By John Toth
He was tough and took a lot of abuse. At first, I thought he was just out to get me.
I transferred into Mr. Schiff’s high school freshman English class in the Spring of 1971. He was not glad to see me. There were more than 30 students in his class already, and he didn’t want more, especially not a skinny kid with a thick accent and an attitude.
At first sight, Mr. Shiff looked like a grouchy old man in a bad suit, just waiting to retire. Or, maybe he was even past retirement, but wanted to torture students. Maybe he liked to see them fail. Maybe I was being a little narrow-minded about him. Why not give him a chance and see if we could get along?
“Mr. Toth, if you stay in my class, you will fail,” he said, right off the bat.
I stayed, and he started in on me right away. In a couple of weeks, I had a D average. I could do nothing right.
We had to talk. What could I do to at least pass?
One book report increases your grade by one point, he said.
Each Friday, students lined up to submit their reports. Mr. Schiff read a sentence from a random page and listened as the student explained it. He could tell if you were faking or really read the book.
I didn’t mess with any of it for while, and then I started reading. The first book I took to him was a non-fiction. “I only accept fiction. This doesn’t count.” I wasted a week. He didn’t give me a break.
Then it was two, three books at a time. I read non-stop. I was going to pass this class on book reports alone if I had to. I started spending time in the school library, and I checked books out of the public library near my house.
Mr. Schiff looked at me a month later and said something I thought I would never hear: “Mr. Toth, you may have a chance of passing my class.”
His words were music to my 15-year-old ears.
My test grades were improving as well. My English was being refined by the hundreds of pages I read each week. My attitude toward Mr. Schiff was changing.
Passing was no longer good enough. Now I wanted a B or even an A.
He asked some questions about my past. We talked briefly about how I made it here from a country on the other side of the world. He was actually a nice guy.
It didn’t phase him when students cursed at him. He didn’t send them to the principal’s office. He gave them demerit points that could be erased with book reports. Many started reading. The book report line grew each Friday. I was in the middle of it with my two or three books.
At the end of the semester when I submitted my last book report, Mr. Schiff asked me only one question. I answered. He gave me the credit.
“Aren’t you going to ask me anything else?”
“I know you read the book, Mr. Toth.”
So, I was curious. What was my grade? I stayed after class and asked him.
I made an 85 – probably the hardest 85 I ever earned.
The next semester I started writing. Mr. Schiff retired. I am still writing.
I told him thank you at the end of the semester for everything he did for me. He thanked me.
I grew up a lot in Mr. Schiff’s freshman English class, but I wasn’t the only one. There were many of us.
To the system, he was just another public school English teacher who did his time and then retired. To me and others he turned around, Mr. Schiff was someone very special – and I think he knew it.