooklyn’s PS 255. Considering that Stanley now “never shuts up”, according to mom, it’s difficult to believe that he had a serious speech problem through kindergarten and first grade. “It’s not enough to teach your subject,” Kinsberg said. “You have to give your all to the whole child. And Stanley is such a sweetheart. It was no big deal.”

But don’t tell that to the Stan-man. “The kids laughed at me and called me names,” said Stanley. “Mrs. Kinsberg spent the extra time with me to give me confidence and taught me how to be myself.”

In Stanley’s case, “myself” is a big joker. Mistakenly thinking that Stanley’s problems originated with his Russian upbringing, a writer asks how long he’s been in this country. “Seven and a half years,” seven and a half year-old Stanley deadpans. Speech problems? The kid’s already a stand-up comedian. #


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