NEWS TRIBUNE: Peter Keller looks back on 43 year teaching careerMarch 16, 2007
Historically speaking: Pete Keller's roots at St. Peter the Apostle High School run deep
PHOTOGRAPH BY JODY SOMERS, NEWS-TRIBUNE
Home News Tribune Online Staff Writer
Forget John Dewey. Horace Mann can wait.
Ask Pete Keller to identify the person with the most profound philosophy of education, and he'll tell you a story about Yogi Berra.
Yogi Berra was hungry one night and ordered a pizza. When he arrived to pick up the pizza, he was asked if the whole pie should be sliced into six pieces or eight.
"Six,'' said Yogi. "I'm not that hungry.''
Look at history as a pie, said Keller, who is completing his 39th year as a teacher at St. Peter the Apostle High School in New Brunswick.
You can slice the pie into 20 pieces and confuse the class with facts. Or, you can slice it into four pieces and focus on the main points.
You teach the kids about the Battle of Bunker Hill. But, said Keller, "You don't have to tell them how high was Bunker Hill. You teach about D-Day. Omaha Beach. Do you have to go into the dispute between Eisenhower and Bernard Law Montgomery?''
In September, when he begins teaching American history, he tells the students they only have to learn seven dates. "I tell them, "July the 4th. There, that's one.'‚''
This is a bittersweet time for Keller, teaching at a high school in its final days. St
Peter's is closing its doors after having graduated students since 1887.
At the age of 61, Keller finds himself doing something he never thought he'd have to do again: send out resumes. He said he begins his letters to school districts: "If experience and dedication are what you're looking for, stop looking. That's me.''
Keller, a native of Highland Park, graduated from St. Peter's in 1964. One year after graduating from Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., he returned to St. Peter's as a teacher in February of 1969, and has taught at the school ever since.
Last month, the Diocese of Metuchen informed the staff and administration that St. Peter's would close at the end of this year. The final graduation ceremony is scheduled for June 3 at St. Peter the Apostle Church, and Keller is scheduled to give the final commencement address.
"I've had sleepless nights thinking about that,'' he said, allowing how his brave face was hiding his emotions, at the thought of the closing of the school which has been part of his life for 43 of the last 48 years.
His roots here are deep. The high school sits on the location of Columbia Hall, a parish building. At its dedication in 1893 his grandmother, Maurilda Davis, then in grade school, sang at the ceremony.
Keller bristles at the notion that people today dismiss the importance of the school and the renaissance of the city.
"People who haven't been in New Brunswick for 35, 40 years will tell you all about the city. People who've never come into the building and see what we do, can tell you all about the school.''
The man who will say goodbye to the students next month recalled how hard it was for some students to accept his hello.
Look in the yearbook of students who graduated from St. Peter's from the 1940s through the 1960s, and when they're asked to name their favorite memory, said Keller, "You'll see most of them put, "PAD with Mr. Murphy.'‚''
Frances "Bud'' Murphy was a legend at the high school, teaching from the late 1930s until his death in December of 1969. The course favored by the students was "Problems with American Democracy,'' a course for senior students.
In the 1968-69 school year, half the seniors took the course in the fall, and half in the spring. The half who took it in the fall got Murphy, and then he died.
"The kids who took the course in the spring were looking forward to Mr. Murphy,'' said Keller. "They got me.''
It was Murphy who gave Keller his passion for history. He recalled sitting in Murphy's class at the time he was thinking about what to study in college. He chose history, and set out to become a history teacher.
His first job out of college was at Mount St. John in Deep River, Conn., a home for boys who were declared wards of the state. They were boys, he recalled, who needed an adult to help them cope. The hard part, he said, was creating bonds with boys, and then having to let go.
He remembers one boy in particular whom he was able to help.
"When I left I said, "I hope this kid makes it.'‚''
He does not know what became of the boy, or even if Mount St. John still exists. (It does.)
He then was hired to replace Murphy. Between the two of them, they've taught history to St. Peter's students for nearly 80 years.
In addition to teaching history, Keller served several stints as athletic director at St.
Peter's and was its longtime baseball coach. He was the starting first baseman at Assumption College his last three years there, after having not played in high school.
How could he start in college after sitting the bench in high school? He explained that when he was a senior in high school he was 5-foot-10 and weighed 260 pounds. By the time he left college he was 6-foot-2, 210 pounds - going from round to athletic.
Keller also spent two years in the 1990s as varsity baseball coach at Edison High School, and in order to get to know the players better he often would do substitute teaching at Edison.
Teaching in Edison reminded him of the difference between teaching in a parochial school and teaching in a public school. At St. Peter's, bringing religion into the classroom is not a problem.
"You can't teach Shakespeare without teaching the Bible,'' he said.
"In a public school, when you get to something about religion it automatically becomes off limits,'' he said.
At home he can compare notes with his wife, Maria, a public school teacher. The biggest advantage of her job as a public school teacher are the benefits. Because of his wife's job, health insurance has not been a concern.
Often public school teachers have told him to leave his job, and pursue work in the public school system.
"They tell me about the money. But then they start talking about problems with the unions, with the politics,'' he said.
The biggest difference in schools today, compared to his arrival in 1969, is the
availability of technology. High-tech back then meant film strips. Today students live in a wired world, where Google is a verb.
Because Keller likes to use visuals, his class is rimmed with flags that help teach the history of the United States, beginning with the British flag, from the time when the colonies were ruled by Great Britain. The collection includes such flags as the "Don't Tread On Me'' flag, a Soviet flag to symbolize the Cold War, and the POW-MIA flag, created following the Vietnam War.
One flag caused him trouble, when someone looked through the window and saw the Confederate banner, with the familiar stars-and-bars. It was thought to be a symbol of hate. Keller fixed that, replacing the stars-and-bars with the less familiar official flag of the Confederacy, with seven stars in field of blue in the upper left quadrant, and two red stripes and one white.
Asked to name a favorite person in American history, Keller thinks awhile before naming George Washington.
"Think about the choices they made. They wanted to make him king. When you're asked to be king, how do you say no?'' said Keller. He also credited Washington with creating the precedent that the military answers to a commander-in-chief, chosen by the people.
In telling the story of the closing of St. Peter's, Keller recalls the story of a Roman
senator, who would end every speech by saying, Carthago delenda est! ("Carthage must be destroyed!'').
"From the time I got here (in 1969) someone, somewhere was saying St. Peter's was closing,'' said Keller.
Keller got to thinking about what he could do to save the school, when he purchased a lottery ticket when the prize money exceeded $300 million. "I'd do this and this and this,'' said Keller, who did not win the prize.
As his career at St. Peter's winds down, he figures the best testimony may have come recently from a sophomore student who, with his mouth open in amazement, watched Keller teaching history.
The student said to the teacher: "Boy, you really like this stuff.''