As the school year winds down to a close, I anticipate the onslaught of summer break– some things eagerly, like the lack of 217 individual school zones along 49th Street, each timed to make the 15 minute trip to the Gabber offices last roughly two and a half days, and others not-so-eagerly, like public pools filled with children who smell like wet puppies, minus the cuteness and any sort of ability to behave. I look forward to the hottest days of the year, summer fireworks, and late sunsets. I view, with eager anticipation, my cousin Michele’s annual visit, which invariably involved a close examination of beach bars and swimsuit shops from Clearwater Beach south to Pass-a-Grille.
Michele teaches music in New York, and she shows up every summer looking remarkably pale, seeking sun and something cute to wear under it. Her trips offer me an excuse to act like a tourist: we go looking for dolphin, on deck boats, sailboats, and speedboats. We sample every restaurant that catches our eye, and doesn’t matter if it’s a tourist trap (say, Shepherd’s in Clearwater Beach) or a superb locals spot (think the Sandbar on St. Pete Beach). Of course, I can do any of these things any time I’d like, but she can’t. While I typing on this column, sitting in a swimsuit and trying to hurry so I can take Calypso for her mid-day walk along on the beach, Michele has to shape young minds. That much time around kids makes me shudder, but she loves it. Of course, she doesn’t get much time for herself, so the least I can do for her when she visits is buy her a burger at a beach bar.
Michele loves teaching. She buys supplies with her own money and spends hours of her own time working on her lessons and (she teaches music) concerts. I wonder how many kids appreciate her effort. How many of her students will one day say, “Remember Ms. Salustri? I loved her class; it made me want to sing all the time.” I had a few teachers like that.
Marie Grein taught 5th-grade math, and while nice, she let nothing slide. Aside from certain educational building blocks, she taught us about consequences. She told one of my classmates she wouldn’t give her permission to go to a skating party because she performed poorly on a test. Shouldn’t she study, instead?
Her counterpart, Ernest Johnson, held us to the same standards. He taught language arts, and this included book reports, research papers, and 50 vocabulary words a week. We had to define each word, identify its part of speech, write it out five times, and use it in a sentence. I had my first vestiges of anxiety in Mr. Johnson’s class, but I learned a crapload of words. Crapload, I should note, was not one of them.
Sporadic exposure to a teacher can mold students, too: I decided to be a writer because the elementary school librarian told my class she thought I would. I doubt Ms. Penny Lawrence remembers that comment, but I remember thinking, “Hey, I’ll try that!” and, well, it stuck. Feel free to send any complaints about this column to her, care of Belleair Elementary.
Dave Byers and Gus Haynes, a middle school social studies teacher and a high school history teacher, respectively, showed me how to appreciate history. Mr. Byers led our classes in campaign songs from Herbert Hoover’s election and war songs from the wars (He once led the entire school in a rousing chorus of “Over There” in assembly.) Mr. Haynes became “Gus” after I passed the Advanced Placement exam and received college credit for his course. Gus taught us how to think about history, and he taught us that sometimes you had to read between the lines of history books.
Of course, not every teacher leaves a positive mark . My sophomore year English teacher, a colleague later joked, scarred me for life. Mrs. Parker did not much care for passive voice, and strictly prohibited the use of “to be” and other helping verbs. Any composition that used any of the following verbs failed instantly: be, being, been, is, am, are, was, were, has, have, and had. Even today, if I use one of these verbs, it hurts. Mrs. Parker and I did not see eye to eye on the craft of writing; she told me I wrote poorly. It gives me great comfort to know that she WAS wrong, although her traumatic grammar lesson made me a better writer.
English class improved with Frank Black, the Unofficial World’s Best English Teacher. He taught me how to structure a thesis and topic sentence and taught me more about professional writing than anyone else until my senior year of college. I could not feed myself as a writer without his expertise.
One last teacher made a stirringly profound impact on me: Dr. Jerry Smith, who taught a college class called “Identifying Florida Biota.” I took it to get out of dissecting things, but I left his class with an enduring appreciation for the the Sunshine State. Dr. Smith, a biologist who also taught, had real-world experience in Florida, and every class involved a field trip. Along with the rest of our class, I made my first pilgrimage to the Florida Keys with Dr. Smith. In this class I learned how, despite of or in spite of civilization, Florida’s muggy wildness exists in tandem with people, sometimes as close as the overgrown lot next to the Wendy’s. I became a writer because of my grade school librarian; I became a Florida writer in love with the state because of Dr. Smith.
These men and women shaped my life as much as my parents. They did so for remarkably little money, and they certainly did so by giving of themselves relentlessly to students who, myself included, did not (at least at the time) appreciate or understand their efforts. It will not try to contact them each and thank them; I am one student of thousands. They do not remember me, and that’s OK. I can pay it forward in my own way, however minute, and honor them every summer when I buy my cousin a burger as I show her the life teachers like her gave me under the hot Florida sun.
Contact Cathy Salustri at Cathy@TheGabber.com.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.