Mr. Albano is given a fitting tribute here by Chris Stella, RHS 1973
Mr. Carl Albano
Well, just looking at him, he didn’t quite fit the picture of the high-impact RHS teacher, that is for sure. He had this near spherical head and face, stuck on an ovoid body. His brown hair was slicked straight back, held in position by some sort of lustrous substance, distinctly unfashionable among the young of Ridgewood in 1972.
He taught Health, and Driver Ed, but not Physical Ed. And, his presence wasn’t like any of the RHS pedagogue stars: He didn’t have the tweedy, genial sense of learned excellence suggested by a Harry Ahearn, or the muscular, rigorous intellectualism of a Milo Okkema. Both the subject matter, and teacher might have seemed a bit, well, shall we say, Less Academic.
To complete the picture, his brother was one of those show wrestlers, Lou Albano, later a huge WWF star as Captain Lou Albano. Our teacher did not make TOO big a deal of this, though he was often willing to make predictions on the results of his brother’s bouts. These predictions were accurate to a degree not suggested possible by statistical variability.
Since my time with him in the classroom and automobile, where he taught me Health and how to drive a car, I have come to see him as a true genius.
He made people who were not in the habit of thinking, think. “Okay, today, we’re going to talk about Drugs”. Certain facts would follow. Then, he would pick a student carefully, approach that student, and pull a small clear glass bottle with a black screw-top out of his valise. Inside the bottle was a few ounces of a clear, but obscurely and unusually colored liquid.
“Frank, “Mr. Albano would genially say to the student he had picked, “Please unscrew the cap, and swallow the liquid.”
“Oh, come on, it will be fine. I promise. “ Mr. Albano would say.
“No”, Frank would again say.
At this point Frank’s so-called buddies would begin to egg him on, urging him to drink the liquid, in a way that severely suggested that they were a lot more interested in the evolving spectacle, than in Frank’s well-being.
“Frank. This won’t hurt you. I promise. It’s Okay”, Albano would continue.
“I’m not drinkin’ that shit !!!“
Albano would smile and ask, “Why not?”
Desperate, Frank would say, “’Cause I don’t what kinda shit’s in there !!”
Albano would take a step back, put the bottle back in the valise, and smile again.
“Frank. I’m your teacher. You know me. It is my job to see that you are safe here, and that no harm comes to you while you are in school. I’ll get in a lot of trouble if I don’t. After all, a good lawyer can make black seem like white, right?”
Albano would then continue, in a sensible and kind way:
“Frank, if you aren’t willing to take this stuff into your body when I say it is okay and your friends are here, why would you be willing to take other stuff given to you by other people who you DON’T know, and who don’t care about you AT ALL?”
Well, this seemed clever in real time, but there was a whole less obvious layer of teacherly smarts at work here, which only recently occurred to me. Albano had picked his mark well. There were florid risk-takers in the class who would have called Albano’s bluff instantaneously, and quaffed the mysterious liquid in a gulp.
But, although “Frank” tried to play the role of the uncooperative rebel, he was actually a nervous wannabe. He was someone on the periphery, someone who Albano knew would perform as desired and refuse to drink the Kool-Aid, and refuse in a squeamish way, either out of general anxiety, or latent good sense, hard to say which.
The first year of Health was taught in an all-male class of over fifty students, as high anxiety, high-potential-for-disruptive-behavior stuff was presented, topic after topic.
Albano controlled the class effortlessly:
“Hey you, yes, you in the back talking. Stand up. What’s ya name, I don’t know ya name, what is it?”
“Oh. Very nice. Stella. Italian, no? Italian, yes, Stella?”
Duh, Uh, yeah, Italian.
“Oh, Stella, Italian, very nice, very very nice.
“Now, Stella: SHUT YA MOUTH, SHUT YA MOUTH, STELLA.”
“Now, sit down, Stella.”
And the classroom discussion of the picture of the syphilitic genital chancre would go on:
“Now, like you can see it really looks like bad news, but funny thing is, it doesn’t hurt too bad at all. But if you see it, you got to go see the doctor, because if you don’t get this taken care of it can ruin the rest of your life. But, the medicine, it isn’t too bad, so if this happens, you have to go to the doctor.”
Again, brilliant, visceral, teacherly smarts. He could have yelled, screamed, tossed people out, or just given up, we had seen all of that, elsewhere. But, his technique was radically different. He seemed to be saying:
“Okay Mister Cut-Up, I know your type, maybe I was one myself, maybe I still am, a bit. I know you want attention, so I’m going to let you have some. I’m going to let you be half of my comedy act, for a few seconds. People will get a kick out of this, I guarantee it. But then you have to sit down and cooperate, because I have a lot of stuff important to your well-being that you need to know.”
Senior Year Health Class, time for the discussion of Abortion. Some neutrally presented facts were described, followed by a general class discussion on the topic, with Albano as moderator:
“Now, when we talk, you can say anything you want about abortion, but I’m not going to tell you what I believe, unless you ask, at the end.” In the discussion that followed, Albano skillfully brought out all the issues from the students themselves, his own views remaining opaque. And at the end of the class, someone did ask him what he thought on the topic. And Mr. Albano said, again with an affable smile, “Oh, well, I am a really strict Catholic, and so, I don’t believe in abortion under any circumstances. Now, I really love my wife, if her life was ever in danger, I don’t know; but, for me, abortion is not okay.”
I thought his ability to be respectful of everyone’s opinion was wonderful, as was the straightforward and persuasive statement of his own faith, as well as the acknowledgment of his own humanity, and potential for weakness.
I was lucky enough to have him for Driver Ed, Practical Portion, in a real Auto, behind the wheel.
“We start in the Graydon Parking lot, but don’t put me into the Ho-Ho-Kus Brook, please.“
During my final evaluation drive, I was in the driver’s seat, he in the passenger seat. The Driver Ed car was new, with an automatic transmission. The only modification was an auxiliary brake pedal on Albano’s side. I tooled tentatively about the Village of Ridgewood.
“The Driving, it looks pretty good, Stella. Pretty good. Who you got for your other classes?”
I told him I had Mr. Okkema for History. “Oh, he’s a very, very smart man, one of the best! You’re really lucky, Stella.” This was all true, but I wasn’t so sure that the academic stars at RHS would return such compliments to Albano.
The cut-up in his Health class when surrounded by other kids was shy and awkward with him, when one on one, just us in the Driver Ed car. I tried to steer the conversation to general topics. I told him that on weekends, I liked to go hiking and camping with friends. Did he ever do this sort of thing?
Again, the bemused but transparent warm tone. “Oh, no, never!! When I go away, I gotta be attended to, hand and foot!’ A bemused quarter turn of the head, another bemused smile, his rotund frame turned a bit, “Look at me Stella, hand and foot!”
“The Driving looks pretty good, Stella.”
I relaxed a bit. It was time to return to the RHS parking lot. At the T–intersection of Oak Street and Linwood Avenue, there was, and still is, a red flashing blinker, where the plan was for me to turn right, back towards the school.
I came to a full stop, as was proper before making the right turn at the T-intersection with the flashing red light. I looked right, all clear. I did not look left. I pushed the accelerator down with my foot.
The engine growled harshly, as if being subjected to some unusual load. The car did not move, even an inch. I heard Mr. Albano speak the single word “No”, in a factual, stressless and non-judgmental tone.
Then, I looked left. There was a large panel truck speeding towards us, real close. Had Albano not had his foot on the auxiliary brake, our car would have entered the intersection. This truck would have impacted the driver side of the RHS Driver Ed Auto, which at that particular point in its history, happened to contain, me.
“The Driving. The Driving, it looks pretty good, Stella, but ya gotta look both left and right at the flashing red lights, Stella. Now, let’s get back to the school.”
Well, I’m not SURE he saved my life, but I AM sure he gets credit, yet again, for knowing his student. No doubt there were kids who after such an event needed to be chewed out, flunked out, or both, but he knew that I was not one of them. He knew that in my heart of hearts I wanted to please him, and he also knew that if he was nice to me after I had made such a terrible mistake, I would want to please him even more, and would therefore be more careful in the future.
All of this has come to pass, my subsequent behavior at T-intersections has been exemplary.
About seven years later, I had another experience with him.
I was halfway through Med School, in New York City. It was August, and the re-radiated infrared heat from the City buildings had become intolerable. The plan was for me and my girlfriend to drive across the George Washington Bridge, and use my parents continued residence in Ridgewood to somehow get into Graydon Pool. The plan was completely successful, the only surprise being, seeing Mr. Albano bobbing stresslessly in the shallow waters of Graydon.
I introduced myself, and my friend, to him. Maybe he remembered me, maybe he didn’t. It didn’t seem to matter, the even-toned good nature would have been there, either way.
I told him eagerly how much I had enjoyed his influence, but I don’t remember reminding him of the RHS Driver Ed auto incident.
I also told him that I was making a career out of health care. There might have been a bit of less innocent, Darth Vaderish, Now-I-am-the-Master stuff in this part of the conversation, on my part.
More Stressless Graydon Bobbing on the part of my old RHS Health teacher Mr. Albano. The body that I had always thought of as chubby, was in fact quite muscular.
He showed great and obvious pleasure in the direction my professional life had taken. A period of extended, pleasant conversation followed.
Then he said something else that I won’t forget. He had that bemused, familiar, regretless tone.
“Stella, you know, I majored in Biology and also did very well, and I applied to Medical School too, and I could have gone.”
“But, our family, it was really big, and teaching was a way I could make pretty good money right away, to help out.”
“And my teaching, it looked pretty good, so that’s what I did.”
Well, hearing that, I felt the same way as I had felt after he had saved me from Something Really Bad in the Driver Ed auto. His words had the same strong but honest and sensible character that it had on that important day in the car, seven years prior. Once again, he was able to gracefully stake out his own moral position, making my own mistake clear in a firm but gentle way, a way that only made me like him and respect him, even more.
I am now an academic sort of person, and Carl Albano taught subjects thought of as non-academic, at least while I was a student at Ridgewood High School. But as you can see, I now think he was among the best teachers I’ve known, and a great deal of his teaching and deportment remains influential for me.