This article is the first of a seven-part series on my experience as an educator in the City School District of New Rochelle where I worked for 8 1/2 years.
NEW ROCHELLE, NY — I was first hired by the City School District of New Rochelle in 1977, immediately upon completing my Bachelor of Science Degree, magna cum laude, in Industrial Manufacturing at State University of New York in Oswego. I earned my degree in just three years.
Upon graduation, I was selected from a pool of 125 candidates to teach at New Rochelle High School in the Vocational Education Department. My course assignments included Tool & Die Making, General Metalworking, Architectural Board Drafting and Engineering Board Drafting.
I reported directly to Ted Mandarano who was the Chairman of the Vocational Education Department. He hired me to teach back when New Rochelle High School was a three-year high school and the ‘Queen Bee’ BOCES site that surrounding school districts fed into for a wide variety of vocational courses. Students attending New Rochelle High School were categorized into roughly 3 groups: high academic, comprehensive, and vocational.
I taught in a large, well-equipped machine shop with nearly a million dollars of equipment funded in the early 1970s through Title I Federal Grants under the Vocational Education Amendments, State Grants and local funding.
Adjacent to me on one side heading towards the athletic department was a machine shop roughly twice the size and bearing even higher levels of equipment.
Sharing a common wall with ‘my room’ was another teacher, Al Meier, a Marine and true American hero who had landed on Iowa Jima and Okinawa during WWII. Meier was an authentic Master Tool and Die Maker. He taught years 2 & 3 of the tool & die making program titled ‘Auto Machine’.
Since I taught years 1 & 2 of the program, this meant that my year 2 students had to measure up to the high standards of Meier’s year 2 students so that they could articulate seamlessly into Al’s year 3 and final Vocational Tool & Die Apprentice Level I Certification, that Al Meier only awarded to qualified students. With this NYS Vocational Tool & Die Apprentice Level 1 Certificate in-hand, 18-year old seniors were stepping into metro-NY area jobs with machine shops and industries and commanding starting salaries of around $40,000 a year.
The room that I was assigned to had been run by a teacher that should have retired five years earlier. By the time I first met him he was no longer interested in students or teaching. He had built an enclosure with filing cabinets in one corner near the front of the room that contained a small desk and chair, and was barely accessible except down a narrow canyon-like entryway. Students who had this person, told me that he would go into his refuge, read his paper, drink coffee and sleep. When classes came in he would tell them, “You’re all too (expletive deleted) stupid to learn, go do what you want and leave me alone.” And, so they did; for five years.
Consequently, there were large amounts of profanity and gang ‘tags’ burned into the wall with an oxyacetylene torch, most of the equipment did not work although at first glance it seemed to be alright— closer examination revealed that long 2” wide specialty leather drive belts on the 10” South Bend Lathes had been cut, most machines had been run up to a maximum rpm in forward and then slammed into reverse, damaging the synchronous gear transmissions in the machines, tool carriages had been run into rotating headstocks destroying the carriage and bending the drive screw it traveled on, precision measuring tools had been stolen, and so on.
This person was finally forced out when the kids who were “too stupid to learn” took plans for a hand-held mechanical bearing puller — a tool used primarily in the automotive trades — and put it to their own use in an unexpected way.
A mechanical bearing puller is comprised of a circular solid rod about 30” in length with a larger ‘stop’ affixed to one end, a sliding steel mass of about 4” in length that rode along the length of the rod, and had at the other end a set of ‘mechanical jaws’ that would grasp the bearings on a shaft and by sliding the moveable mass quickly until it hit the ‘stop’, the bearing would be released from the shaft without damaging the shaft it rode on.
The students in the class obtained the ‘instructor’s keys and broke into the supply room. There they discovered Sheffield Steel, precision ground ‘flats’ of roughly 3” X 10” X (precision thickness: 0.250000, 0.187500 and so on). Sheffield Steel, from Sheffield Steel Works in England is the highest grade of steel used to make, especially, knife blades and in other types of high-precision work. It is very expensive due to its material uniformity (grain structure and composition), precise dimensions and when properly hardened makes a cutting blade second to none in the world—except for Samurai swords.
These students who were ‘too stupid to learn’ managed to modify the gear puller plans by adding a stop at each end of the bar, and pinning an arrow-shaped blade of hardened and tempered Sheffield Steel to one end of the bar.
This ‘weapon’ was then used in dozens of car trunk break-ins as far away as White Plains. Students would use the device to ‘pop the trunk locks’ of cars parked in the multi-level parking garages and then steal the contents from the owners.
The thefts continued for weeks until a joint police task force caught a group of New Rochelle High School students breaking and entry. The police traced the devices back to the smaller New Rochelle High School machine shop.
At the same time, other students took some of the thinner Sheffield Steel dimensional flats and began making shurikens, commonly known in the West as throwing stars or ninja stars. These traditional Japanese concealed weapons are deadly—generally used for throwing, and sometimes stabbing or slashing an opponent’s vital facial and neck areas. They are sharpened hand-held blades made from flat plates of metal. One day a student came in off the athletic field hemorrhaging from his upper arm with a shuriken embedded. The combination of this event, combined with the State Police serving a search warrant on the City School District of New Rochelle to retrieve the slide-impact hammers made it impossible to protect this teacher any longer.
Instead of firing him, filing charges, and stripping him of his pension, he was allowed to quietly retire from the District with all sick time back pay, benefits, and pension benefits intact.
Enter Richard Yanni, the recent College Grad — altruistic, optimistic, positive thinking, and forward looking.
It’s 1977 and I am excited to take on my first teaching assignment.
Aware of the problems with my predecessor but always the optimist, believing in a ‘can do’ approach and modeling positive behavior to my students, I challenged ‘my students’ to work with me in rebuilding the machine shop because it was the right, good civic thing to do and it would give them a chance to ‘give back’ to the school and to the community they grew up in. So, for most of the first 6 months of the school year, we worked together tearing down and rebuilding equipment — this work became the curriculum.
I had learned the power of positive motivation and strong leadership from the United States Air Force. I went through Leadership Training School and was put in charge of 500 airmen and several echelons of Leadership-trained Airmen who communicated my orders as given to me by the Squadron Commander to all of the other men in the squadron.
And, these principles worked. As any good teacher or parent knows, kids are yearning for guidance, productivity, positive expenditure of energy, a strong role model and recognition—I gave it all to them in a way that was a winning proposition for the students, the school, and myself.
When I checked with Ted Mandarano early in my first year about having the walls wire brushed, cleaned and painted up to the 8’ level (we had 12’ high ceilings with asbestos wrapped pipes running across the room suspended from hangers attached to the ceiling) because the environment was not at all conducive to learning, he checked with B&G and was told they could not fit the work into their schedule until two years down the road.
I asked for permission and funding to wire brush, clean, tape off the walls at the 8’ level and paint the walls a pleasing blue color with my students, Mandarano authorized the work and the funds. He also told me to keep the work ‘hush, hush’ so the District’s notoriously slow-moving union painters would not find out about our project. The project was kept quiet and the room was transformed by a beautiful coat of medium blue gloss paint that went uniformly around the entire room.
The pride and ownership for the lab grew even stronger in the hearts and minds of all of the students. There was never even a scribble of graffiti with a magic marker on those walls during the three years that I served the students, administration, and the District. Peer pressure kept any potential ‘bad actors’ in check because from their peer’s perspective it was ‘their room’.
About mid-way through my second year, two rude and angry union painters barged into my room cursing me out because I was, “taking their work away from them.” They admitted they had a backlog of several years of work, yet the priority in their minds was not the learning atmosphere for the children, but a misperceived threat to their job security. I dressed them down for using profanity told them to leave the room and take up their concerns with Mr. Mandarano. They never did.
I made it a point to arrive at New Rochelle High School each day by 7 a.m., commuting from Ossining, and left most nights at 6:30 p.m. During those extra, non-contract hours, I worked tirelessly on rebuilding the machine shop. Two nights out of the week, Al Meier generously let me take his night school course in Tool & Die Making for adults interested in earning their NYS Certification. On those evenings, I left at 10:30 p.m. but I was learning invaluable Tool & Die Making skills from a Master who could trace his family lineage in the field to the Groton Naval Boat Yards as far back as the Revolutionary War, and then to Germany. Sometimes I thought that Al was ‘genetically programmed’ to be a Master Tool & Die Maker as he could make anything out of either ferrous or non-ferrous metals.
Early in that first year, I had walked into Al’s room during a planning period with my ‘hat in my hands’…I was 22 and Al was 55. While I had 15 semester hours in metallurgy, machining, and metal working as part of my Industrial Manufacturing Major, I was clearly not a ‘Master Tool & Die Maker’ and asked if he would please mentor me. Then I shut up.
After a few moments of contemplation, he stood up from his chair and said, “Richard, I would be honored to mentor you if you are willing to put in the work.” So, with a sharp military salute, I said, “Yes sir, Semper fi!” as a sign of acceptance and respect for Al—a U.S. Marine who landed on Iowa Jima and Okinawa. Yet, Al was a quiet, balanced man of about 5’ 10” high who projected confidence and commanded respect in an understated way. It was the beginning of a great friendship and an invaluable learning experience for me. Al’s students have work on permanent exhibit to this day in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry: Sterling Engines, Machine Tools, and etc. all within 1/10,000” of accuracy. Beautiful precision work done by students of a Master Tool & Die Maker.
At the end of year one, Ted and Al both marveled at the transformation of the supposed ‘ghetto machine shop’ into a professional, fully operational machine shop. At that point, I asked Ted to approve the purchase and installation of a foundry/casting operation since one small corner of the room had been built with an exhaust hood, gas hook up, and 220V power shut off (used to power the furnace blower). Without going into detail, my second year saw New Rochelle High School students for the first time in the history of the District, ramming up sand molds and pouring aluminum alloy to make complete working bench vise jaws. Turning ACME threads for the lead screws, machining all of the other parts from raw stock, etc. resulted in a prized, beautiful vise that their friends and parents could not believe they had made! Talk about building self-esteem through achievement; my kids learned valuable lessons about dedication to achieving long term goals, self-reliance, authentic pride, and ethics.
Observing the foundry in operation and the machine shop humming away, Al said, “Son, you are a true teacher and are to be congratulated for turning this mess around!” Coming from Al, that was high praise.
During my third year, in one of my classes we formed a student-run company that mass-produced and sold collapsible solar cookers. Called the OBI Company, which stood for ‘Our Best Idea’ the class taught the basics of business operations, how to organize mass production for a target sales season (Chanukah & Christmas), and the teamwork necessary to achieve a goal. Our successful project was featured on the entire front page of the Sunday Daily News Westchester Addition with a page width picture of the class, a student holding up one of the solar cookers along with Dr. Gaddy, and all lined up in a shallow arc in front of the windows outside the main office. Linda Kelly, Dr. Gaddy’s administrative assistant, and a strong supporter of mine as well as always being extraordinarily friendly towards me, knew how to arrange for positive PR for New Rochelle High School. And, this was a STEM-like project a full 20 years before the NSTA even thought about STEM.
In 1980, I was offered a unique career opportunity by a solar-assisted, heat pump company in Colorado Springs to head up their domestic and international technical department. With some reluctance, I resigned my position with the District and headed west.