Mr. Burke Says...May 01, 2021 01:49PM ● By Diane C. Seymour
I owe thanks to the Soviet Union for my introduction to Mr. Burke. In October 1957, they launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite into outer space. Sputnik sent out radio signals for twenty-two days, until its batteries died, and then burned up ten weeks later as it fell from orbit and reentered the earth’s atmosphere. Shocked by this achievement, the U.S. government plowed money into new mathematics and scientific educational programs in a concerted effort to “catch up with” this Cold War adversary. Thus “New Math” came to life, and by 1962 it found its way to a small, rural elementary school in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania.
Progressive for a rural school at the time, Wyalusing adopted a trial program of this new-fangled math and also chose a radical approach to teaching it. Twelve of my fifth-grade classmates and I moved into a classroom with an equal number of sixth graders. Gone were hard-backed math textbooks with countless numbered problems at the end of each chapter. They were replaced with softbound workbooks with write-in-the-book-as-you-go problems. Those of us who already loved old-time arithmetic soon embraced set theory, non-base-10 systems, commutative property, and other parent-frustrating concepts—welcome to the New Math of the 1960s.
Chosen to teach in this unconventional setting, Mr. Burke rose to the task. When school started in the fall of 1962, John Glenn had already claimed a page in history after his shot into space earlier in the year. As the first American to orbit the earth, he flew 17,500 miles per hour as he circled earth three times. Mr. Burke brought the excitement of this new space age into our classroom. We built our own rockets in class, and, one sunny school day, walked down the hill to the town park and shot them off into space, future astronauts in the making!
Not every day was as unconventional. We began each class day with the salute to the flag and a silent moment of prayer, not knowing or perhaps just not yet responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling making mandatory prayer in school unconstitutional. Each morning we also practiced handwriting, forming our OOOOOOs and lllllllls, learning to write our letters the “correct way.” I often think of this as I scribble my name on a credit card payment, with my D and S as the only two legible letters. Mr. Burke would be sad.
He’d probably also be sad about the problems facing our country and the world today. In our school days, he led us in discussions of current events, encouraging us to read (Weekly Readers included, of course!) and watch the news at night. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 caused fear and uncertainty for a few scary days, and we practiced huddling in the hallways in case of a nuclear attack by the Soviets. The following year, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and while I don’t specifically remember learning about the speech at the time, we did discuss racial unrest happening across the country (foreign news to our all-white rural community) and talked about Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act the following year.
Every Friday was art project time, and on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, we were using an electric drill to spin colored crepe paper into strings to wrap around bottles for Christmas presents for our parents. Sometime after two o’clock an announcement came over the loudspeaker that President Kennedy had been shot and killed. Mr. Burke helped us get through the next few minutes, and Walter Cronkite helped us get through the next few days. I still get chills.
Other events in the country from ’62 to ’64 failed to make much of an impression on us until later years. The U.S. stuck its toes a little bit deeper into Vietnam, with the first U.S. casualties reported. The very first Walmart store opened in Arkansas and the first Ford Mustang roared to life. Zip codes arrived, along with a new TV show, Jeopardy, and the first federal pronouncement was made that smokers might want to reconsider lighting up. We did watch the Beatles make their noisy U.S. debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, but I’m pretty sure none of my friends swooned or fainted!
Back in the classroom, Mr. Burke shared his passion for the local history of the Delaware and Iroquois tribes who lived on and roamed the lands along the Susquehanna so long ago. He also talked us through the triumphs and tragedies of our country’s fight for independence and later of the battle of Gettysburg. Between battles, we diagramed sentences, played games of logic, and listened to Mr. Burke’s impromptu stories and lessons about hard work, respect for others, and citizenship.
For years, my mother kidded me about the two years when almost every sentence I spoke started with, “Mr. Burke says...” Recently, several of my classmates shared stories of those days, and they laughed and echoed the same memory of their “Mr. Burke says...” phase. All these years later, we may not recall many specific Mr. Burke quotes, but what we do recall is a man who encouraged our curiosity, inspired us to learn, challenged us to excel, and provided a role model of decency. He was a kind and compassionate man. While his specific words may have faded, his life’s lessons live on within us, a lasting tribute to a good man. Thank you, Mr. Burke.
Mr. Gerald F. Burke was born in rural Wilmot Township, Bradford County, Pennsylvania, in 1916. He taught for forty-one years in the local classrooms, including one-room schools, at Oak Hill, Farr, Golden Hill, and elementary schools in Camptown, Laceyville, and Wyalusing. His teaching career culminated in the well-deserved honor of Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year in 1978.