Portrait of a Waldorf Teacher
Amos Franceschelli
In Memoriam

Michael Ronall

 


Our gratitude to Michael Ronall for allowing us to share his portrait of Amos Franceschelli is exceeded only by our pleasure at being able to do so. That such a teacher once stood before young people offers the world a beacon of hope. It can also ignite a glowing flame of inspiration: may we all come to lead our lives with such skilled integrity.

 

Michael Ronall is a former student of Amos Franceschelli. He writes and edits in New York City and is a past consulting editor for the Newsletter of the Anthroposophical Society in America.





Amos Franceschelli died on Friday, April 9, 1999, at the age of 87.

Mr. Franceschelli taught mathematics at the Rudolf Steiner High School in New York City. Last year he completed a book on teaching math that was published by Mercury Press of the Fellowship Community, in Spring Valley, New York, where he spent his last years.

Students who had come to know him outside the classroom, as well many of his neighbors at the Fellowship Community and its surroundings, discovered that his courtly bearing was supported by an apparently boundless interest in the laws governing the world around him, the inner life of the individualities that he met in it, and the infinite possibilities arising from the relationships between the two. A colleague once said of him that if he were to meet a new fact that contradicted everything he had learned, he would unhesitatingly discard all he had acquired and start again. This steely intellectual integrity launched an incessant pursuit of truth in his and his students' thinking, and it also sought fulfillment in a search for goodness in human conduct. His pursuits were wide-ranging, his courtesy unfailing, his resourcefulness astonishing.

Standing before his class as the impersonation of an equation-cum-scale on the first day of an algebra course, his upturned palms cupping imaginary sums, he admonished us that whatever we were to add or subtract, multiply or divide on one side, we were strictly obliged to do on the other. But it was his own upright posture at the fulcrum of the scale that most convincingly delivered the ideal of justice inherent in mathematical equity. His commitment to accuracy was not a commitment to monotony, however: To demonstrate the principle of symmetry during a geometry lesson, he would suddenly stand on his head while lecturing. Just before the climax of a proof, he could be given to exclaim, "Lo and Behold!" Exasperation (which our class provoked with scrupulous care) might move him to the oath, delivered basso profundo: "O ye gods and little fishes!" Yet, after any extended absence, his hearty salutation, its import as genuine as its diction incongruous, would again ring out: "All hail to you!"

At the time these archaisms seemed merely quaint, even ludicrous, eccentricities, but sometime later it began to dawn on me that by selecting unfashionable tropes, Mr. Franceschelli was slyly executing a deliberate, charitable strategy to wean his pupils from their thrall to the trends of the moment, in order to prove that novelty and worth are not necessarily equivalent. When a gaggle of ninth-grade girls burst into the foyer of the school after lunchtime break, gasping that they had just seen a famous movie star on the avenue, he slowly pivoted on his heel and drily commented: "Oh? Did it make you a better person?"

Once while lecturing, he noticed the waving hand of a pupil known more for political deftness in the service of suppressing his classmates' autonomy than for any devotion to academics. Ingenuously, Mr. Franceschelli asked whether the boy had a comment or a question. "No, I was just stretching," came the reply. Mr. Franceschelli resumed his pacing, but must have felt a complacent sneer penetrating his back, because suddenly he was standing in front of the boy's desk, fiercely commanding him to stand. This the shocked fellow did and found himself in very close range of a protracted stare. He then heard the following, delivered with stentorian self-control across a chasm measurable in inches: "Young man, you are still... very... small." [A pause ensued, during which the teacher began to turn away; then, as if horrified by the prospect of being misconstrued, he was suddenly back again.] "Not in comparison with me... [a longer pause and a gaze of astonishment] but... [still another pause] in comparison [suddenly flinging his arms wide apart] with the Universe!! [another pause] Now sit down!!" Compliance with this instruction was followed by a stretch of unprecedented attentiveness, and no community of victims ever breathed a happier sigh of (alas, temporary) relief than the rest of the class enjoying their vicarious catharsis.

When one of his students showed Mr. Franceschelli poetry written over the summer, he observed aloud that poem after poem ended in a question, then quietly added: "There are answers." Only years later did that student learn that his mathematics teacher was himself an accomplished poet. Reproached, on a separate occasion, by a critic of the perceived anthroposophical temptation to arrogance, he responded: "I sincerely hope I do not think that Anthroposophy makes me a better person than others. But if I do think so, then I hope it is only in the sense of the thirteenth chapter of the John Gospel, the washing of the feet -- that I might be a better servant."

As a young adult I took an interest in Anthroposophy, and when I learned of his involvement, I fully expected to be applauded for my participation. Mr. Franceschelli merely said, "It's easy to call yourself an anthroposophist, or any other kind of -ist. The question that interests me is, Who is it that is observing my own thinking?"