RIP, Mr. Harold Scipio

Mr. Harold Scipio was my high school chemistry and physics teacher. He died at 91 on June 11.

Image provided by Hope Abraham, granddaughter.

I am 59 and am deeply saddened by his passing because he remains a powerful influence on my teaching, many decades after I sat in his classroom and then later taught with him at the same high school I attended.

In an open letter to my students in 2014, I wrote about Mr. Scipio:

Harold Scipio taught me high school chemistry and physics. He was a tall black man, very measured and formal. It is because of Mr. Scipio, I think ultimately along with Lynn Harrill, that I found my way to teaching after thinking I was going to major in physics (that was because of Mr. Scipio, but it was also because I was young and mostly misreading myself and the world).

Mr. Scipio practiced two behaviors that were totally unlike any other teacher I ever had. First, he referred to all of us as Mr. or Miss and our last names, and he explained to us that since we had to call him Mr. Scipio, he should certainly return the courtesy.

In the last days of my senior year at the National Honor Society banquet (Mr. Scipio was a faculty sponsor), as we were cleaning up afterward, he called me Paul, smiled widely, and told me to call him Harold because I was graduating and an adult.

And throughout my junior and seniors years, each time Mr. Scipio would hand out a test or exam, he would quietly gather a wide assortment of lab materials around the room before walking out of the main room and into the back where he washed and returned the materials to the storage shelf.

During every test, Mr. Scipio left the room, sent an unspoken message about not only our very frail and young integrity but also his trust that although we were surely not perfect, that we would ultimately make the right decisions.

I now teach every single day in the wake of Mr. Scipio—often disappointed in myself for failing his lessons about the essential dignity of all people, especially young people, especially students in the care of a teacher.

Teaching isn’t about chemistry or physics, or introductions to education or first year seminars and learning to write.

Teaching is about those becomings and beings that truly matter: becoming and being a citizen of communities grand and intimate, becoming and being the only you that you can be, becoming and being a scholar and student.

In an odd twist of fate, after teaching English for 18 years at that high school, I sat in a restaurant interviewing to move to my current position now as a college professor. As I dined with the department chair and head of graduate education, I looked across the restaurant and saw Mr. Scipio.

I excused myself, walked over, and talked with Mr. Scipio.

He was always a quiet and measured man. He smiled and said he was proud of where I was, what I had accomplished.

Just as he was a key person in my path to becoming a teacher, I took this brief encounter with Mr. Scipio as a subtle message from the universe that making that change was the right path for me.

As an incredibly provincial white guy raised in a racist home and community, I was incalculably fortunate to have been a student of Mr. Scipio for two years as he laid the foundation for me becoming a better person.

I am always in his debt.

Rest in peace, Mr. Scipio.