Published in the School Administrator Magazine…The official voice of the American Association of School Administrators January, 2022
By Joseph Batory
When I finished high school in June of 1960, I saw three future choices: One was to attend Philadelphia’s La Salle College (not then a university), which had accepted me for admission beginning in September; Another option was to pursue a blue collar job along side my father at the huge General Electric plant located in my neighborhood; And then, there was my first choice:making some serious money Working for the Illegal Gambling Operation in my neighborhood under the direction of Guido, the local “wise guy” boss.
College? Are You Kidding?
However, my top goal was soon derailed. Guido authoritatively reduced my options by demanding that I go to college: “For heaven’s sake Joey, you’re one of the first around here to ever get admitted to prestigious college like La Salle, so why would you throw away that opportunity?” Guido argued. “Besides, you’ll be a representative from us people in the real world! You didn’t have no silver spoons growing up so you could be a role model. You could inspire kids from this neighborhood to reach upward. And what a difference you could make as a teacher or a principal for kids who grew up like you did. So, forget about running numbers.”
Guido stopped by my house on a steamy summer night, and I filled out my acceptance confirmation agreement from La Salle in front of my mom and dad and Guido and mailed the packet. The three adults were jubilant. I was depressed and felt like I was trapped on a shaky tree limb.
A few weeks later, I paid my first semester La Salle tuition, an awesome amount for someone from my social class ($300.00), picked up my roster, and navigated my way to the five first semester scheduled classes. On the bright side, the La Salle professors were friendly, classes were small, and teaching involved much “give and take” between students and profs. And I was struck by the manners of classmates. Shockingly, people said hello and nodded to you like you were an equal. That was the good news!
The bad news had to do with textbooks. In my first 12 years of schooling, books on different subjects were given to all students free of charge and then returned to school authorities at the year’s end. BUT…to my amazement, I had no idea that in college, you had to buy your own books!!!
I had carefully budgeted the precise amount of money for the first year of the La Salle tuition. But there was no money left to buy books that first year. My professors had mandated eight different textbooks. I was doomed. The textbook costs were somewhere around $80.00, an awesome amount for someone who worried about thirty cents of his public transit money back-and-forth to La Salle each day.
And so, it came to pass that I did not purchase even one new book during my first two semesters at La Salle College.
Most of the time, with much embarrassment, I borrowed the precious textbooks from willing students and read rapid fire with desperation when classmate friends ate lunch in the cafeteria or sat around the campus at leisure.
In my subsequent years at La Salle, summer jobs and some minor funding from Guido solved my textbook problems, but the first year at LaSalle without the required texts had been a nightmare.
During my first two years at La Salle, most of the clothes I owned were old, frayed and poorly fitted. But my resourceful mother had a funeral director friend. Did you ever wonder what happened to the clothes off a dead person when the body is taken to the mortuary? Well, most families just tell the funeral director to discard the clothes of the deceased. But my determined mother knew I needed some better clothes for college. She pleaded with her funeral director friend and was often able to acquire dead persons’ clothes for me to wear. So during my early La Salle years, I was often clothed in a wardrobe from dead people. And most these clothes were nowhere close to a good fit for me nor were they in “in style.”
In summary, the academic challenges of college were academically formidable for me with or without books. And my lower-class social background and shabby clothing made me feel like an alien from another planet.
No way of course could I afford to live on campus. I rode public transit to and from La Salle each day and usually travelled with only two necessary transit fares and no additional money.
Thankfully, Guido was always there for me. On the congested streets of my Philly neighborhood, he constantly encouraged me during my four-year La Salle adventure, picking me up when I was down and always offering positive reinforcement.
Discovering A Passion
Finally, after more than a year of being lost in the meaningless pathways of college subjects, I found refuge in a superbly taught English novel course (Dr. Howard Hannum) at La Salle. The classic literature we read featured social class discrimination, hatred, revenge, betrayal, power struggles, violence, and deception, sort of like growing up in my neighborhood. I had found relevance at last. I became a real student for the first time in my life as an English major!
To La Salle’s credit, it was the only institution of higher learning that dared to admit me into academia, something several other Philadelphia area colleges refused to do. Furthermore, many La Salle profs encouraged and nurtured me during my four years. Nevertheless, my eventual degree is a miracle the Vatican should perhaps investigate.
Mentoring Matters Greatly
And then of course there was the irrepressible Guido. In simplest terms, without the relentless encouragement and support from my unusual mentor, college for me probably would never have happened.
And it was a debt I promised to pay back in the future. I vowed to make a difference for those in need via my career in education.
The bottom line is that mentoring matters monumentally, especially for those young people who need support the most. The empathy, motivation, and guidance for me from a very unlikely source coupled with La Salle’s acceptance of me as a student changed the course of my life.
From his roots in poverty, Joseph Batory rose up to become the superintendent of schools in Upper Darby, PA (1984-1999). By the time Joe retired, he had received numerous national awards and honors for his educational leadership and was even recognized by the President of the United States and the United States House of Representatives. Over the past three decades, he has awarded individual scholarship assistance to 38 Upper Darby High School grads.
The article above is adapted from his third book, Joey Lets it All Hang Out, published by Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD, and Oxford, UK, 2003.