Our Last Lecture


As we near spring it is time for our annual writing contest at our high school. This is when students step up and show off the skills they have acquired during the school year.

The assignment is simple: What would you say to your classmates, family, and friends if you knew you were going to die soon?

Sound familiar? It is the premise of “The Last Lecture” popularized by Randy Pausch, Ph.D., ten years ago. Pausch, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, was asked if he would address the student body and fellow professors on the aforementioned topic. His deadline was in a year’s time. No problem, he said.

As the date drew near, Pausch learned that he had contracted pancreatic cancer and had little time to live. He could have pulled out of the assignment, but instead he saw it as a chance to help others. He delivered the lecture and it became an internet sensation. Soon his talk had more than ten million hits and became a best-selling book.

It is a moving lecture, as were the subsequent interviews he gave to television and radio hosts about facing death, its ramifications, and what he would miss most about life.

But how would high school students react to the same assignment? I found out in 2009, a year after Pausch died.

At first, hearing of the assignment students were baffled. “We’re going to write about death? they’d say. “Why?”

I told them what Socrates said 2,000 years ago: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If we don’t stop every so often and assess the way we are conducting our lives and make improvements, we are doomed to a dull, fruitless existence.

The students saw the point and spent several days dreaming up penetrating questions to ask themselves.

We’ve held this contest every year since Pausch died, and trophies are awarded by me to the top two in each of my five classes. For years I’ve had a local shop design a trophy that resembles the Hollywood Oscar. It’s a beautiful piece of craftsmanship and the students love the fact that it is personalized. It features their names, the titles of their talks, and the dates they were presented.

When I broach the idea of the writing contest every September, I get the usual responses.

“I’m not doing this,” one kid says.

“Do we have to present in front of the class?” another asks.

By the time we write and rewrite hundreds of pages of essays throughout the year and the students see their improvement, they eventually inquire about the contest date.

But there was something different about this year. While I always model assignments for my students, I don’t for “The Last Lecture.” I figure by then everyone ought to be able to jump right into it and produce. However, a couple of students asked me if I would write one, so they’d have a better feel for the assignment.

I did not commit at first, but the next morning about a half hour before class I decided to punch out a talk. It took twenty minutes and while I know it would have been better had I given it hours of my time over a period of days, I knew I could write something that would help these particular students. So here goes:

Doctors told me yesterday that I have contracted a rare disease that is expected to cut down my life within nine months. And though I don’t want to get into the particulars at this time, I do want to tell all of you how much I have enjoyed teaching you this year and that you have meant so much to me.

You always came to class on time prepared to learn, and whether you realized it or not you taught me a lot as well. I can tell you right now that you will be successes in life, but more importantly you are just good young people.

I am going to miss so much about the life I’ve been blessed with all these years and I’d like to tell you a bit about me and what I’ll miss most.

As soon as I got the medical news I began missing my wife, Kathy, and our sons, Kieran and Patrick, and, of course, our dog, Curtis. All of whom I love.

My wife and I met 35 years ago. I knew she was the one for me the moment I first saw her walk through the door that led to the editorial department of The Daily Journal in Elizabeth, N.J. I wasted little time asking her out and even less time proposing marriage ten weeks later. She said YES – three years later.

We married in 1986 and eventually our sons were born. During the following years Kathy and I spent hours with them in all aspects of their lives: Little League, school, and later attending their live music shows right into their twenties. I am so grateful that I have been able to spend so much time with my family. Not every dad and husband is as lucky.

Twenty-five years of my life was also spent as a sportswriter. While I liked that career, it was no legacy. A legacy is when you leave behind something important for others.

So I took up teaching. I’ve been at it for 18 years now.

As I’ve said, I liked sports writing, but I love teaching.

At first, friends and family thought I was crazy entering the world of education. Not much money, they reminded me.

“And kids today are crazy,” they added.

But I saw teaching as a “calling.” And this powerful pull deep within my gut insisted that I had to help others.

Along the way, I received good advice from the man who hired me at Elizabeth High School in 2001. His name is Richard Long. “Every time you step into a classroom try to be the best teacher a student ever had,” he advised.

Now, I may not clear that particular bar in some students’ opinions, but I try. Who knows? Perhaps one day someone might recall me as a “good” teacher or at least “okay.” That’s actually high praise coming from a teenager.

What students have taught me over the years is that you cannot tell them what to do; you need to convince them of taking certain actions.

Case in point: Years ago I spent 90 minutes trying to talk a male student of mine out of having a certain female student beaten up after school. He had gang affiliations and his threat was legitimate. So we talked and talked – and talked.

Eventually the male student said, “I’ll call it off mister if you give me an ‘A’ for the marking period.”

That wasn’t going to fly, I told him. So we kept talking. I think he was impressed that I was so persistent, and in the end he called off his boys. The girl was never bothered again.

Yes, teaching has been a deeply moving experience. During discussions I’ve had with students over the years most often I only listen. Sometimes a young person just needs to be heard.

From those listening sessions, I have learned that many teenagers’ problems are the result of young people not having a father figure in their lives.

Now, if you become a dad or a mom, love your son or daughter, involve yourself in your child’s life, always be a good influence, and be patient.

So here I stand before you at 65 years of age. I am not financially wealthy, but I am wealthy in experience – and that has given me a rich life.

A life I will dearly miss.


From sportswriter to teacher and never once looking back


For more than 20 years I was a sportswriter. I covered Major League Baseball, the NFL, track and field, boxing, the NBA, tennis, college sports, and high school sports. Met everyone from Muhammad Ali to Mickey Mantle. Then one night I made a phone call to a friend, Chip Phelps. Told him that I had to do something more worthwhile with my life. He asked me what I was talking about. He said that sportswriting was worthwhile, that I informed people, and did so in an entertaining fashion.

I could see his point, but something was lacking in my life.

That was 1993. It would be another seven years before I’d find my true calling in life: teaching.

Until then I became the managing editor of a Catholic newspaper. I liked that a lot, but still something was tugging at me. That something was a first grader yanking on my coat sleeve during a grammar school Christmas sale in 1999.

“Can you help me find a present for my mommy?” he said.

“Sure, how can I help?”

He led me to a table filled with all sorts of small-item gifts. I didn’t offer any suggestions. I let him select and I reached for the item that he pointed to. Such was the extent of my “help.” He ponied up $5 and bought his mom a pair of stained-glass earrings. He said thanks and walked out of my life.

But that moment resonated with me. I actually had helped a kid other than my sons. It was a nice feeling.

More time passed and I helped out on my older son’s Little League team, a minor role, but that too was satisfying to see youngsters grasp a lesson in hitting or fielding.

“Hey, Joe,” a father said, “ever think of becoming a teacher?”

No way. In fact, I’m surprised that I didn’t go right out and buy this guy a gift certificate good at any hospital for a lobotomy, as satirist Tom Lehrer once said. But his words stuck and as the summer wore on, I began to give the profession serious consideration.

Finally I headed to Barnes and Noble to review its education section. I knew that if I were to become a teacher I had to become certified in English.

As I was thumbing through a book about high school English certification, a young lady from Bishop Ahr High School in Edison, N.J., approached me. She asked if I were considering the teaching profession. I said that I was and she began to tell me about her favorite teachers and what made them effective. As she was leaving, she wished me well and predicted that I’d make a good teacher.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because you took an interest in what I had to say.”

Then she waved goodbye and wished me luck.

I’m a big believer in signs from the universe and too many now had revealed themselves to me. So I purchased a test book as well as a copy of Masterpieces of World Literature to review my background knowledge. Two months later, I took the certification test, passed, and I’ve been teaching ever since.

Teaching is everything that I had hoped it would be. While I may grouse about the over testing of students, there is nothing like getting up in the morning with just one thought: Who can I help today? Then it’s off to school, arrive at 6:20 a.m., and teach at 7:30 a.m.

Classes are fun, informative, and exciting. Students like to be taught and if they see that you sincerely care about them, they will always come through.

Sometimes they even get in touch with you long after you have taught them.

Dave, a former student of mine in 2007, recently contacted me on Facebook and we conversed by phone for more than an hour. He’s only 25, but he is married, has a beautiful six-week-old daughter, a new home, and a career that he loves. I told him that I hadn’t accomplished any of that at his age. Now, as a teacher, you’re never jealous when your student surpasses you. In fact, you are delighted that he or she has found success.

Years ago, an educator named Richard Long hired me and promptly offered sound advice. “When you teach,” he said, “always try to be the best teacher a student ever had.”

I’ve taken that suggestion to heart, and while I’m certain that I’m not everyone’s favorite teacher, Dave was kind enough to tell me that I was his favorite teacher.

Not a bad way to end a long school day.