Blast to the Past! A Teacher’s Guide to High School

From the arts to physics, all of Stuyvesant teachers have their own unique stories to share about their high school selves, and how they became the teachers they are today.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cover Image
By Ismath Maksura

No matter how life plays out after high school, the memories made during these four years will carry on for a lifetime. As high school students, teachers can have a great impact on what students may choose to become in the future. After all, teachers were once students themselves. So what were teachers like in high school? From the arts to physics, all Stuyvesant teachers have their own unique stories to share about their high school selves, and how they became the teachers they are today.

Art teacher Jane Karp recalled her first day at LaGuardia High School, and the wild environment it had to offer. “I had planned out my outfit for the first day [of homeroom] very carefully, and [I realized] very quickly that I was most definitely not the coolest kid in the classroom because, 1985,” she noted. “There were students with high, bright-red mohawks––safety pins in their ears. Several members of my homeroom were in quite outlandish, mid-80s attire and I thought, ‘well, this is a different environment,’” Karp said. Her favorite memories of high school took place in the lunchroom. She remembered how the choir would break out into song during nearly every lunch period, and others would chime in with them, creating an electric atmosphere.

It was here that Karp was inspired to become an artist, and was given the freedom to explore a vast array of different types of artistic mediums. “I majored in art history after taking AP Art History in high school with a wonderful teacher, Ms. Goldberg, and she still inspires me [...] In remote, it’s a little harder to do this, but anytime I act out a scene from a painting, I’m really doing what Ms. Goldberg would do in class,” Karp said.

For others, school was a way to escape from the outside environment. Chemistry teacher Dr. Steven O’Malley used school as a way to cope with the loss of his brother, who had died unexpectedly when he was in ninth grade. “If I may be perfectly candid, high school was a really rough time for me and my family [...] I don’t think I realized at the time, but I found comfort in the structure of being in school. Just having responsibilities and things to do, in retrospect, was a very good thing for me during that time,” Dr. O’Malley said.

Though Dr. O’Malley always had a very strong grasp of the sciences, he wasn’t very certain about how he would apply his knowledge. Dr. O’Malley recalled that his passion for teaching was ignited after he was encouraged by his peers later in college to pursue teaching due to his remarkable ability to concisely explain concepts. “I remember certain pieces of advice being valuable, like, ‘it’s okay not to know what you want to do right now.’ In fact, it’s okay to not know for a long time, and being told it’s okay to be uncertain about things is really nice advice for anybody, but particularly when I was a teenager.” Dr. O'Malley recalled.

History teacher Dr. Lisa Greenwald added a similar sentiment, recalling that as a student, she didn’t have everything perfectly in-order upon leaving high school: “I realized around senior year that the life of the mind was something worthy of pursuit. But I did not understand the self-discipline, the study, and the accumulated skills that were necessary. I played catch-up for a long time.”

A common trend among Stuyvesant alumni is returning to high school and giving advice to other students about their own high school experiences. Mathematics teacher David Peng (‘06) and economics teacher David Wang (‘12) are both Stuyvesant alumni, and frequently reminisce on the memories they’ve made during their time at Stuyvesant.

While Wang remembers taking the subway frequently and how his peers would work on homework and chatter excitedly about Apple’s latest inventions, Peng cites high school as the place where his passion for teaching first emerged. Like Dr. O’Malley, it came from unofficially tutoring his friends. “My friends told me I did a better job explaining than some of their teachers. That experience led me to pursue other teaching and tutoring opportunities,” Peng said. The benefits of teaching his friends were a two-way street: “Even though I was taking AP Calculus at the same time, I found it important to be able to teach the topics to my friends; that was my way of making sure I understood the topics myself,” he said.

Like freshmen students today, Wang also expressed struggling to transition from middle school to high school. Wang acknowledged that finding a consistent group of friends to socialize with was particularly difficult: “It was also a little difficult to make new friends at first, especially with how big the school is. It’s ironic because there’s so many people at Stuy [that] you would think you’d be able to meet a lot of people, but because it’s so many people and everyone’s moving around, it’s [not].” As corny as it sounds, having good companionship between friends can give students a boost and a reality check when they need it.

However, not all teachers were American graduates. In fact, physics teacher Thomas Strasser actually went to high school in Salzburg, Austria, for the majority of his education. Strasser noted how different the Austrian school system is compared to that of America. “In English [in America], you have thirty people around you and then when you go to math class and it’s different thirty people around you. That is totally different in Austria. You have the same people around you every period, every day, with very few exceptions––and that from ten to eighteen for eight years,” Strasser said. This tightly knit social life allowed Strasser to build strong bonds with peers who he normally met up with in class, instead of jumping around to find one steady social group.

The differences between the Austrian and American education system went beyond this, in Strasser’s experience. The decision to even go to college starts at the age of ten, and certain courses of action are taken depending on whether an individual chooses to go to college. Those who don’t go must attend trade school and find employment by the time they’re the same age as current Stuyvesant juniors.

However, Strasser drew parallels between his own high school experiences and certain Stuyvesant events such as SING!. Every year, his entire class would participate in a school theatre production: “[While] some people were acting, others were doing the lighting, catering. Pretty much similar to what you do with SING, but not with the musical background.” At one point in his senior year, Strasser even attempted to start his own school newspaper, though, his attempts were rather unsuccessful.“We were a bunch of rather challenging students for the administration, so they were not very happy about these kids that would criticize everything that the administration does,” he recalled.

As teachers look back on the past, they hope to pass on wisdom to their current students. Most importantly, they hope that students will learn from their failures and triumphs, and ultimately find success in their future careers. To many Stuyvesant students who feel pressured to get perfect grades or follow a certain career path, Strasser stresses the importance of keeping an open mind: “Look at everything from different perspectives; don’t get too stuck in a narrow field of what you’re interested in. In the end, you might find out that you like something that you didn’t think you like.”