My Favorite Professor Was A High School Teacher
The last time I saw Mr. Sieminski was in 2011. He was narrating his wickedly entertaining “Christmas Story” on the theater stage at Smithtown’s High School West. It was a sold out crowd: not bad for a guy who used to recite it to a packed classroom (long before he retired from teaching). The autobiographical tale involves a frozen turkey, the police, and some alcoholic libations; many students who did not have him as a teacher would cut class just to hear him perform it. This was before Mr. Sieminski’s alumni (of all ages) demanded he had a larger stage, along with a microphone and PA system.
After his performance ended in much applause, I waited for my favorite high school teacher to finish his meet and greet before I stepped in. When I finally did, I shook his hand and made the long overdue: “Hi Mr. Sieminski… Mark Kessel… Your old student…” But he didn’t recall who I was—my favorite teacher! I must admit; it stung a bit. However, given the time between our last interaction in 1993 and my shy demeanor as a teen, a ham sandwich would have been more memorable. Besides, what mattered was the effect he had on me. And this effect was not “The Christmas Story” (as much as I love it), or his leadership as the boys’ basketball coach, or his perennial lobsterman’s beard; none of these things affected me as much as the day he brought our senior-level marine biology class (offered through Southampton College) to Shinnecock Bay to net tropical fish. The theory goes that come late summer, fish from the Caribbean (butterflyfish, angelfish, triggerfish, pipefish, lookdowns, etc.) get caught in the turbulent gulf stream, where they are carried up the eastern seaboard, eventually making a slippery dash for the Shinnecock inlet. This refuge suits them fine for a month or two, then the water temperature plunges and the banished teleosts cry uncle.
You must bear in mind that at the time of Sieminski’s field trip, I was a relative stranger to the east end. (I did a jaunt at my aunt’s Montauk condo in 1983; I only recall a blue gravel parking lot and the blinding sun… Really, that’s it.) I was a street kid from the other side of Suffolk: a westy; uninitiated to the bucolic charm of the east forks. So crossing the Shinnecock Hills (somewhere not too far from Southampton College), our bus passed some antiquated fish baffles (sea pens?) made from gnarly sticks jutting well above the surface water. To my westy eyes, the manmade contraption appeared a sprawling art piece; something I’d never really seen before. Mr. Sieminski explained it was a fisheries invention meant to ensnare fish; and as the bus putted along, our field trip took on new meaning. After all, we were there to sample fish with a seine net, and, although I didn’t know it at the time, possibly stumble in the footsteps of the Shinnecock. Disregarding the advantages of the baffle device or the plentitude of tasty bivalves lining the seafloor, did they too wade in the shallows of the bay, working a filamentous trap, hoping to snag an assortment of bony fishes?
The water was warm. We tested it at first; I remember that much. Mr. Sieminski suggested we bring swim trunks and maybe a tank top. Despite the tepidness, one or two students donned wet suits. The substrate under our feet was sand, clay and fragmented shell… soft to walk on without calloused feet. Some of the students scoured the shore, snagging hermit crabs, oyster drills and mud snails. The zephyrs were wide and laced with salt—fresher than a westy’s nose—and our teacher’s beard suddenly found purpose. Un-tethering the black mesh, Mr. Sieminski summoned us into a circle on the sand; we grasped the taut cross rope transecting the top of the seine and dropped the weighted side to our feet. One by one we pressed into the bay, holding the cross rope to our chests. Each end of the net was bookmarked by the tallest trawler (our teacher, chest deep) and the shortest (let’s call her Mary, ankle deep). On this occasion, I recall Mr. Sieminski wore a chrome whistle about his neck; and when he felt good and ready, he blew a lungful through it and signaled our march forward. Awkwardly shuffling our feet, kicking up the benthic layer under our soles, a plume of turbidity rose. We must have traveled twenty yards before Mr. Sieminski cued us (with a nod and shout) to purse the seine and meet up in a circle, dragging the spoils onto the beach. And since this tropical booty would otherwise go to pot, we handpicked what we wanted (that which wasn’t native) and prepped for the long journey west, to our Smithtown classroom, where the specimens would live out the remainder of their lives in a fifty-five gallon aquarium, treated like royalty. The lookdown was my favorite: the silver-faced curmudgeon of the tank, loaded with endless character, its drooping, elongated profile and laterally compressed body lending to its surreal charm.
That day brought on a few profound changes in me. I, for one, fell in love with the location. This was a stimulating place, a romantic place of protracted possibilities, a place I could lose myself to and explore for years. (I eventually did, enrolling in Suffolk County Community College’s Riverhead campus, studying marine science all over the twin forks.) Another change was seeing Thomas Sieminski, my marine biology teacher, not so much as a classroom role model, but as a way to live life. He was a man who talked with you––not at you; a funny storyteller when you needed to hear a funny story; a man who shared with others and asked for nothing in return, only for his pupils’ best efforts. I’m still trying to catch up to him. He is not only entrenched in my memories of high school, he is written into my internal compass. We all walked in the footsteps of the Shinnecock that day, but I think Mr. Sieminski was the only one who knew it, and with his effortless gift to teach and inspire others, he continues to do so well into retirement. He walks, and we students do our best to follow. Like I said earlier, Mr. Sieminski was my favorite high school teacher, but what I didn’t get to say is (since he introduced me to my first four college credits), he will always be my favorite professor… even if he doesn’t remember who I am.