Mr. V.

Anthony Vadala (1940-2000), known commonly as “Mr. V.”, was the best teacher I have ever had.

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Anthony Vadala taught History and Social Studies (Politics, Social Anthropology, Western Civilization) at the Copenhagen International School in Denmark.

Although I was probably pretty far from his idea of an ideal student, he taught me a ton about integrity, about the (sometimes nasty) power of words, about the striving for knowledge and, most importantly, about what being a good teacher means and entails.

He was a special person in every sense of the word (I remember him opening the door to his apartment one day, brandishing a battle axe and revealing a large room lined with neatly stacked old newspapers and large ashtrays), he had a decidedly weird sense of humor and he smoked (unfiltered) Pall Malls like there was no tomorrow, but most of all he was also a fiercely dedicated teacher with an extremely firm sense of work ethics and an amazingly broad knowledge base. He also always tried to make even the most tiresome or difficult student, the disinterested or just lazy feel equally welcome and valuable. He invested a lot of his lifeblood into his students and it usually paid off.

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His “100 Specifics” tests were simply legendary, and so was his small smoke-filled cubicle up on the second floor which often became a crowded meeting point for all.

Playing board games (“Diplomacy“) with students in front of his small cubicle or convincing the headmaster that playing a good game of poker might help those of us yet unfamiliar with the English language adapt to the (often new) environment much quicker, add to the fond memories as did his willingness to participate in the odd beer guzzling tournament (to keep an eye on the assembled misfits) when appropriate or, sometimes a bit reluctantly, to participate in private festivities. Mr. Vadala was a guest at my 18th birthday formal dinner arrangement and he told me that he didn’t warm to those kinds of events easily. Then he gave a wonderful speech.

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He knew I was going to be a teacher when the fact was still the furthest from my young developing mind and after I had left school, he helped me brainstorm my studies whenever I was back in Copenhagen for a visit.

I have the fondest of memories of a man who always had time for his students, was often the last person to disappear from campus, who went out of his way to aid and especially encourage each and every one of us that needed a helping hand or a quick boost, and a person whose booming voice was often heard admonishing noisy students anywhere in the school building. I can still hear his “CHILDREN!” bouncing freely off the hallway windows of his cubicle, blasting across the locker area.

For three years he tried to get me to join the Model United Nations group, a group he invested a lot of preparatory time and energy into to allow his students to get a whiff of what politics out in the wild were like, and when I continued to refuse, he resorted to adding his plea to my report cards. He was stubborn that way, he didn’t give up easily and he was the better for it.

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Mr. Vadala did not get mad, he got slightly annoyed, but I do remember one single lesson in which we had apparently overstepped some invisible line. He got up and quietly left the room. The classroom fell completely silent within a second as this had been unheard of and we listened to his steps descending down to the floor below. We had no idea what to do and after two minutes of debating who should go downstairs to apologize, Mr. V. reappeared and with a very somber voice apologized to the class for not having reacted appropriately. I can’t remember what the other students in the class thought that day, but I felt totally embarrassed.

Mr. Vadala taught me one of the most important lessons that day and knowing Mr. V., he knew that.

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The last time I met Mr. V. was at the premiere of Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”. Angus McFadyen, a CIS alumni, appeared in a leading role and his parents had invited a few friends of his and Mr. V. to the premiere  in Copenhagen. It was a blisteringly hot day and as we stepped outside to have a cigarette during intermission, he ordered us two beers each (“Too many people at the bar. I thought I’d get two each right away.”) and we got into a giggling match while trying to balance two plastic beer cups and a cigarette each. After about 15 minutes of small talk he suddenly said: “Volkher, I’m so glad that you managed to find your place in the world. I knew you would.” When I replied that he had been the single most important reason for me to become a teacher, he smiled warmly and just before we re-entered the movie theater, he gave me a quick hug – something completely unheard of – and silently disappeared into the crowd. You know, cheap Hollywood films and tear-jerking novels aside, today I am glad that I was able to tell him how important he had been in my small world.

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Mr. Vadala was a great man without whom I would definitely not be where I am today. He was someone who left his mark on countless generations and, to me, he was the epitome of a role model.

He was – and still is today – someone to aspire to. At the school I work at, most students know who Mr. V. was, simply because I always manage to mention him and what a great man he was.

His legacy lives on.

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(Volkher Hofmann, January 2012)