Wroxton College, Here I Come. Take That, Dad

By JOSEPH TINTLE

During the fall of 1969 I, like millions of other high school seniors, was sending out college applications. Most of us just had the colleges send an application and a catalogue and if we liked the photographs of the campus and there was a cute girl or two lurking in the background guys often signed up right then and there.

I desperately wanted to live away at school. I felt it would give me a greater sense of responsibility and I’d grow up faster. So I applied to Loyola University in Los Angeles, St. Bonaventure in Alleghany, N.Y., Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and the University of Toronto in Canada. I was accepted to all of them.

When I told my dad, he nodded in the affirmative and then pointed out the kitchen window. “That’s where you’re going,” he said. He was pointing to the northeast but not Boston College or Harvard. He had someplace else in mind.

A quarter mile away was the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J.

“I didn’t even apply there,” I told him.

“Well, you’d better,” he said. “Time’s running out.”

“But I want to go away, Dad.”

“I’m not spending $2,500 a year to send you to college.”

“You just spent $2,000 a year to send me to high school.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t work to your potential.”

All I could think of was what high school kid works to his potential? Sure, I had a horrible freshman year — eleven failures. Now keep in mind that my high school sent out report cards every month. You could amass a pile of “Fs” as I did, but I only had to go to summer school for one subject: Algebra I. I turned things around in sophomore, junior, and senior years and raised my G.P.A. to respectability and college admission officers saw that I had matured academically. But my dad did not see it that way.

So I went to Fairleigh Dickinson. I enjoyed the place, had some fine professors — Dr. Walter Cummins and Dr. Neil Salzman come to mind. But one day in sophomore year we were on a class trip to the Frick Gallery in Manhattan and on the way home we got stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel. That’s when I heard professor Cummins talking about Wroxton College just outside Banbury, England. His conversation was intriguing and I knew this was the place for me.

I asked Dr. Cummins if I could go there and he said sure, that I had the grades, it was just a matter of filling out the necessary applications, sitting for an interview, and putting my application up against other candidates from around the country. Wroxton only took 68 students but he felt certain I had the credentials to get in. So I applied.

Meanwhile, I started saving my money from a full-time maintenance job at the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station, N.J., made certain my grades were tops, and wrote a solid application essay. Now I never told my father any of this. My mom knew, but she was all Irish and she knew how to keep secrets. In fact, she thought it was a hoot.

So on the night of August 30, 1972, after I came home from a John Lennon concert at Madison Square Garden, I told my dad he needed to give me a ride to Kennedy Airport the next day.

“Kennedy Airport?” he said.

“Yeah, Dad, I’ve got a flight to England tomorrow. I’m going to school at a place called Wroxton College.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, you wouldn’t send me away to college two years ago, so I thought I’d send myself away. Don’t worry, I paid for everything: tuition, airline ticket, spending money. You won’t pay a thing.”

His head spun for a while. He even asked my mother if she had sent Fairleigh Dickinson University a check for that semester. She told him no because she knew about my plans all along. He was stunned, but he came to accept it rather quickly and admitted the next day that he was proud of what I’d done. That felt good to hear.

And so I spent junior year at Wroxton Abbey with its 56 acres of woodlands, lakes, and gardens. It was a scene out of Masterpiece Theatre. There was the Great Hall replete with Steinway piano, oil paintings of Queen Elizabeth, Lord North, and knights’ armor. And every morning students took a break from their lectures to convene in the Great Hall for tea time. That’s when we guzzled dozens of bakery-fresh cookies and washed them down with countless cups of tea and coffee.

Weekends were spent traveling through the United Kingdom and every three weeks it was off to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stradford-Upon-Avon to catch productions of Macbeth, Titus Andronicus and Hamlet. Afterward, students met with the Shakespearean actors to discuss their roles and how they went about interpreting their characters.

The next night on campus we’d meet on the grand lawn behind the abbey and have a cookout that featured pig on the spit, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and myriad desserts. I had arrived at Wroxton weighing 170 pounds; I departed at 185. It was a great learning experience that not one of us from the Wroxton Class of ’72 has ever forgotten. And to his dying day my father always liked to boast to his friends about how his son had studied in England and how it didn’t cost my dad a shilling.

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THE NEIGHBORS (WITH APOLOGIES TO SETH ROGAN AND JUSTIN BIEBER)

By JOSEPH TINTLE

Every neighborhood has at least one wild neighbor. Ask Seth Rogan or Justin Bieber. Rogan makes films about nutty neighbors and Bieber is the nutty neighbor.

But right now I’m thinking about a real doozy I once knew. Twenty-two years ago when my son, Kieran, and his friend, Greg, decided it would be a great idea to cover my new car with dirt, I chased them away, cranked up the hose, and started to wash my Toyota Corolla. What resulted was a two-inch wide stream of chocolate-colored water trickling down our newly-paved road.

My neighbor spotted this miscue of mine and came huffing and puffing up the street. She hurled insults at me like former New York Yankees relief pitcher Ryne Duren hurled fastballs — all over the place. I stayed calm. After all, I couldn’t understand why she was so upset.

That same month–July 1993–the Mississippi River had flooded the entire Midwest. People in several states had lost their lives, their homes, even entire towns were swept into extinction. But my neighbor was far more concerned about a narrow stream of dirty water that was ruining the apparent pristine look of our street.

“What do you have to say for yourself, you idiot?” she shouted at me with her gravelly voice.

“Just this, lady,” I replied in a most Christian mannner. “Get off my property and don’t come back.”

Her eyes widened and she turned to leave, never to be seen again.

Perhaps my most interesting neighbor, though, was the one who lived by our family home in Morristown when I was 13. Two days after we moved into the house, she approached my mother and father and said that her cat had been kidnapped and that I had driven it to Livingston, New Jersey, some ten miles away. Now remember: I was 13. In New Jersey, one needs to be 17 to drive.

My father dismissed her ramblings with a laugh, but my mother was not cracking a smile.

Two months later our phone rang at night and this woman was on the other end.

“Joey,” she said to me, “I can see you in your pajamas with my binoculars.”

She laughed hysterically and hung up.

“I told you about her,” my mother said to my father.

To give you an idea where our neighbor was coming from, she also enjoyed hosting barbecues in the fall and often invited the entire neighborhood. Those who did not live near her to witness her antics year-round attended, but after two or three invitations they knew better than to return.

This woman used to pile up the grill with unlit charcoal, toss several hamburgers onto the metal tray, then grab a can of gasoline from the garage. She then laced the burgers and charcoal with gasoline simultaneously and struck a match.

Those burgers sure cooked up fast. She was dishing out a dozen or so within ten minutes. Talk about flame broiled!

One time I was walking through her yard during one of her cookouts and I surreptitiously hung a sign by her grill that read: HIGH-OCTANE BURGERS: 33-9/10 cents. (Such was the price of gas in 1967).

Eventually I decided to get back at her big time. Year after year whenever she’d come out of her house carrying a massive plate of food to her barbecue, I’d dial her house phone. She’d drop everything, go in the house, walk up the steep stairs to her living room and answer the call. Of course, just as she picked up the receiver, I’d hang up. Then she walked downstairs and outside again, and as she took a few steps away from the house, I’d ring the phone again. Up the stairs she went to the living room. And, like always, I’d hang up.

I did this dozens of times and never once felt a twinge of guilt. The expression “Payback is a bitch” did not exist at the time, but it was payback and for her it was a bitch.

Our family also lived near another curious family. One day I was sitting by their driveway and I was doused with a wet substance that came from a bedroom window. No sooner did I realize that I had just been soaked with gasoline than one of the boys living there came charging out the front door brandishing a lighter. I took off and he never got near me. But he’s changed his ways since then. He has become the fire chief of his current home town.

Years earlier we lived in Middlesex County near two notorious brothers, Carl and Frank. Clearly they had issues when it came to associating with people of the Earth. One time they took on the sons of a law enforcement agent and beat them to a pulp. Pulp may be too mild a word because the cop’s kids walked away from the fight having their faces bashed against rocks.

Twenty years later, one of the bully brothers actually was decapitated in a car accident. The remaining brother lived at home with his mother who died one August. Oddly, the son did not report the incident and instead let her body rot on the sofa. It wasn’t until a neighbor “sniffed something funny in the air” that police were called to the home. She had died of natural causes, but her son was too petrified to call the police.

That incident prompted my mother to instruct my father to find us a another house in another town within two weeks because she was pulling up stakes.

My father, a former newsman who knew all about deadlines, did better than two weeks. Six days later he was signing papers for a new home at Kimball-Coleman Realtors in Chatham, N.J. My mother could not have been happier. That is until two days later when she met her new neighbor. You know, the woman who said that my mother’s 13-year-old son — me — had kidnapped her cat and driven it ten miles away.

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How you can overcome the fear of public speaking

By JOSEPH TINTLE

Every September I tell incoming students to my English III classes that before the year is over they will participate in a writing contest and stand before their classmates and deliver a speech.

“No way, Mister,” someone always blurts out.

“This guy’s crazy,” another whispers.

I know why they react this way. They’re afraid to stand before their peers because they believe they’ll be ridiculed or come off seeming not as smart as the other guy.

Then I tell them a Jerry Seinfeld joke: “According to most studies, people’s number-one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

The kids laugh.

Then I ask a question. “How many of you in this room are afraid of public speaking? Now, be honest.”

Ninety percent of them raise their hands. So I point out that they are all in the same boat.

“Now,” I ask, “how many of you want to see other people fail or make fools of themselves? Again, be honest.”

Not one hand shoots up.

And so a seed is sown to assure a successful writing contest in April.

We are now approaching April and the speeches have been handed in. Once again the students have made it difficult for the judges to select finalists much less winners. This year’s topic is titled The Last Lecture. It is based on the internet sensation of 2007 in which Dr. Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh delivered a most memorable talk advising his peers, students, and a worldwide audience about how to live a meaningful life. Not long after that he died of pancreatic cancer.

After we watch Dr. Pausch’s address, I tell my students that even though he delivered a touching, memorable talk, theirs will be better.

“How’s that going to happen? We don’t even have high school diplomas and he had a doctorate.”

“Good question. I’ll tell you how during the contest.”

So the students get to work. For the most part they must write the speech in class. I don’t want mommy’s and daddy’s fingerprints on this assignment. I convince students that it is important they consider their lives at age 16 and from time to time after that. As Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The students are now excited about the contest. Some are asking me for criticism moments after writing their first paragraph. I tell them no. I’ve taught them how to write, now they must write on their own. For several days they write and rewrite and soon their pieces start to take shape. I now give their work a glance to make certain they have written in a conversational tone because their version of The Last Lecture cannot sound like some stuffy speech riddled with SAT words and countless quotations culled from dusty bookshelves.

No, this has to be from the heart. After all, the students are told they only have a brief time before they die so what will they tell classmates, friends, and family before they depart for the hereafter? Of course, many address the topic of death. Others thank their mothers and fathers for a job well done. Advice is often parceled out to classmates. But no one is called ever called out.

The students often come up with observations about life that I’ve never even considered in my 62 years. These are the magical moments I experience when reading over their copy.

When they finally stand and deliver their work, the students who battled me in September are often the ones who want to go first. They have something meaningful to say and they want to say it now. They talk about topics that are of concern to them: love, family members, and God. Precisely the topics Randy Pausch said he would not discuss in his Last Lecture. And that’s why many of our students wrote better talks than the man with the Ph.D. They got personal.

Speeches are met with tears, laughter, profound thought, and deep appreciation. Each student receives warm applause and leaves the podium beaming for having delivered a moving talk and having beaten back the fear of public speaking.

Then come the trophies. Each of my five classes receives three trophies for first, second, and third place. It’s expensive, but it’s worth it. Teachers need to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to education.

The biggest thrill is when you see the winners strut across the classroom holding their trophies on high. Then I issue a warning, “Get these home safely. I’m not buying new ones.”

“Don’t worry, Mister, when you weren’t looking I texted my father to pick it up at lunch time.”

“Thanks for your honesty,” I say. “When you see your dad, tell him to also pick you up after 4 p.m. detention.”

Just kidding.