“Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took
But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me, too
What a wonderful world this would be”
Over the past 27 years of Project Love programming, during which time the organization has trained 1,088,000 students in all 50 states, I have had an opportunity to ask many students what they remember about high school. Many remembered their Project Love experience; many remembered one or two champion teachers; most remembered whom they dated; and most remembered who was nice to them and who was mean to them. But few remembered details about the War of 1812 or the laws of physics or an algebraic equation.
This factoid made Sam Cooke’s 1960 song, “Wonderful World,” all-the-more relevant to me as I reflected this past week on the passing of Project Love’s first teacher, Charlie Caputo, who in May 1994 took a chance on a novel and unproven all-day workshop with 150 juniors at Berkshire High School in Burton. Later, the school principal told me the group was the meanest one he had overseen in 35 years.
The real reason Charlie cared and took a chance was because he felt his job involved both teaching facts and using history to show students how to become decent human beings. The historical facts became tools to convey the lessons of decency, kindness, mutuality and love.
After Charlie’s death, I heard from one of his former students. What she remembers is Charlie’s class was a tutorial on how to be a good person and citizen. And Project Love fit into Charlie’s paradigm because our all-day workshop empowered students to take what they learned and improve the school environment and interpersonal relationships.
As my wife, Susan, and I were finalizing the workshop in the winter and spring of 1994, we knew that we needed a unique teacher and agile school for its debut. I had read in the Cleveland Jewish News that Berkshire High School, a school with no Jewish teenagers, regularly submitted poetry and art to the annual Yom Hashoah (Holocaust) Remembrance Day; their Catholic teacher Charlie Caputo – instructed in Holocaust studies by the late Leatrice Rabinsky – incorporated Holocaust and other human-behavior studies into his history classes.
Charlie educated his students through awareness of the Holocaust and human frailties. He insisted that every student see “Schindler’s List” in March 1994. He taught them about the hangman poem, which tells the tale of a hangman who summarily executes every resident in a small town. Each citizen fails to object for fear that they will be next and, ultimately, no one was left to object or stand up for them or for what was right. He informed his students about Kitty Genovese, the 28-year old bartender who was stabbed to death outside the apartment building where she lived while 38 witnesses looked on and did nothing. He required students to memorize Kipling’s poem, “If,” a moral missive about decency.
Charlie gave Project Love the raw materials – his students’ awareness and sensitivities; we just took them to the next level by challenging them, “What now? What will you do to make your school and the world a better place?”
In a July 1995 article in the CJN, then-Berkshire High School principal Dave Beten wrote about the Project Love experience, saying “In our world of many negatives, it just goes to show that when you introduce positives to high school students, they do step up to the challenge and pass those positives along.”
Now, look at the negatives in today’s world: racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Asian sentiment; incivility; name calling and rampant disrespect. Caputo’s life as a master teacher shows us that, when we inspire students to recognize humanity, they will respond by becoming their better selves. When we simply instruct them with by-the-book education, who knows what they’ll do? In these challenging times, we need more “educators of humanity” like Charlie who move students to better the world. And then, What a wonderful world this would be.
Each year, Values-in-Action Foundation/Project Love awards a teacher with the Close-Caputo Educator of Humanity Award, which on May 5 will go St. Ignatius head football coach Chuck Kyle.
Stuart Muszynski is the CEO and president of Values-in-Action Foundation in Mayfield.
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