Old School

by Gabriel Urbina


The narrator reflects on the lifetime influence a charismatic high school teacher had upon him.

I am "old school," and by labeling myself as such, I see that as a positive thing. Obviously this has to do with the times when I was of high school age, and also with the different outlook parents had about the education of their children. In general, parents didn't have a college education as an almost universal goal for their children, as it seems to be today. In particular, my parents wanted me to be happy, to develop my natural abilities, and to be able to earn a good living. But a college education was not part of the equation.

I attended a Business High School. You may not have heard of such schools, but they still exists in this country. But their existence is obscured by the lofty ideal of a college education. When I was in high school, we never heard about student loans, and the astronomical figures of student debt we hear about these days. I have the feeling, looking at the present situation, that many students are getting useless degrees, they have a lot of debt, and do not have the necessary skills to enter the job market.

At my school, besides general education subjects, I studied Business Organization, Statistics, Economics, and Accounting. Call me "old school," but during my adult life I worked as an accountant. The extent of my college education were a few night courses at the local community college. One of the things I like is that I don't owe any money for my education, and never did. What I liked the most about my education, is that I had the best teacher I've ever seen.

Mr. Nilo taught an Introduction to Business course. He was a young teacher, not older than thirty. He always wore a neatly pressed grey suit, white shirt, and light blue tie. We asked him one day why he always wore grey. He said it was because of the chalk. The classrooms didn't have white boards, only blackboards. So, his answer made sense. Everything he said, everything he taught made sense, at least to me. One question we never asked him was, how many grey suits he had. We figured maybe two or maybe just one. We knew our teachers did not get paid well.

At the time, I did not know what charisma was. It was much later, I realized that Mr. Nilo was a charismatic teacher. Other teachers were disrespected by the uninterested, bored, and indifferent students, which were many. But when Mr. Nilo walked into the classroom, there was silence; the silence of students ready to learn. I believe his appeal was based on the fact that he was teaching beyond his subject matter. His course was more like an Introduction to Life.

He didn't use a textbook; we had to take notes. So first he taught us the essential steps of note taking. There were no multiple choice or true or false questions in his tests. He just had questions. He told us, "just answer each question with a good sentence. Do not pour your notes into your answers. Just answer the questions." With Mr. Nilo we couldn't fake it, we couldn't guess. Either we knew the answers or we didn't.

He went beyond the topic of business organizational charts. He taught us how to organize our notes, and even how to be an organized person.

He didn't talk about striving for excellence, as it is advocated nowadays. This expectation leads to the obsession of getting A grades in every subject. It also leads, in many cases, to the selection of easy courses, an easy major, and a degree that does not encompass the necessary set of skills that the job market requires. I have come to believe that a resume should include a list of relevant courses and a list of marketable skills. A degree is fine, but it is not the most important entry in this hypothetical resume.

Being very good at what you do was Mr. Nilo's reasonable advice. Enjoy what you do and be happy. I must say I followed his advice.

I will state the obvious. Mr. Nilo was my favorite teacher, he was influential in how I developed as an adult, and I will always remember him.

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