`Mr. V's' lessons unforgettable

July 05, 2000|By Laura Dreibelbis | Laura Dreibelbis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A legend is unfolding at St. Louis Catholic School. Not a monster in a lake, but a man described as self-effacing who finds it difficult to accept accolades.

Stephen Vazzana has become nearly synonymous with St. Louis during his 30 years of teaching at the Clarksville school.

Principal Terry Weiss says of Vazzana: "I've taught for many years, and I've never witnessed the kind of effect he has on his students by any other teacher."

Vazzana's colleagues and pupils echo these sentiments. A common theme when discussing "Mr. V" is the lasting impression he has made on every pupil he has taught. "They all remember Mr. V," said fellow teacher Mary Ann Capelle.

He is described as a tremendously dedicated teacher, always available to his pupils and their families. He arrives between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. to open the elementary school and is available before and after school to tutor at no charge.

His simple recipe for teaching might explain his effectiveness. A shy man who doesn't like attention, he declined to be interviewed for this article but did provide written statements about himself.

When asked his opinion of whatmakes a great teacher, he responded: "Commitment/dedication, love of children, the inner desire to influence young lives." His personal outlook is to "try to see everything, overlook a lot, correct a little."

"I don't (and I say this with true sincerity) consider myself anything even near great, but I thank God I can do a satisfactory job with His children," he wrote.

Vazzana's mother, also a teacher, was a role model. Architecture and teaching were Vazzana's career goals, but he chose the latter when he discovered that he didn't have the talent for art. He also enjoyed working with young people and knew he could make a difference. He has made an impact at St. Louis.

His tie collection (72 at last count) - which includes Bugs Bunny, Disney characters and his high school alma mater Mount St. Joseph - is his trademark.

During Catholic Schools Week in February, the school held a "Mr. V" tie day. Everyone from kindergarten to eighth grade, faculty and staff, wore ties in his honor. Pupils go out of their way to find the right tie for Vazzana, and he remembers who gave him each tie in what year.

He was nominated for the Cardinal's Award for Teaching Excellence and recognized at a teacher recognition banquet in May, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The yearbook was dedicated to him during the past school year.

Vazzana is known for giving each pupil a nickname. Capelle said it's almost a "rite of passage to get Mr. V [as a teacher] and get your nickname."

Many former pupils visit, write letters or call Vazzana. When former pupils return, he might not remember their names, but the nickname is never forgotten.

As easygoing as he may sound, Vazzana is a mentor and serious teacher. He has high expectations of himself and his pupils. Several said that they were well-prepared for the demands of high school.

Each youth in his class was required to give an oral report, and though many hated the task, they felt the practice helped later in their education. Daily pop quizzes kept students on their toes.

Vazzana was a stickler on grammar, said Katie Capelle, who was his student for four years. Capelle, daughter of teacher Mary Ann Capelle, credits Vazzana for her strong grammar skills. Now at Seton-Keough High School in Baltimore, she says she is one of a very few students who really know grammar.

"Memorable" is a good word to describe Vazzana. He in turn remembers the beauty and wonder of each child as a constant in a changing world.

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