Making history come alive Harford honors Bel Air teacher

June 20, 1993|By Aminah Franklin | Aminah Franklin,Staff Writer

One day, he donned his blue Union soldier uniform and relived the Civil War. The next day, wearing patched and tattered clothes and toting a battered briefcase, he did his best impression of a down-and-out former stockbroker after the 1929 stock market crash. Then Victor Petrosino revisited Elvis' glory days, sporting slicked hair, a black leather jacket, jeans and shades -- for a 1950s sock-hop, of course.

His students never really know what to expect when Mr. Petrosino, Harford's 1993 Teacher of the Year, shows up to teach his class at C. Milton Wright High in Bel Air.

Students and faculty say Mr. Petrosino's chameleon-like role changes, designed to stir excitement about the nation's history, are just some of the things that set him apart and make him an outstanding instructor deserving recognition.

"He was an obvious choice," said Principal Ronald S. Webb, who nominated Mr. Petrosino. "He just stands out as someone with an intense interest in the subject matter, an undying enthusiasm and a genuine love for kids."

Mr. Petrosino, who has taught in Harford County for 27 years, the last 12 at C. Milton Wright, now will vie for Maryland Teacher of the Year. Winning that would put him in the running for National Teacher of the Year.

His students say that though they first thought Mr. Petrosino a bit strange, they now appreciate his creative attempts at sparking their interest.

"At first, I thought he was loony," said Kelly Gunning, a junior. "I really noticed he was different when he showed up at school dressed like a colonist before Thanksgiving break, but he was so fun it made class interesting for a change."

Student Pete Franks said when Mr. Petrosino acted out historic figures, even down to the British accent when appropriate, it was almost as if the class were transported to another time and place. "It gave you a whole new level of insight," he said.

Classmate Michael Jackson said Mr. Petrosino's enthusiasm proved contagious. "I looked forward to going to his class every day to find out what we'd be studying," he said.

Student Eric Jankowiak said he caught the contagion and volunteered to participate in the "1970s day" presentation, showing up in a peach-colored leisure suit complete with bell bottoms.

"He really cares about getting the students involved," Eric said, adding that teachers like Mr. Petrosino are rare. "Anybody can get a four-year degree and stand at the front of the class and read from a book, but he chooses to take things a step further."

Marsha Brooks, another U.S. history teacher at Wright, occasionally combines her class with Mr. Petrosino's because, she said, "students respond so well to him."

Mrs. Brooks, who has worked with Mr. Petrosino for five years, even followed his example and participated in a few dress-up days, donning a felt poodle skirt and saddle shoes for the '50s day presentation. She also became a witch for a day and Mr. Petrosino a judge for a discussion about the Salem witch trials.

"He's always willing to go the extra mile to make sure kids are learning and having fun," said Bob Rudolph, social studies department chairman. "He's one of the most dedicated people I've ever come into contact with."

For his part, Mr. Petrosino, a quiet, unassuming man, says his antics are just part of the job of helping children learn.

"I appeal to their imaginations and use the power of suggestion to stimulate the thought process," he said. "I make history come alive by presenting it as what it really is, a story of real people."

Ironically, Mr. Petrosino, 53, didn't set out to become a teacher. He first dreamed of serving as an officer in the U.S. Army so he set his sights on West Point. But an injury during a training exercise --ed any hopes of a military career.

Laid up in a hospital bed, he recalled two teachers, William Jacob Graham and Edith Coburn, who he says were masters at their craft and demanded excellence while also providing the means to achieve it.

Mr. Petrosino said both teachers fostered his love of learning and the desire to pass it on.

In the hospital, inspiration struck.

"I was lying on my back wondering what to do with the rest of my life, and thoughts of those teachers just pointed me in the right direction," Mr. Petrosino said.

He received his bachelor's degree in history from the Towson State Teacher's College (which later became Towson State University), a master's degree in history from Ohio State University and a second master's in history at Towson.

Mr. Petrosino said he soon found out that teaching was all he had dreamed it would be and more. "I'm in the people business, and nurturing student growth . . . is the most satisfying thing," he said.

The biggest thanks he can get in return, he said, smiling, is for his students to remember the things he's done for them and how much he cared for them and pass it on.

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