Life Lessons Learned: The National Teachers Initiative

Al Siedlecki (left) and Lee Buono speak at the launch of StoryCorps' National Teachers Initiative at the  White House. i i

Al Siedlecki (left) and Lee Buono speak at the launch of StoryCorps' National Teachers Initiative at the White House. AJ Chavar /StoryCorps hide caption

itoggle caption AJ Chavar /StoryCorps
Al Siedlecki (left) and Lee Buono speak at the launch of StoryCorps' National Teachers Initiative at the  White House.

Al Siedlecki (left) and Lee Buono speak at the launch of StoryCorps' National Teachers Initiative at the White House.

AJ Chavar /StoryCorps

You may have already heard of StoryCorps, the American oral history project on NPR. Two people sit down in a studio and talk, telling stories about their lives, and the people at StoryCorps record and archive the conversation.

StoryCorps is honing in on lessons about learning with a new project for the academic year, called the National Teachers Initiative. It'll feature conversations with teachers across the country — teachers talking to each other, students interviewing the teachers who changed their lives, and more.

"I think there is no higher calling than being a public school teacher in this country," StoryCorps founder Dave Isay tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish.

"Teachers are feeling under attack and underappreciated," Isay says. "We want to do our part over the next year to turn that around."

To kick off the series, Isay brings us the story of Al Siedlecki, a science teacher at Medford Memorial Middle School in Medford, N.J. One of his former students, Lee Buono, grew up to be a neurosurgeon. He came to StoryCorps with Siedlecki to tell the story about a patient who reconnected him with his favorite teacher.

Look for more stories from the National Teacher's Initiative on Weekend Edition Sunday each month for the rest of the school year.

Neurosurgeon Gives Thanks To His Science Teacher

After a patient told neurosurgeon Lee Buono to thank the teacher who inspired him, he called up Al Siedlecki. i i

After a patient told neurosurgeon Lee Buono to thank the teacher who inspired him, he called up Al Siedlecki. StoryCorps hide caption

itoggle caption StoryCorps
After a patient told neurosurgeon Lee Buono to thank the teacher who inspired him, he called up Al Siedlecki.

After a patient told neurosurgeon Lee Buono to thank the teacher who inspired him, he called up Al Siedlecki.

StoryCorps

As a middle-school student in the '80s, Lee Buono stayed after school one day to remove the brain and spinal cord from a frog. He did such a good job that his science teacher told him he might be a neurosurgeon someday.

That's exactly what Buono did.

The National Teachers Initiative is a project of StoryCorps, the American oral history project. Each month this school year, Weekend Edition Sunday will celebrate stories of public school teachers across the country.

The National Teachers Initiative is a project of StoryCorps, the American oral history project. Each month this school year, Weekend Edition Sunday will celebrate stories of public school teachers across the country. StoryCorps hide caption

itoggle caption StoryCorps

Years later, a patient with a tumor came to see Buono. The growth was benign, but interfered with the patient's speech. "He can get some words out," Buono recalls, "but it's almost unintelligible. It's almost like someone's sewing your mouth closed."

"I'm talking to his wife, and we tried to lighten up the situation," he continues. "They started asking me about myself." They asked Buono who inspired him to become a surgeon, and he told them about his old teacher, Al Siedlecki, back at Medford Memorial Middle School in Medford, N.J.

Surgery was a success. The patient's powers of speech returned. "He's just excited and happy and crying and wanted to just hug me," Buono says. "You make sure you call that teacher," the patient said. "You make sure you thank him."

So Buono did.

"I picked the phone up and you go, 'Hey, it's Lee Buono,'" Siedlecki says to his former student. "'Lee, what's goin' on man? I haven't heard from you since you were in high school,'" he said.

"'I want to thank you,'" Buono replied.

"I was flabbergasted," Siedlecki says. "I said, 'Of all the people in your entire career, you want to thank me?'

"It was the same feeling I had when ... when my kids were born," Siedlecki says. "I started to cry. It made me feel really important that I had that influence on you."

Lately, Siedlecki admits, "I almost am afraid to say that I'm a teacher to some people."

Not anymore, he tells Buono, "because you called me. I'm a teacher, and I'm going to help as many people as I can to find their passion too."

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Brian Reed.

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