“Finding out you were assigned to Mr. Fichera’s fifth-grade class was like finding out you found a golden ticket to a world that only a few lucky kids got to experience each year.”
Eric Taylor spoke for hundreds of former students at Page, Davis, and Lane Schools, some of whom are in their 50s, about an educator whose impact helped shape their lives.
John Fichera, 73, died in Florida last Friday after an illness. Fichera taught in Bedford from 1973 to 2007, almost all of them in Grade 5.
“John was simply a terrific human. Polite. Creative. Funny. Caring. He loved his students!” said Lane School Principal Rob Ackerman, whose tenure overlapped with Fichera’s final year. “Not many people realize he attended every Bedford High School graduation after he retired until he saw his final Grade 5 class cross the stage and get their diplomas.”
Mary Gallant recalled her Davis School class campaign to get the Legislature to declare the first Thursday in May as Right Whale Day. Students wrote letters and read them in person at a legislative committee meeting.
“To me, he was the life of the school. He was one of the reasons I became a teacher,” said Gallant, who has taught third grade in Cambridge for many years.
“Mr. Fichera inspired so many Bedford students like myself, and even 23 years later I can still recall the many adventures we got to be a part of in his class,” said Taylor of his 1997-98 experiences.
“It was in his class that I first learned about the stock market, an experience that would later inspire my choice of career in finance,” Taylor continued. “Mr. Fichera would give us ‘money’ to spend on stocks, each morning updating the stock prices so we could buy and sell. He had a knack of turning real-life experiences into learning. This is what made him truly special.”
That was true as well in the early days of Fichera’s Bedford career. Going back more than 40 years at the former Page School, Scott Udell recalls investing “heavily in Pang Computer and Chicken Lickin – and I ended up with the most dollars at the end.”
“He brought so many experiences to his classroom,” recalled Calvin Wilder, who attended Davis. “We hatched chickens. He directed the annual play. He conducted an Economics Week where we earned and spent money. He expanded our palates too, bringing in venison and other game meat for us to taste. He would share stories of what it was like living on Plum Island.”
Udell said Fichera’s classes wrote “letters to aging celebrities. We all wrote to Jimmy Durante. We got a response and an autographed picture.”
Teachers and students mentioned the end-of-the-year watermelon-eating contest. “He would announce the contestants and play ‘Eye of the Tiger,’ Gallant laughed.
Wilder commented, “Mr. Fichera inspired us to be curious about learning and to find things that interested each of us. He gave us confidence to take with us to Middle School and to our lives beyond school. He was a real treasure.” Added Taylor, “One thing we all share is deep gratitude for his dedication to not only our education but also helping us become who we were meant to be. I hope that my children will one day get to experience a teacher like him.”
Former Lane School colleagues shared indelible memories. “John was a veteran grade 5 teacher when I was hired in 2001,” remembered Lenore Zavalnick. “I remember John sitting at a grade-level meeting with his red and white Playmate cooler (he used this for his lunch every day, but we knew he went right to the beach after school on his beloved Plum Island) in front of him. He said something to the effect of, ‘Just have fun with the kids, that’s what’s most important.’”
Stacey Williams agreed. “The wisdom he shared always led back to the same theme – it’s about the kids – and not just what they can do academically, but who they are as people because one day these little people entrusted in our care will be the ones to run the world.
“I would place students in his class who needed not only the academic aspect of learning but the social-emotional connection that John would provide,” said grade 4 teacher Scott Smith. “He helped students gain a connection not only with him but each other by creating a community. He taught his students to think of others and every fall his classroom collected jackets for a homeless shelter.”
Grade 5 teacher Karen Lerra related the following: “On one of my first days teaching, John presented me with a gift. It was a magnet with the following quote, ‘A hundred years from now, it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much money I had in the bank… but the world may be a better place because I made a difference in the life of a child.’ John exemplified this saying as he made a difference in the lives of his students every day he spent with them. His students’ happiness was always a priority.”
“Over the years, I saw that played out in his room each day, but I also saw his students learn and want to achieve great things for him, as they adored him,” Zavalnick said. “I scoffed at his watermelon-eating contest in the gym, but when I brought my class down to watch, we were all swept up in the fun his students had, and the fact that the entire school community was gathered together to witness a little piece of history.”
“Smith worked across the hall from Fichera for six years. “Every morning he would state to me enthusiastically, ‘Another day in paradise.’ Most use that expression as sarcasm but for John, he believed working with kids was paradise.”
He recalled, “Every spring the upper wing of Lane School would reek of cigar smoke! We all dreaded this day due to the smell. This was John’s annual ethnic food day. Each student would be encouraged to create a dish of their own ethnicity. John would share his own childhood memories of being raised in an Italian family with cigar smoke billowing through the kitchen!”
“Walking down the hallway, you could hear joy coming from his room, and not just the joy of the children, but of Mr. Fichera, too,” Williams recalled. “His enthusiasm for his latest community service project would fill the entire room as he inspired his students to become responsible citizens and to contribute to their community.”
“From the watermelon eating contest to the talent show, to writing holiday cards to the senior citizens of Bedford, John was always inspiring his students to get involved and make a difference in the world by caring for others and bringing them joy.”
Ackerman said, “We will honor him by re-naming our annual Grade 5 talent show, the John Fichera Show. The production was his idea many years ago, and it remains a highlight of the ‘Lane experience’ to this day.”
He also noted that outside of our computer lab, next to the gym, “you can still see the stone that was placed in honor of his 30th year as a teacher at the Lane School.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763