Next month, the Montclair school district will lose one of the great ones to retirement — Maria González-Block. She happens to be my wife. She’s also one of my heroes. Not because she’s been a spectacular life partner (she has), but because she’s been a teacher of heroic measure — daring, self-sacrificing and powerfully effective.

My pantheon of heroes are mostly teachers. Along with ones who lit momentous fires within me are those in Montclair who, in decades past, inspired my children to great effect — names like Gill, Elder, Longo, Woodruff, Maher, Blank, Cleerdin, Holley, Lunario, Antoine.
Maria is a Spanish teacher at Montclair High School, and known as “Señora.” As I write, Señora is in a nearby room exuberantly Zoom teaching. In this pandemic year, she has successfully penetrated the virtual wall. Her students are attentive, responsive, showing progress.

To her gridiron students, I hear her say, “If you want to do well on the football field, you have to come to practice and do the drills. You can’t show up only on game day and expect to be in top form, right? Well, it’s the same thing for learning another language. To become proficient, you have to do the drills and complete the assignments.”

She adds, “If you do what I advise, you will begin to master Spanish, and in doing so I promise it will enhance your lives. It will make you more desirable in the job market, and it will expand your opportunities to communicate with fascinating people whom you might not otherwise meet.”

It has never been just an 8-to-3 kind of gig for her, nor, I’m supposing, for most schoolteachers. There’s the preparation, paperwork (lots), meetings with those needing extra attention and the battery of phone calls to parents. Responsible for some 140 students, Señora often bears down into the wee hours, including on many weekends. Last Saturday, she telephoned a contact number, worried about a student’s protracted absence. It turns out this one took leave to care for a sick relative. “Some of my kids carry so much,” she told me later.

She’s been teaching in Montclair since 1991, and before that in New York City, starting in 1975 and at a $9,000 salary. When she listens to a neighbor snip about inflated teacher pay, she finally says, “Believe me, no one goes into teaching to make a killing.”
Old friends remember how as a 10-year-old, Maria could often be found on her Brooklyn building stoop teaching another youngster how to read or add. In high school, she joined the Future Teachers Club.

We can’t seem to walk more than a few blocks around town without a student or parent from years past brightly greeting her. This winter, with Maria bundled and masked, a woman approached.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I recognize your voice – you’re Señora, aren’t you? You had my daughter in your class 25 years ago. Thanks to you, she went on to take Spanish in college, became fluent, and now works for an international law firm.”

While her zest for her subject and for her students is as ardent as ever, Maria says that she’s finally ready to “pass the baton.” She is leaving with a graduating class of other great ones, including art teacher pal Fran Legman, whose out-of-the-box projects with her students always bowl me over. Montclair was lucky to have them.

There’s a pretty good chance that the ones who fill their shoes will also be hero material. I hope they will be enthusiastically appreciated.

John Block


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