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March 4, 2018

Investing in Normal: The Impact of My Beloved Gym Teacher, M’r

Investing in Normal: The Impact of My Beloved Gym Teacher, M’r

By Maureen Holohan

There are things you want to ask your school’s most beloved teacher as a kid, but you never stop to do so. Why? Well, in this case, it was because you’ve heard he’s been to Vietnam, and it seems like he doesn’t like to talk about it and neither do your neighbors who were there, too. So you tell yourself someday – even if it’s three decades later – you will ask him when the time is right, or so you hope because if you don’t, you know how selfish it will be to not have asked about his life considering all he has given to you. Besides, he’s always asking about you with seemingly no interest to share anything about his sports career or his accomplishments or his life. And now you want to know how, why and what he used to come up with his special teaching sauce for the past 35 years.

You just know that there was no one who was better at taking on a room full of wild kids who’d been sitting too long all morning in a small school in the upstate village of Wynantskill, NY. He opened his door to your archrivals, the bullies who picked on the meek you tried to protect; and there were the jocks and the kids who couldn’t do much on the field, or in school. There were those who were loved and hated, the most popular and those who were given no heed. We played kickball or dodge ball or floor hockey, and your favorite teacher was always in the center with his long gangly arms and badly broken pinky finger sticking in the wrong direction.

He was part-jock, part-acting coach, part-ego-soother, part-therapist, and always cheering every kid through the huge moments and the most embarrassing. The magic man in the middle made everyone feel so alive, so connected and so happy even if it was only for 40 minutes three times a week. Sure, we got into trouble sometimes by being so ramped up, and every once in a while—maybe once every two years or so from fourth grade on—he’d take a hockey stick to a garbage can and rip you for being ungrateful. And you and your peers would feel so awful for hurting the best teacher ever so much, that nobody moved until he was finished clearing his chest and mind. The next day, he was as happy as usual, rolling out the balls and telling everybody it’s time to rock and roll.

I remember his Wall of Fame. He’d tear pictures out of Sports Illustrated and tape them up to the wall that separated the boys’ and girls’ sides of the gym, and those photos always included shots of women playing sports, back when so few female athletes were in the media. He not only included women who looked like you on that wall, but he included you in person on his side of the wall for boys’ gym whenever you wanted, and you’d have to hope and pray the girls’ PE teacher would let you go, and when she did, you’d run like everyone did to his gym – a full out sprint because you could never get there fast enough or stay long enough to be okay with leaving.

You didn’t want to leave his presence. Why?

Because he made you feel normal.

And to this day, when he isn’t talking about you and all those tough individuals on his wall, he is listening intently to everything you as a child and teenager and adult have to say, and he’s listening with those dark Italian eyes and chiseled Italian face framed by a perfect military cut that has gone gray, and he means everything he is saying. This kind man, the warmest of souls who went to war for your country, is totally in the moment the way you wish you could be, but instead you’re always rushing or pressing forward and knocking down that next item on the to-do list of life. And if he’s not listening and watching and studying the players or the game in front of you or from the bleachers as he watches you coach, he’s in front of you and your siblings who love and admire him as much as you do, and he is making them smile.

Seeing them smile feels good.

Brings us all back.

Good times with a teacher we called M.

There you are watching one and only great M, still a fit gym teacher from all those laps he took down in the basement, full length of the school, for years. At 72, he’s hobbling now with those bad knees, and you worry because you know it hurts, yet he won’t say how bad nor will he complain, and there’s no way he’s going to any doc over sore knees—never has, never will. He tells you stories of how he’s always on his exercise bike barely pedaling but moving, which is what he’s doing when you talk to him over the phone for two hours one month later, after having dinner with your family, him and his wife at an Italian place in town around the holidays. But in your head, the music is still blaring, and your favorite teacher is checking ball for the next full court game of one-on-one or four-on-four, five-on-five in his gym, and he’s loving the run, he’s playing, but not fouling anyone or trying to, and if he does, he’s the first to call it and apologize with a raised hand. He’s cheering for you when you score on him. He’s cheering for everyone who’s trying – make or miss – and between games he apologizes yet again if some of the lyrics in the songs are not appropriate. “I don’t listen to them,” he tells you. “I just love the run.”

And my god, you ask yourself, how did he always make the run so much fun?

For me? For everyone?

“I don’t like gym class,” one of his standoffish and resistant young female students once said to him. “But I feel safe here, and I like you.”

None of us knew that he was a kid with learning disabilities that made him the self-proclaimed “poorest reader in the world.” Who knew that your teacher hated school so much that he spent most of it hoping that the time would pass quickly and with a tolerable dose of humiliation? Then he’d go home to deal with his dad, who often tore him down when he wanted to learn something in the garage. He’d be made to feel, if not directly told, that he’d always screw up. Or dad would just ignore him, which hurt a lot more than the few times when things got physical.

“I spot that wounded kid because I was that wounded kid,” your favorite teacher tells you.

And now you have a good portion of your answer, but there’s more to the secret of this man named M.

His full name is Dominick Martino, but we all to this day, still call him M or M’r, with the latter sounding like a verb, since this man was always in motion at Gardner Dickinson School in the small village of Wynantskill, NY. Thirty-one years after graduating from eighth grade, you are sitting next to M, and he’s offering to play cards with your slightly stubborn niece sitting to your left. Nothing more than a friendly stranger to her—some “funny-looking old guy” he says about himself, while a man everyone is calling M sucks her into a game called “Garbage.” Within seconds, he’s teasing her, and she’s smiling and he’s already won before the game ends. “I’m always honest,” he says with a grin. Then he turns to you and says, “But I lied a little to you about Larry Bird though. He drove me nuts. I liked Magic’s style. Bird always got the whistle.”

M’r, like Magic, had to grin even when he didn’t get a break from as far back as he could remember. He hid as best he could mostly through grade school, and struggled to graduate from CBA in 1963. But at one point, the high school baseball coach took notice, and that’s when he found an escape from the drudgery of reading and writing and keeping up with everything that didn’t make sense, and he felt like he was part of a team, something greater, a group that didn’t tease him because he could play a little. He finally, for once, felt normal out on that baseball field. His mom helped him get into Hudson Valley Community College, and he played a little baseball there while majoring in business, which felt more manageable. A coach then tried to direct him toward SUNY-Albany to play more baseball, and he followed. Yet when he arrived, his schedule included classes in Chinese history, astrology and anthropology, which added up to far too much reading and writing and pointless work given how hard it was for him to read and retain what he’d just read.

“I’ve flunked out,” he said, “And boom – there’s the draft.”

At the time, he was working a little at General Electric, and had a part-time job at the grocery store. He delayed the inevitable for a few months by picking up a full-time job at Grand Cash grocery store in Colonie as a butcher.

“That’s the first time I see Pat,” M’r says, in speaking of his now wife of 50 years, Pat Martino, a nurse, and he’s talking as if it’s the present because he can see her that clearly. “She’s got her blue smock on and she’s starting to walk to the front register. She just looked like so pretty.”

He kept looking at her for a month or so, but he was too afraid to say anything until one of his buddies shouted out and embarrassed him. He asked Pat if she wanted a ride home.

“I live right across the street,” she said.

“I was shot down right off the bat,” he said. “I am depressed and everyone wants to know how it went.” Within a short time, Bobby piped up again and coordinated a car pool that left M and Pat on a long drive around Colonie.

Within months because he was not in school (mostly due to the people who put him in the wrong classes), M was drafted to go to Vietnam. He says goodbye to Pat, and bounced from fort to fort to prepare until final orders are given for him to go to Cam Rahn Bay right after the Tet Offensive in 1968. He and his Army comrades flew over in a hollowed-out Boeing 707 that was packed with soldiers.

“When I flew home one year later,” he said. “It was half full.”

Maybe after some bad luck, some random good luck had finally arrived. Maybe that’s the first and only break he needed to catch in life to go on to do what he did. At Ahn Khe, M’r was mostly limited to a landing zone area and he was on the radio most of the time. He never fired a weapon. “I’d work on the radio, and hear ‘incoming,’ and you’d all jump into a bunker. You’d wait for a call or sign ‘all clear’ and I’d hop back up and get back on the radio.”

M’r said he saw Camp Evans get leveled while he was on guard duty, and he still can see those rockets soaring above and hear that ammo blowing up all night. “I have to go somewhere else when there’s fireworks,” he says. “It’s unnerving to me. I still flinch to this day. I literally shutter. It’s in my bones. I can’t quite shake it.”

Meanwhile, his girlfriend Pat was writing him every day and mailing the letter every day. M’r only received a few per month. “If it wasn’t for Pat,” he said of his wife’s support, “There would be no M’r.”

M’r returned to Colonie, NY and married Pat in 1970. While she was finishing up nursing school, M’r went back to finish his PE degree at SUNY Albany. But getting a job didn’t happen right away. He was flipping hamburgers in Rochester, NY, when a contact suggested that he get in touch with a friend of his, Gordon Kibler, the new principal at a grade school back near his hometown where M’r could possibly be the physical education teacher.

“Gordon and I bonded when he found out that I’d served,” he said.

It’s doubtful that Kibler at that time knew that he was hiring someone that would become one of the most beloved teachers at his school for the next 40 years.

“Don’t let me send you off thinking that it was always like roses,” M’r said. “There were days as a teacher where I had to apologize because of where I was at the moment. I blew it by yelling at the group or a kid, but I was aware, and I always had to shore it up. Each class shouldn’t be blamed for the class before it. Sometimes I brought things in from home that I shouldn’t have. Gym was always a therapeutic place for me. I was never a skills guy. We were not going to run around cones all day. I knew that most of the kids wouldn’t be varsity athletes. I wanted sports to be recreational for them, so they would think of gym as safe and fun place. The bottom line for me was that they could play catch to daughter or son down the road. And if so, in my mind, I was doing a good job for the GD kid.”

From 1973 to 2009, M’r made it his job to “make an investment in each kid” while raising three sons of his own, who are now in their 40s, and spending more and more time each passing year at a place called Double H. His last class at GD raised $1,000 to donate to Double H Ranch, a camp co-founded by Charles R. Wood and Paul Newman. Double H provides specialized programs and year-round support for children and their families with life-threatening illnesses. All programs are free of charge and capture the magic of the Adirondacks.

Since 1997, M’r and Pat have spent their summers and portions of their winter supporting all the kids at the Double H and partner camps. Pat participates in nursing support while M’r excels at board games, card games and dressing up in cowboy hats and tutus. Many of the kids are restricted physically and need medical attention 24/7. Camps run one week long, and campers can bring a sibling. One day is spent at Great Escape, but M’r says that the kids prefer to stay at camp where they avoid the stares and sympathy. “It’s a place where they can feel normal,” he said. “It’s a place where they can be nourished with positive energy and talk.”

His gentle teasing and inviting smooth talking is enough to persuade even the most reluctant kids into his circle for what used to be a kickball game—now it’s a card or board game.

“I can’t do what I used to do physically anymore,” M’r says, “So that’s why I always have the cards on me.”

M’r says that he and his wife are there to assist all the wonderful families and kids who are doing everything they can to support their child while reminding everyone around them who’s in good health that they are always having a good day.

“So many kids finish the week and say, ‘It’s the best week of my life’ every year.’”

And you are not surprised because you know that the 40 minutes of gym class you had with M was the best part of your day, your week, your school year not just for you, but for almost every kid you knew.

You remember all those nights that you met M up at the gym with your siblings or kids in the neighborhood, or just solo, and you’d play for hours even during your college career when you had so much pressure on you, and how having a key to your grade school gym allowed you the time and space to go lose and find yourself every time you were home. Sometimes solo, sometimes with friends or family members, you’d meet your favorite teacher up at the school on the hill, and within minutes, he’d be shagging rebounds for you, or you’d be in a full court game of ones or threes or fours and, one man would be rooting for you after you scored on him, and for anyone who did something good as coach, teammate, color commentary and cheerleader all in one. He didn’t care who won or lost. Your teacher just loved to play. When it was over, we’d all fall in a heap at half-court, and chat or stretch until we came up with a date to do it all again.

You think of how times have changed from everyone being okay with normal to making kids out to be the exceptional or “special.” Where did normal go? Or more precisely, where did kids feeling normal go? Maybe the harder parents work to make their kids stand out, the more they come undone, and the more they hide behind their screens. And what happens to the kids next to them who don’t have parents serving their kids and bragging about them all of the time or hiring tutors or fixers in every subject? What if the struggling kids’ mom and dad aren’t posting photos of how great they are all over Facebook? And what happens if a kid’s Instagram and Snapchat is loaded with photos of them just being normal? Or maybe not even filled with photos at all? Or maybe they feel so boring and invisible that they start acting like someone they are not to get someone, anyone to make them pay attention? So they can experience what it feels like to stand out?

You look back and think how did we lose something so simple? Why is it so hard to find the feeling of normal in a moment of random, physical human connection with other kids anymore? It worked for the kids at Double H Ranch in the same as it did for you, the girl jock who felt out of place except in that gym class. And it worked for all those wounded kids you didn’t see in full back then, but you can see them all in your head now. And that’s when you realize you’ve found your answer to your favorite teacher’s secret sauce. A simple Italian man who loved kids and free play served up his sauce evenly to everyone and for free, and that is why he is still—and will always be—so loved.

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