Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 01 October 2010 00:00
There are teachers who make a difference, teachers who change dozens of lives, and teachers who are simply a force of nature. And then, there was Paul Gordon, a retired teacher who taught physics at Syosset High School for 18 years, and to all appearances, never slowed down for a moment.
“Paul was really a glorious person,” said his wife, Fran Gordon. While Fran may not be the most impartial judge, the countless colleagues, former students, friends and neighbors who have stepped forward to remember Gordon since his death in a car accident on Tuesday, Sept. 14, demonstrate how one person can touch an entire community.
Paul Gordon was born on April 15, 1945 in Brooklyn. According to Fran, Gordon came from a background of financial instability. His father encouraged him to find a career that he would love, but also, one that would provide a steady income. Perhaps it was the belief instilled in him from a young age that he could find something to do with his life that was both satisfying and practical that resulted in the “can-do” attitude he came to be known for among his students.
Young Paul knew he loved science, but didn’t feel cut out for a career in medicine or science research. The other option, teaching, proved much more to his liking. He attended the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in Biology, and graduated in December of 1967; he would later receive a master’s degree from NYU.
Gordon began his career teaching science at Food and Maritime Trade Vocational High School, and later moved onto Park West High School, both in Manhattan. At Park West, he served for many years as the varsity baseball coach. At that time, going to a game entailed packing up all the kids and equipment and heading on the bus toward Central Park, because the city high schools had no fields of their own.
Two of Gordon’s students and players, Devon Whyte and Bennie Castillo, provide examples of the kind of relationships Paul fostered with his students. Both players wanted to play baseball in the major league, but their coach had plans of his own.
“Paul told both Bennie and Devon ‘if you don’t make it, you’ll have to promise me that you’ll go back and finish your education,” said Fran. Both boys kept their promise; Whyte did go on to play in the major leagues, playing in three World Series, while Castillo made it to Triple-A, just short of getting a place in the majors. True to his word, Castillo now has a master’s degree and teaches history and social studies in South Dakota.
Castillo sent Fran an e-mail soon after Gordon’s death, which he later read aloud at the funeral on Friday, Sept. 16:
“…Once I met Mr. Gordon, man it was all different. He made my chest puff out like I was somebody. I mean somebody! My parents moved to Newark during my freshman year and I told Gordon that we had to cheat as I wasn’t going to leave Park West. How could I? I found a father in Gordon,” said Castillo in an excerpt from his letter.
“Bennie and Devon are just two retrospectives out of many,” said Fran, going on to say that many students from all phases of Gordon’s career have approached her since his death and let her know that they credit him with changing their lives profoundly for the better. According to Fran, Paul helped many of his inner-city students receive scholarships.
After many years teaching and coaching at Park West, in the early 1980s Gordon was preparing to take a sabbatical when the chance to teach at Syosset High School presented itself. He quickly dropped the sabbatical idea and went back to school to get his physics certification, and physics became his trademark subject at his new post. Naturally, his students at Park West were not at all happy to see him go.
While there were obviously many differences between the inner-city community he was accustomed to and suburban Syosset, Gordon told his wife that the fundamental problems that children face, and the experience of teaching, remained much the same. What did mark a change was the serendipitous location of his desk at SHS next to Earth Science and Chemistry teacher Steven Silverman, who became a trusted colleague, a friendly coaching rival, and the best of friends.
“Can you imagine you working next to your best friend? Well, that’s what I had,” said Silverman. The two not only saw each other every day at school, but for Paul’s first several years at SHS, the two coached junior varsity baseball together. The school had two JV baseball teams, which would play a full slate of other teams, as well as each other.
“His joke was, he always picked the better team, but my team was able to win,” remembered Silverman. “Paul had a joke for everything, he was very unique.”
Meanwhile, Gordon became famous throughout the school for the larger than life characters he portrayed, all in the effort to keep the subject fun for his students. He would dress up as characters like “Indiana Gordon” and “Flash Gordon” in full costume, and was known, from time to time- when it suited the interests of science, of course- to throw things out the window, or off the roof. For the students, Mr. Gordon’s class could be bewildering, challenging, and, depending on what lab they were doing, possibly incendiary, but never, ever boring.
However, even the intrepid Indiana Gordon had to hang up his hat sometime; Gordon retired from teaching at SHS in 2001.
Soon after his retirement, CW Post University offered him a full-time position teaching science methods for secondary education. While he wasn’t interested in taking on another full-time job late in his career, a solution emerged when Silverman decided to retire in 2003.
“At the moment I retired, he said he had a job for me, working with him at Post. So I had exactly, maybe six hours of unemployment,” said Silverman. “So he said, why don’t you do this with me, we’ll split the pay in half and we’ll continue having a great time. So I said, how can I say no to that? It was a great offer,” said Silverman. According to Silverman, their class was the only class at Post that had two professors.
In addition to teaching science methods, which included topics like how to make homemade lab equipment that would spice up the classroom experience, the two also performed student teacher observations. If either of them observed a student teacher and the student did poorly, they would always offer the option of a do-over, after informing the student of what about their performance needed improvement. “Paul and Steve always made themselves available as advocates,” said Fran.
When not co-teaching with Silverman, Gordon also proctored AP and Regents exams, served as the alumni representative for the University of Pittsburgh at high schools (he was named the PITT Alumni of the Year in 2005), and continued at SHS as a guest lecturer to driver’s education classes on the topic of motorcycle safety. The topic was near and dear to his heart, since he loved riding his motorcycle. Gordon went on some long motorcycle trips; however, more often than not he and his friends from Long Island Kawasaki in Hicksville would meet up for short rides around the neighborhood.
He also continued tutoring, something that tended to take more time for Gordon than most tutors. Instead of just teaching the child the given material, he would give advice to both the students and their families about what classes to consider, how to best utilize guidance counselors, or even just shoot the breeze. “When I say [he would] socialize with the families, an hour tutoring lesson would turn into two hours,” Fran said. “I mean, he was like the ultimate schmoozer.”
Another group Gordon spent time with was the “Deli Boys”, an informal group of friends who would meet at Jericho Deli every morning for coffee and tea. According to Fran, Gordon started frequenting the deli for an iced tea before his morning walk, and like so many other aspects of his life, something warm and friendly grew out of what to many other people might have remained mundane.
According to Silverman, over 800 people attended Gordon’s funeral. This large group, which meant standing-room-only at Gutterman’s Funeral Home, was made up of people from all spheres of the greater Syosset-Jericho community. Paul is survived by his wife Fran; his brother Alan, a retired teacher in East Meadow; his sister Susan, a practicing attorney in Manhattan, and of course, thousands of students who took far more than just the laws of physics away from his classes. He was 65.
Syosset High School will remember one of its favorite teachers with The Paul M. Gordon Scholarship Fund, the details of which are currently being determined.
“He was a very special person. I haven’t seen anybody like him in all the years. He had to stop and ask everybody about their family, and really meant it,” said Silverman.