Pasko looks back at fifty years at Saint Ignatius

by Patrick Millican ’15 and Sam Royer ’15

After receiving a teaching degree from Hamilton College, Tom Pasko hon. ‘96 came to Saint Ignatius in 1965 seeking a job. While he applied for a job for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, which he attended as a child, he also sent Ignatius an application because of its reputation for academic rigor and his encounters with impressive graduates. As it happened, Walsh Jesuit and Toledo St. John, two Jesuit high schools, were opening up the following year, and two spots on the history faculty became available. Though his application was accepted at both schools, Pasko elected to take the job at Ignatius because of the freedom it would afford him to choose what classes he taught. Since he had spent a year at Princeton studying Far Eastern culture and Chinese, the school had agreed to let him create his own course as a first year teacher. “Ignatius offered me the opportunity not only to teach World History,” he said, “but they would have put in a Far East history class just for me. And even the opportunity to teach Chinese. That’s the main reason why Ignatius looked really good to me.”

In his first year, he taught a highly awkward senior block of World History. “I was twenty-two and they were eighteen. I looked like I was sixteen. It was an interesting challenge having those seniors.” Chuck Kyle ‘69 remembers his first impression of Mr. Pasko from his freshman year as a student. “We have a young bachelor teacher who drives a blue Chevrolet Camaro convertible teaching us world history–awesome!  So as a result, I love reading books on history to this day.  I am humbled that now I can call him a friend,” Kyle said.

For the next thirteen years, it was history, history, history, until Pasko says he got tired of Napoleon losing every year and wanted a change of subject. Having recently received a Master’s degree as a reading specialist, and later one in English, Pasko made the gradual transition to a full-time English teacher instructing sophomores. Though he was later convinced by Father Streicher to teach AP English Literature, Pasko had initially preferred to teach less skilled sophomores, where his talents, he thought, would be better utilized. “I always told [Streicher] that teaching AP was a country-club course: there was no real teaching. You already have kids who are motivated and skilled, so it’s more of a challenge to get the weaker kids,” he said. “But I ended up enjoying AP.” Many of his former sophomores are grateful for his attention to their skills. High school English teacher Timothy Dougherty ’78 recalls that “no teacher, before Tom or since, has modeled how to read critically better than he did. I do my best to model his way of getting every kid—even the slackers—to think critically about what the author’s saying.”

As he retrospects on his career, certain years stand out as highlights that have defined his experience here. First, there was Ignatius’s victory in the 1986 football state championship, which put our school on the map for its athletics. Then he had a brief stint as vice-president of the advancement department, and for a short while considered moving there permanently. But it wasn’t the right fit since, Pasko says. “By January 1996, I told Father Welsh, ‘You have to find someone for this position. I want to go back full-time in the classroom.’ But I think Father Welsh was appreciative of my efforts because it was a total surprise at the end of the year in the last board of regents meeting when he hands me an Ignatius diploma,” he recounts. “And there’s only one other person I know–Father Sullivan–who got one too. The class of ‘96 was very special because I also received recognition at their baccalaureate mass.” Pasko also fondly looks back on the time he was chosen to read Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” with freshman Keith Krese ‘93 at the Cleveland Orchestra Christmas concert in 1988.

So constantly close to youth, Pasko has been at the frontlines of changing social norms. For one thing, he’s noticed that spontaneous conversation among groups of boys at lunch or on the mall is a thing of the past. Likening our generation’s fascination with its phones to Holden Caulfield’s standing in a telephone booth wondering if anyone cares about him, Pasko observes that “they’re in their own solipsistic little universes and I just think that’s really tragic. When I see these kids walking down the hall trying to see if they have messages, I just think it’s so sad. When you see this dependency on these devices, there’s a loss of social interaction. There’s a lot of human contact being lost. I think that’s a real issue. It’s a challenge for our society to figure out.” Ditto for reading, which he describes as a lost art among today’s kids. “Emily Dickinson has a famous poem about how ‘There is no Frigate like a Book.’ But for a lot of kids, it’s all about being passive and bombarded by sight and sound. There’s nothing that the imagination is creating on its own. And it’s not a question of IQ,” he notes; “it’s a question of experience. Without the internet, without three hundred choices on television, reading was something that more people were more seriously involved in. They created their Western drama. They didn’t have to rely on somebody else to do it for them.

That’s not to say that all change over the past half-century has been for the worse, though. Nowadays, for example, teachers aren’t permitted to use corporal punishment to keep students in line. Though the practice was somewhat common or at least not frowned-upon when Pasko arrived in 1965, he has never been of the mind to use it because it bespeaks a lack of gravitas and maturity on the teacher’s part. “I always felt that any time a teacher would use any kind of physical violence against a kid, that was a loss of control. A teacher should be in control. If a teacher would allow emotions to allow him to cuff a kid, that wasn’t professional,” he explained. Furthermore, he welcomes the ability of students today to choose their own classes. “Back then, based on the results of freshman year, they would determine what you would take in sophomore year and so on. Unlike today, “you’d just receive a schedule. You were locked in with thirty kids a day.”

As for his future at Saint Ignatius, Pasko only knows for sure he will be back next year, a year he is especially looking forward to with the coming of Fr. Guiao ‘82, a former student and colleague. “I am looking forward to just that first year, just to see what I think is going to be an exciting time for the school. He’s somebody who I really think is going to be fantastic,” Pasko said.  

Looking back at fifty years ago, Pasko recognizes that if the two new Jesuit schools hadn’t opened at the time they did, he wouldn’t have gotten the job at Ignatius and therefore wouldn’t have stayed in Cleveland for fifty years. “I’m very lucky. I’m one of the first people here in the morning, and many times I get out of the car and look up and it’s like a thanksgiving thought I give. ‘Thank you for what’s going on,’” Pasko said.

And thank you for what’s been going on for the past fifty years, Mr. Pasko.