Arren Connors was practically doing cartwheels one morning when he got the answer he wanted from a substitute teacher walking into the Kennedy Elementary School.
The sub was there for our sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Dan Piazzola.
While I wasn’t as thrilled as Arren, I was excited at the prospect that Mr. Piazzola took a rare day off because we never got away with anything under Mr. Piazzola’s watch.
And he was always there. Even though teachers have like 75 personal days on top of having the entire summer off, Mr. Piazzola showed up every morning like clockwork, dressed in a full suit and tie. He never had a hair out of place.
When Mr. Piazzola was in the room, you were there to learn. Period.
I always liked Mr. Piazzola because he was nice to me. But I was always a little afraid of him, too. You didn’t mess around under Mr. Piazzola’s watch.
Never would I have thought, now nearly 30 years later, that I would call him a friend. But I do.
His granddaughters, Angela and Teresa Piazzola, combined to start for the Butte Central softball team for the past eight years, and the proud grandpa was always there to watch.
I was there covering the team for the paper and then for ButteSports.com, and Mr. Piazzola always sought me out.
During those games, I knew I could count on long talks with Mr. Piazzola. We’d taunt each other about the Red Sox and Yankees. He’d keep me up to date on his grandson, Brody Miller, and his stellar baseball career at MSU-Billings.
We’d talk about Mr. Piazzola’s golf game, or the lack there of. And we’d reminisce about some memories at the Kennedy School.
I looked forward to seeing him at every game, and I think the feelings were mutual.
Since Mr. Piazzola was a strict, no-nonsense teacher, we, as sixth graders, assumed he had no sense of humor. I’m glad I got to realize just how wrong we were.
Mr. Piazzola’s favorite form of punishment was doling out spelling words. If you got in trouble, you’d have to write each one of the 20 or so words five times each. Sometimes you’d get 10. Some kids, like Arren, got even more.
“That’s five,” Mr. Piazzola would say whenever a student got out of line. It wasn’t exactly corporal punishment, but it was enough of a deterrent to usually keep order in his classroom.
Arren, who has to be the best speller in the history of mankind, had to write his spelling words just about every night. One time, he did an extra five to have ready for the next day when he inevitably heard Mr. Piazzola say, “That’s five.”
That’s where Arren reached into his desk, grabbed the paper, handed it to Mr. Piazzola with a smirk and said, “Here you go.”
“Oh yeah, Mister,” Mr. Piazzola quickly responded. “Well now you’ve got 10.”
I got five for laughing. It was worth it.
When I reminded Mr. Piazzola of that story, he had tears in his eyes from laughing so hard.
“He’s probably still writing,” Mr. Piazzola said through the laughter.
Another time, four boys threw a smaller boy down the hill by the main door to the Kennedy. Each boy had a limb and launched him into the air.
The sixth-grade boys did this to each other all the time, but this time it went bad. The boy had a hard landing. His glasses broke in half, and his face was cut. He potentially had a concussion.
The injured boy, however, wouldn’t rat on the boys who did it.
Apparently thinking I was a prime suspect, Mr. Piazzola called me back to his desk for interrogation. He asked me if I had anything to do with it. Then he asked if I knew who did it.
Oh, I had a pretty good idea of who did, and Mr. Piazzola knew that I knew that he knew I did. But I certainly wasn’t about to narc on my friends. Back then in grade school, it was never cool to be a snitch. Never.
Mr. Piazzola stared into my eyes for a long time before letting me go back to my desk.
Luckily, my name was cleared of all suspicion when my buddy Sam, who was guilty, broke under a similar interrogation by Mrs. Dresser, the other sixth-grade teacher.
“I only had a leg,” Sam said, as if that wasn’t as bad as having an arm. That statement of guilt led to the other three culprits turning themselves in and losing recess for at least a month.
Mr. Piazzola again laughed when I reminded him of that story. No, he didn’t laugh at the injured boy. He laughed at the fact that he suspected me, even I would have suspected myself if I were him.
Even in the sixth grade, I knew Mr. Piazzola was a special teacher. Sure, we didn’t like how strict he was, and we celebrated the rare occasion when we had a sub. But Mr. Piazzola prepared me for strict teachers that I had coming.
He prepared me for junior high school, for high school and for college. Mr. Piazzola is definitely one of the most influential people in my life.
And I’m not just saying that because he let our class take a rare break from our studies to watch the 1986 American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Angels. That, however, certainly didn’t hurt.
I felt that way long before I got the chance to know him outside of the classroom.
Unfortunately, there are no more Piazzola girls coming up for the Maroons, and the BC season ended in the state championship grade in Belgrade. The Maroons played three games straight over the course of more than 7 hours on the final day.
Even though he just started his treatment for bone cancer, Mr. Piazzola was there the whole time. He was clearly tired and, more importantly, clearly proud of the grit his granddaughter, Teresa, showed by throwing all 406 pitches for the Maroons that day.
As the Maroons posed for photos with their second-place trophy, lots of moms, especially the moms of the three senior players, cried because the journey was over.
I felt a little sentimental, too. That’s because I know Mr. Piazzola’s days of going to BC softball games are probably over. Not a lot of grandpas go to games after their granddaughters graduate.
Hopefully Mr. Piazzola is the exception.
But I am suspecting that I will have one less friend to B.S. with during those long days watching softball next season, and I know it will be a void that will be impossible to replace.
As I learned nearly 30 years ago, there is just no substitution for Mr. Piazzola.
— Bill Foley, who could have used even more practice writing his spelling words, writes a column that appears Tuesday on ButteSports.com. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.