Getting to Know Mr. Bongiorno
My first encounter with Mr. Bongiorno was back in September when, as a Peer Minister, I was asked to help freshman homeroom teachers during the Freshman Orientation. At first glance, he seemed fun, approachable, and jolly. Sadly, I found out I wasn’t in any of his classes. Luckily, I was given the opportunity to interview him for The Commentator. Because I don’t have Mr. Bongiorno as a teacher, I asked the students of his British Literature courses and some of his colleagues to describe him in one word. Three words seemed to pop up every time I asked: intelligent, fun, and engaging. Mrs. Matrale even described him as “gregarious.” (Google it!) Needless to say, all these positive adjectives made me less anxious and more excited to interview him. After weeks of scheduling mishaps (Sorry, Mr. Bongiorno!), I was finally able to sit down and talk to him.
Q: Can you tell me where you grew up? General background?
A: I was born in Brooklyn, in Bay Ridge. I lived there until I was in fifth grade, and then I moved over to Staten Island, NY, for junior high and I’ve been there ever since.
Q: Where did you go to college? What was your major?
A: I went to Hunter College in Manhattan, and I absolutely loved it there! My major was English Literature. At first I was a Creative Writing major, but then I changed it to English Lit when I officially decided that I wanted to teach.
Q: What made you pick English as a major? Why English?
A: Actually, when I was a young kid, I didn’t really like to read. One day I picked up a book, a Goosebumps book, that a school librarian suggested, and I really got into that series. From there, I grew to really appreciate reading, and it only continued and deepened in junior high and high school. And by the time I graduated high school, I was pretty sure that what I wanted to do was to teach high school English and to devote my life to spreading love for the written word. I’ve always liked to write, as well, and I’m pretty creative, plus I really like being with kids and teenagers, so being an English teacher seemed to really fit.
Q: What was your first job?
A: My first job was as a teen reporter for my local newspaper. I got paid $10 per article and I got to go to weekly editors’ meetings with the other teen writing staff. I also briefly worked at Burger King, for like two weeks, before I got fired for eating a chicken nugget on the job!
Q: What was your first teaching job?
A: My first teaching job was for the Huntington Learning Center, where I taught SAT Prep for the Reading and Language sections.
Q: I heard from some of my friends that you taught at St. Nick’s. What’s the main difference between St. Nick’s and Hudson Catholic?
A: Hudson much bigger and a little bit more hectic, but the depth of thought and discussion you can get into in high school is something that I really appreciate. You guys are young adults, we’re getting you ready for college, and I really love seeing you guys connect with literature and be able to apply it to not only your life now, but also a future life. So I would say that high schoolers are more future and career-oriented, whereas middle schoolers are more worried about things like their friends and choosing the right high school.
Q: Why Hudson Catholic?
A: Because I’ve taught in Jersey City community for the past 4 years and feel at home here. I was approached by Mr. Astudillo who told me that there was an opening here in the English department. I had always wanted to move up to high school, so, for me, it just felt like the best possible transition. Not only is Hudson in the same community that I’ve been teaching in for the past few years years, but also many of the students that I taught in middle school I am lucky enough to be teaching again.
Q: What’s the hardest thing about being a teacher?
A: The hardest thing about being a teacher? The paperwork. There is a ton of paperwork: lesson plans, grading tests, grading essays. You’d be surprised how much work teachers take home with them every day, and every night, and every weekend. We work nonstop from September till June!
Q: What’s your favorite thing about being a teacher?
A: My favorite thing about being a teacher is when I overhear students talking about texts that we’ve read in class. There are even some times when they don’t know that I’m listening to them, and I hear them talking about the book, or poem, or story. That lets me know that whatever it was that we went over in class, even if it wasn’t the best lesson in the world, they’re taking it away with them, and they’re still talking about it, making it their own. Because after all, I really do believe that teaching is a noble tradition where we take this knowledge and we hand it off to you, and then it becomes yours, and then it’s yours to give to somebody else. That’s how it works.
Q: Who’s your inspiration?
A: I’m very inspired by Bel Kaufman. She wrote this book called Up the Down Staircase that I read in high school, and it’s about being a high school English teacher. It was kind of the book that opened my eyes to what I wanted to do with my life. She lived to be over a hundred years old – she taught until the day she died! What makes her even closer to my heart is that she went to my alma mater, Hunter College, and she taught there as well. At age 100, she was one of the oldest working professors in the United States. She taught a course called Jewish Humor, at 100 years old!
Q: Who was your favorite teacher?
A: As you can guess, my favorite teacher was an English teacher. She was my freshman English teacher. She introduced me to The Crucible by Arthur Miller, which is one of my favorite plays of all time. She was always really enthusiastic and extremely patient. She put in the time and the work necessary to get the most out of her students, and she did. That class was just extremely memorable. I have contacted her as an adult to thank her and to tell her that I am teaching as well, and that she made a huge impact on my life.
Q: Rapid fire questions. Answer with the first thing that comes to your mind. Favorite Song?
A: Hmm… I’m not supposed to think too long about this, I know. Um, “All You Need is Love,” by The Beatles.
Q: Best compliment you’ve received?
A: “You’re my favorite teacher.”
Q: Favorite book?
A: Of Mice and Men.
Q: Greatest fear?
A: Death, I guess.
Q: If you were to write a memoir, what would you name it?
A: If it were based on my teaching career, I think I would title it Put Your Phone Away.
Q: Favorite Hobby?
A: Watching TV!
Q: Describe your day in one word.
Q: Okay, last question. What would you tell your high school self?
A: I would tell my high school self to be nicer to his teachers, because one day he will be in their position.
After this interview, I finally have my own answer to the question that I’ve been asking his students and colleagues. If there’s one word to describe Mr. Bongiorno, it would definitely be “passionate.” I could hear the passion in his voice while talking about English and teaching, it’s as if he could talk about it the whole day! The glow in his eyes and the excitement in his voice while talking about it makes me excited and hopeful for my future. If there’s one thing that I got from this interview, it would be to pick a career that will make me as excited to talk about as he is to talk about his.
Welcome to the Hawks’ Nest, Mr. Bongiorno!