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Honoring a Great Teacher

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2011-02-28-HarrietforHarvard.jpg

Thirty-eight years are lifted on the wings of service. They have soared. From a distant echo comes a message on Facebook to Harriet Cinco, a teacher who has inhabited those years with her love for learning.

Hello Madame Cinco: I'm a former student of yours when you taught at Nathan Hale Intermediate School about 25 years ago. Well if I have reached the right Madame C, just know that you were one of my BEST teachers and whatever method it was that you used was very effective -- still amazed how much French you managed to teach us in just 2 years. Hope I reached the right person. God bless.

Love and responsibility merge with Harriet's career. They are inseparable. Add to that brilliant mind a beautiful heart, you can begin to understand why former students who are well into their middle age wish to thank Madame C. for her classwork of decades past.

Madame Cinco's first position was at Nathan Hale IS. She taught students from public housing along with upper middle class kids who came from opposite sides of the Gowanus Expressway in Brooklyn, New York. That housing project was known to be one of the most dangerous in New York City. Into that ocean of strife walked Madame C., a French/Spanish teacher. Madame C. calmed these waters with her art.

Against all odds, she managed to take her class on a class outing to Quebec City. They stayed at the Chateau Frontenac, Quebec's landmark. When they arrived at this elegant destination, silence prevailed. Someone whispered, "We're not in Brooklyn anymore." Madame Cinco raised money for the trip by ingenious means: a mousse-off that a student won by creating mousse in the shape of a moose. Parents paid an entrance fee to see the contest and eat the results. In addition, she invited the entire school to come to a showing of Diabolique for one afternoon for a dollar a ticket. Madame Cinco sold her best popcorn for this showing and raised even more money. Yes, her students did, indeed, learn French. It didn't hurt that Madame Cinco had movie star looks and a 1000-watt personality to go along with her genius IQ.

When New York almost went bankrupt and teachers suffered massive layoffs, her principal kept shifting her to different subject licenses as Madame Cinco had accumulated 225 credits in college, 100 more than was needed for a B.A. He made sure that his best teacher stayed. What would happen today?

After 12 years in Brooklyn, she moved to Long Island and ultimately landed a coveted position at a North Shore high school where she teaches today. She retires after this year. She has witnessed generation after generation dance through her classroom. Madame Cinco teaches her students about life. She imparts to them a love of learning. It cascades through her as a cherished river. She has electrified brick and mortar with light.

Twenty-five years from now other students will write thanking Madame Cinco for caring, teaching and daring. Throughout her own travails Madame Cinco has adorned her classroom with wisdom and humor.

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. She is honored in Congress as one of the top 100 teachers in the country. The Harvard Club of Long Island recognized her in 2010 as one of the top teachers in Nassau County. She was nominated by a Harvard student who said Madame Cinco inspired her to become a doctor so she may serve immigrant communities. Madame Cinco's brilliance is well known in her community.

Madame Cinco ultimately reached the top of her salary scale. One wonders if a teacher like Madame Cinco is worth more than a shortstop in Major League Baseball.

Then we come to the governor of Wisconsin who brags about keeping a bat in his office when speaking about union protesters who are asking for the outrageous consideration that their collective bargaining rights be kept intact. They have acceded to the governor's economic demands.

There is an ugly tint to the atmosphere hovering above our collective lives. An anti-intellectual scent is pervasive. A movement to denigrate teachers is afoot. How does that work? Aside from parents, who is the main influence in our children's lives? Of course, it is the teacher. In order to go into that profession, you must love your work or you will not have a chance of succeeding. At Town Hall meetings we hear the proud cry, "Destroy the Department of Education!" Who are we destroying when we dismantle institutions devoted to educating our children?

To those who are distraught at this insanity, I offer this: history is an ocean of time. Hidden within the tide is an undertow. That undertow of compassion/wisdom is rising to the surface. We don't need another million-dollar shortstop. We need another Madame Cinco.