The Best Teacher I Ever Had

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Charlie Cumiskey passed away earlier this week. An obituary accompanies this piece which I wrote several years ago.  Rest in peace, Mr. C.

Mr. Cumiskey’s photo as Director of the Lower School.

Charles J. Cumiskey, Jr., was simply put, the best teacher I ever had.  In 1965, my sixth-grade year, he was head of the Lower School, the baseball coach, and the math teacher for the sixth and seventh grades.  With only one section per grade level in those days, there was no need for designations such as “6A,” much less “4GB.”  Mr. Cumiskey had been a catcher in college, and a very good one.  He still could peg a ball from home to second base on a line and on the bag.  (I’ll return to this in a moment.) He was diminutive, and like a good catcher, solidly built.  And also like a good catcher, there was something in his voice that commanded attention from those around him.

Coach Cumiskey.

 

Mr. Cumiskey loved teaching, and I believe he loved all of his students.  He would nickname each of us, not right away, but as the year progressed.  As much because I was a year young for my grade as for my five-foot-tall mother’s genes, I was noticeably shorter than my classmates.  Mr. Cumiskey set upon “Toe-High” as my moniker.  I wasn’t even “knee-high to a grasshopper,” he said, I was “toe-high to a tadpole.”  I loved the play on my unusual first name, and smiled every time he used it.  In the nicknaming and in countless other ways, he communicated his joy at working with young people with crystal clarity. He was boundlessly enthusiastic, clear, and demanding.  His math class was seldom easy, but it was never dull.

 

He and his wife even sponsored what we called “cotillion.”  Upon the merger with Country Day School in 1966, he saw an opportunity to break the ice between eighth-grade girls and boys.  So on Saturday evenings we met in the dance room with a simple stereo.  For the first hour, he and Eileen (that’s Mrs. Cumiskey to you, young man) taught us ballroom dancing.  For the second hour it was “our” dancing to “Let’s Twist Again” or “Doo-Wah-Diddy.”  All the boys became nervous when he put on a slow song like “Willow Weep for Me” or, worse yet, “Unchained Melody.” You know it’s love when a grown man gives up Saturday nights to teach 13-year olds to two-step and then watch them fumble and lurch trying to do the Watusi.

Mr. Cumiskey was not afraid to be physical.  Don’t get me wrong – I am dead set against any form of corporal punishment, and don’t buy the argument for a second that it builds a bond of trust between student and teacher.  But in his case, it was so clear from the start how much he cared about you and how much he wanted you to succeed, that he could do stuff we might frown on today.  For instance, just suppose you turned your head to speak to the boy in the seat behind you; within an instant an eraser would ping of the back of your skull, throwing a halo of chalk dust and leaving you marked for the rest of class.  It didn’t hurt except for the embarrassment, and with that catcher’s arm he never missed.  Of course, he only had to throw erasers once or maybe twice in early September to stop the practice of turning around in your seat until at least Christmas.

He also knew when to quit kidding and get tough.  Faculty have all read “Nurture Shock,” the latest science on over-managing kids as they grow up.  It has as one of its premises that kids lie to parents and teachers because they so deeply value their relationships, and fear that admitting some error or omission might jeopardize that relationship.  With Mr. Cumiskey it cut the other way.  We all adored him so much that few of us wanted even to put ourselves in the position to lie.  When he asked you a direct question you gave him a direct answer, simply because it was Mr. Cumiskey.  You couldn’t lie to him.

Finally, he was very, very good at getting angry.  I committed some transgression in his sixth-grade math class, and he sent me to his office to wait for him until class was over.  I’d like to say that the anticipation of his reprimand was worse than the actual thing, but no, they were both pretty bad.  So on top of not being able to fib, there was a positive element of danger in his class that helped keep us in line.  I’m not sure I ever transgressed again when he was about.

It’s probably overkill to say that Charlie Cumiskey was the perfect teacher, but he comes as close as anyone I’ve ever seen.  He lived out his last years in Georgia, pater familias to a very large collection of children and grandchildren.  I last saw him in October, 2015, together with the other members of the “Fab Five,” those master teachers from the 1950’s that made our school what it is today.  There is a part of me that laments not having gotten to know him better now that I am all grown up, but another larger part prefers to enjoy the memory of how much I learned from him as a child.

Some time ago, in making remarks to a group of alumni when he was present, I called him “the best teacher I ever had.”  I watched the tears come to his eyes.  There it is.  Forty years later, praise from a former student about his qualities as a teacher can make him emotional.  That’s why each of us loved you, Mr. Cumiskey.  You always cared for each of us.

Toe – High.

Mr. Cumiskey’s obituary: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/ledger-enquirer/obituary.aspx?n=charles-joseph-cumiskey&pid=186072686&

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