On a quiet Thursday afternoon, Maria Rispoli wrapped her sweater-covered palms around a mug of tea, and began to fall back into her past. “Everybody evolves as they grow up,” she paused. “I am in some ways a completely different person, but in other ways, that person still lives inside of me.”
Rispoli, 45, doesn’t fit the image of a woman with a ‘shameful’ history. She’s been an English teacher at Roxbury High School for 10 years, and she proudly displays letters of gratitude from her students on her refrigerator. On the mantle are photos of Rispoli’s four children and two grandchildren, her alumni of the year award from County College of Morris, and her summa cum laude diploma from Montclair State University. All of these objects add up to a successful lifestyle, but Rispoli doesn’t see it that way. Sometimes it comes as a shock to her that she’s not still a pregnant 17-year-old high school dropout, stuck in a rut with no idea what she plans to do next.
“One day school was absolutely everything to me, my favorite place to be,” Rispoli shook her head, her blonde-tinged bangs falling atop her glasses. “I was the kid who won every academic award in eighth grade at the end of the year. I wrote a voluntary essay on the use of witchcraft in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” Despite the happy picture she paints with her stories, it’s clear as Rispoli’s knuckles whiten around the mug, that not everything was always easy. In fact, what she describes next is every parent’s worst nightmare.
“I met a boy. From the day I met him, I followed his lead.” Rispoli admitted, a grimace filling her face. Within a year, she went from all A’s in her classes, to not even showing up to school. Since she couldn’t drink as intensely as her boyfriend, she made up for it by smoking pot. “It was just instantaneous. I became a completely different person.”
Things changed even more after she dropped out of high school and became pregnant at 17. “It’s embarrassing, because I did nothing but sleep, eat, smoke pot, hang out with my boyfriend, party with my friends, and mooch off my mother,” says Rispoli, putting her hand over her face. “My mom pushed me into getting a job in the Saint Clare’s health system. She said, ‘Saint Clare’s is opening up a daycare, and it will be subsidized for its employees, you might want to get a job there!’ Before that I didn’t really work.”
Rispoli’s first job in Franciscan Oaks, a retirement home owned by Saint Clare’s, was what really pushed her to change how she was acting. “I took to working there like work when I was younger. I was always the best worker there,” she smiled.
Rispoli was able to put her toddler in the daycare at Saint Clare’s and spend all of her free time working extremely hard to move up in the ranks of the hospital.
“I was good at (my job). But there was another girl my age, and she worked there as an accountant and she had a college degree and I started thinking that I reported to more people than she reported to,” Rispoli said, with a slight smirk on her face. “Saint Clare’s had a tuition program where they would give you a certain amount of money for school if it went for the job you did, so I went for a business degree so I could move up even more. I wanted fewer people in charge of me,” Rispoli laughed, putting her hands up in a defeated gesture.
But Rispoli was anything but defeated. Even though the hopes of having less people in charge of her was not what her degrees would eventually bring her, going back to school was definitely a step in the right direction.
“When I took my (first) class I was 26. I hadn’t been in any higher level classes in high school since I dropped out so early,” she explained. “I was absolutely overwhelmed the first day, sitting there thinking, ‘I know nothing, I can’t write papers, the book is so big, I don’t understand the syllabus.’”
It was 1995, Rispoli had three small children ranging in age from one to eight, and she was working full-time at a variety of jobs to support her new house and lifestyle. Each day was a seemingly never-ending cycle of work, school, and children.
“I went home from that (first) class and I got out a notebook and I started reading and writing down everything. And when I went back to that second class, I was a super star.”
Despite the anxiety and fear she felt about failing, Rispoli continued to push through with her coursework. She had another pregnancy, gallbladder surgery, and a change in major before graduating summa cum laude from CCM in December 2002.
By January 2003, Rispoli was already back in school, starting her first semester in the teaching program at Montclair State University. In 2004, she graduated summa cum laude once again, leaving the ceremony early to catch her 4th grade daughter’s flute recital.
“I look back and have no idea how I did it.” she says, shuffling through her school transcripts before laying them back on the table. “I was doing something every moment and I was trying not to let my school impact anybody in any negative way. But in some ways it was the best thing for me. That period of time when I was doggedly pursuing a goal and raising kids, I didn’t have time to fret, I just put my head down, and moved forward.”
Rispoli’s dedication to doing well even got her an alumni of the year award at CCM in 2008, three years into her teaching career at Roxbury High School. A former professor, Janet Ebert, nominated her after hearing from new students about a “spectacular English teacher at Roxbury.”
Rispoli’s been nominated for teacher of the year at her high school every year since she was hired back in 2005, and each year she has the most student recommendations as well. “I’ve never won, because we always give the award to people who are leaving, retiring.” With that she raised her eyebrows while sipping her tea. “I did however win the most dynamic teacher award in 2013!”
Rispoli believes that all of her struggles help her to be a better teacher, and for that, she wouldn’t change anything.“ Most teachers have the appearance of never having stepped a foot wrong in their lives. I am open to my students about the mistakes I’ve made and I always use my stories to say their lives may not be perfect, but they have the opportunity to remake them at a different time.”
In the end, Rispoli was right when she said the person she used to be is inside of her. The young, scared, pregnant girl is almost like a voice in her head that guided her to be the teacher she is today.
“I’m able to look back and question why not one person at (my high school) said ‘What’s wrong, what can we do for you?’” Rispoli picked up her mug before seeing it was empty, and putting it down again. “I wanted to ask that question. Somebody in school needs to ask ‘What’s wrong?’”
Scotty Leibowitz is one of the many students who have heard, “What’s wrong?” from Rispoli throughout the years. For him, it was a lifesaver.
“There was a long period of time in high school where she was the only one keeping me from leaving,” Leibowitz said.
After graduation in 2012, Leibowitz struggled with an alcohol addiction that plagued his every moment, even after stints in rehab. “Now, I have been sober since May 1st of last year, and it’s all because Ms. Rispoli gave me the strength and courage to tell my parents I needed to go away one last time.”
Another former student, Michael Palanchi, was quick to describe Rispoli as, “One one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had.”
“She always went above and beyond for her students,” Palanchi said. “I’ll never forget when she called me after she found out I was being bullied and harassed on Facebook and in school, and she told me that she was going to put an end to it.”
And she did. In Palanchi’s sophomore year, a hate group about him had been created on Facebook by some of Palanchi’s fellow students. Although some of the creators of the group no longer attended Roxbury schools, Rispoli was able to reach out to the other schools involved and put an end to Palanchi’s bullying.
“People don’t have to go through what I went through, and I want to stop that,” Rispoli said.
Rispoli recently received her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction at Marygrove College, and she’s now looking to get her Ed.S as an Education Specialist with an administrative license at her alma mater, MSU. Despite her love for being in the classroom, the pay for teachers in Rispoli’s district has led her to question her path. As of last month, teachers at Roxbury High School were working under a contract that expired in June of 2014. Rispoli’s continued schooling is in direct reflection of her district’s inability to pay their teachers fairly.
At a school board meeting last month, Rispoli took the stand to say, “I never imagined 11 years ago, when I walked through these doors, that I would enter a twilight zone time warp where I, as an educated and dedicated professional, would spend more years without a contract in this district and more years professionally disrespected and more years struggling to feed my family than I did when I worked in private industry with only a high school diploma.”
As the war of wages continues, Rispoli admits, “I still want to be a teacher. I just also deserve to be respected and treated well.”
Montclair State | New Jersey