In the long history of Westport, perhaps no Saugatuck native is more associated with Staples High School than Tony Arciola. A 1944 graduate, he returned there in 1950 to teach English. He later served as chairman of the English department. After retiring in 1984, he promptly went back for 10 more years – this time as a special education aide.
Tony died on Wednesday. In 2004, I interviewed him at his Westport home for my book, Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education. Here’s what he said:
My parents came over from Italy, but my 6 brothers and sisters and I were all born here. I was the youngest. When I was growing up – and before and after –Westport was considered an excellent school system.
The Saugatuck community really respected Staples. The Arcudi family was always looked to as a good example of what good students could do at Staples. The Arcudi boys were the first from Saugatuck to go to Yale. But most families considered Staples the end of their education. Very few college graduates came from Saugatuck. There was a strong feeling that you needed to work after high school, and be “gainfully employed.”
I graduated from Staples in 1944. Our class was a pretty good blend. We were all pretty close, because the classes were small and we were grouped together. Sports were big, and organizations like Soundings and Inklings drew people together.
Norman Flint, the principal of Bedford Junior High School, handled Staples students’ applications to college. I was applying to the University of Connecticut. He saw my transcript, and told me I was going to Yale. I had never thought of it, but he was right on target. World War II was underway, and not everyone went to college. I took off a semester and worked at the Kellems cable grip factory in Westport, to augment my scholarship.
When I graduated from Yale in 1948 I commuted to Columbia, and got my master’s at the School of Education. I finished in the summer of ‘49. I applied to different school systems, but there was low teacher turnover. I decided to substitute teach for a year, and got called to Staples. The Spanish teacher left after the first semester, so I became the full-time Spanish teacher – I spoke and read it fluently. I also taught adult ed. Then an English job opened up. I began teaching English in the fall of 1950.
Staples was a far different school than it is now. There were 3 teachers in the entire English department. Gladys Mansir taught 12th grade, V. Louise Higgins taught 10th, and I took Rhoda Harvey’s spot teaching 11th grade. Rhoda had been my English teacher. Much of my love of American literature came from her.
Gladys was such a scholar – such a strong person. She was a strong influence on me. Whenever there was anything to do – a committee to study the honor roll, write a guide for the research paper, organize a field trip – she asked me to do it. Those field trips were important. We went to New York City to see “John Brown’s Body” with Tyrone Power, which the students were studying in grade 11. A school trip like that commanded the attention of the press. There were photos in the paper of the kids on the bus
In the beginning I taught 5 classes of American Literature – all of grade 11. We took a full quarter to teach the research paper. I’m not aware of any other school that focused on the research paper. We had the librarian from the Westport Library come in to help.
When we moved to North Avenue in 1958, the kids had to go outside, in rain and snow. That made a big difference. But we also had real labs, the theater program started, the sports teams got better because the gym was handy, and you could fit the whole school together in the auditorium.
As the school expanded, I became department chairman. We kept one Shakespeare play each year: =“Romeo and Juliet” in 10th grade, “Macbeth” in 11th – the only exception to all American literature that year – and “Hamlet” in 12th. The research paper remained a constant for 11th grade too.
But as different teachers came in with different strengths, they added books. Teachers gave large group lectures, then followed up in individual classes. I lectured to the 10th graders on The Bridge of San Luis Rey. We met in the auditorium, and I had all kinds of AV materials.
I was department chairman for 10 years, until the system changed. We went to a house system, which never really worked. That’s when I went back to being a full-time teacher. By that time English teachers taught 4 classes, so we were able to make writing meaningful. We met with students, analyzed their writing, and worked with lay readers.
I retired from teaching in 1984, then went back for 10 years as a special education aide with Garry Meyers. That was a very important step for me. I was able to work one-on-one with students, in the best sense of the phrase. I got to know a lot of kids very closely.
As I look back, I think back to the year before I started as a Spanish teacher. I was a substitute, going around to different schools. Even then, I thought Staples was special. I think that comes from the community itself, which has always held education in high regard. The standards are always high, and the kids respond to teachers on a personal basis. The fact that English teachers have only 4 classes means teachers have time for individual students. They understand them better. Students feel that teachers are approachable.
Staples has always been in the forefront of many things. Inklings and Soundings are always on top in the Columbia Press Association contests. The sports program has always been held in high regard. But I think the caliber of teachers helps make it a special place. They’ve got great expertise. But they also care about kids, and they demonstrate it every day.
(Hat tip: Michael Calise)