As we grind our way through the early years in school and teachers work to develop our minds and work ethic, a few of them will invariably stand out.
They’re the ones whose classes we looked forward to, the homework assignments we didn’t have to be talked into doing, and the intellectual issues with which they challenged us. They were the ones who made learning fun while sending us off at the end of the school year that much smarter than when we started.
Looking back at my own years in the Norwich Public School system, there were a number of such teachers who stood out: Viola Daley, my fourth-grade teacher at John B. Stanton School was my all-time favorite. Her warmth and ability to mix fun in with the learning process actually had me looking forward to school every day that year.
In high school, Robert “Bull” Demars was my favorite for forgiving my previous year’s misbehavior at Kelly Junior High School and starting me off with a clean slate at what was then St. Bernard Boys High School in Uncasville, where I was enrolled my freshman. year.
After transferring in my sophomore year to Norwich Free Academy, I remember Humanities teacher Dorothy “Toddy” Agranovitch, Social Studies teacher Karl Ferling, and Lois Anderson and Daniel Gibson, both English teachers, as my favorites. They exercised great patience and encouragement for a teenage boy who was more intent on socializing and playing basketball than learning.
Each had his or her own special method of nudging me forward – albeit in small increments – in education.
When I was a student there, Kelly Junior High School was composed of only seventh and eighth grades. It was a time of uncertainty as we suddenly transitioned into a daily routine of changing classrooms every 45 minutes, sometimes to classrooms all the way over on the other side of the sprawling facility.
We took showers after gym class, and our classmates were kids from throughout Norwich. Our world was changing and expanding quickly.
Truthfully, I was not enthusiastic about most of my seventh-grade teachers. Most of them were strict, unforgiving and humorless. The exceptions were my science teacher Victor Ferry and my geography and American history teacher, Bruce Royce. Today’s column is about Mr. Royce.
That these were my favorite subjects to begin with got my relationship with Mr. Royce off to a good start. However, the passion and appreciation for the class and its special teacher were shared by virtually all of us at a time when class sizes were between 25 and 30 students – yes, 25 to 30.
It was Mr. Royce’s athletic youth, quick smile, friendly, easy-going manner and the true enjoyment he derived from teaching that won us all over early in the school year. He also wore a crew cut, which was fashionable at the time, and that earned him points among the students, too. In a word, he was cool.
He was also a “Norwich guy,” having grown up on the city’s West Side and graduated from NFA in 1958.
I had something of an “in” with Mr. Royce as he was a stock market client of my father. One day, Mr. Royce stopped by my desk and said, “Hey, Bill, ask your dad how Cott is doing.” He owned some shares of the Toronto-based soft drink manufacturer, and in Dad’s effort to get me interested in the stock market, he had invested me in a smaller number of shares.
Besides the small investment, my connection to Cott was the empty, quart-sized glass soda bottles I collected to cash in for the 5-cent deposit.
Mr. Royce also encouraged me to run for the Student Advisory Board, representing my homeroom. I didn’t think I’d get elected, but with his encouragement, I ran and won, and got to wear a white and green SAB arm band around school.
He was genuinely happy at my election but warned me not to let the arm band go to my head. That, he said, was the least important thing about serving in student government.
During the entire school year, I saw him upset only twice. The first time was when I got too big for my britches, crossed the line, and called him Bruce.
“What did you call me?” he demanded. “What did you just call me? Just remember one thing – it’s Mr. Royce.”
I never made that mistake again.
The second time we managed to upset him was when he chaperoned a class trip to Expo ’67 in Montreal. Around mid-morning, he freed us up to explore Expo on our own. He gave us a time and place to rendezvous in the early afternoon.
My friend, Carl Mocek, and I wandered off, taking in all the exciting sights and sounds of Expo. We visited some of the exhibits and got something to eat, but when we returned to the designated location at 2 pm, the looks we received from the other students told us we were in big trouble.
Turns out the assigned return time was 1 pm, not 2, and Mr. Royce rushed over to us, furious, but also probably relieved that we hadn’t disappeared into the vastness of a foreign country.
“I’m ready to wring your necks,” he said through clenched teeth. “You were supposed to be back here an hour ago, and we’ve been looking all over for you!”
They had even notified Expo police that we were missing. Ugh!
I felt terrible as Mr. Royce was my favorite teacher and I had let him down … and probably scared the living wits out of him. He pulled me aside later to explain that he had been more frightened than angry about our late return.
Thankfully, all was forgiven later in the day, but it came with a stern admonishment to “wake up and pay attention.”
Years later, I bumped into Mr. Royce, then retired, at Big Y in Norwich. He had kept up with some of my career via local news media but wanted to know more. We talked for about 10 or 15 minutes, and when I’d brought him up to date, he stood back with a proud smile and said, “Good for you, Bill.”
And yes, he remembered the Expo ’67 incident with a chuckle and a roll of his eyes.
I was saddened to read that Mr. Royce passed away on Sept. 14 at the age of 82. A passage in his obituary could explain why he was a favorite among his students over the years. As he had made an impression on us, we evidently made impressions on him that he never forgot, even after retirement.
“He beamed when former students, some now long since retired themselves, came up to him and asked ‘Mr. Royce?’ Then proceeded to regale him with memories and antics. He had the amazing ability to remember so many stories of his teaching adventures as well as where former students sat when in his class. He truly loved hearing about what his former students were up to now. “
That said it all about a teacher who was passionate and proud about his profession. He took great satisfaction in knowing he’d made a difference in many of our lives.
There are few things in life better and more important to our growth than a great teacher. Bruce Royce was one of the best.
Bill Stanley, a native of Norwich, is a retired vice president at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.