By Bruce Mastracchio
Dom Iannazzi passed away over a year ago. He wanted to be forgotten immediately. That is hard to do for someone who had such an influence on the people he came into contact with. In particular, his students at East Greenwich High School. I was one of them. Dom Iannazzi was an unbending individual. He set the rules and he did not waver. It was his way OR the highway. Yet, of all the teachers at EGHS, and there were more than a few good ones, he set the tone and East Greenwich owes its reputation as a great school system to his efforts. He would come in early (6 a.m.) to tutor students. He would stay late (6 p.m.) to do the same. He turned out National Merit Scholars and his word helped many a student get into college. It will be up to them to write in after they read this. Of course, there were some who did not like him. Most didn’t understand him, as is the way with people who do not walk lock step with the norm. Underneath, I think he really enjoyed seeing how students reacted to him and his “rules.” I bridled against him for 2 1/2 years. But he gave me the impetus to go to college. In the end, despite a friendship of 60 years, we were at odds. He went out as he came in hard, tough and unbending. It could not have been any other way. God Rest His Soul!
I had heard of him long before I got to the Academy. He breathed fire. He ate raw freshmen for breakfast. He never slept and was stored in a closet at night.
There were all kinds of stories associated with him. He was a “tough teacher”! He’d flunk you, even if you had a 90 percent average, if he thought you weren’t working up to your capacity. He didn’t allow the boys to wear their shirts outside their pants. Shirts had to be tucked in. Collars had to be down, not standing up as in the style of the day (the ‘50s). You couldn’t have your pencils on your ear. Shirts had to be buttoned right up. Only one button, the top one, could be unbuttoned. The Marquis de Sade had nothing on this guy. He belted you if he thought you needed it and he told you where to sit when you were in his class. High school could have been boring. “Iron” was just the challenge I needed: this fire-breathing, student-torturing, mathematics mental, metal monster named – Domenic Iannazzi! The Iron Nazi to some.
We skirmished a little during my eighth grade year. I had him in study hall, and as a coach in football and basketball. Fortunately, I did not have him for math. I got plenty of opportunities to scout him out and prepare for my ninth grade year, when we would really tangle as I would be getting him for Algebra 1. We would be battling in the new high school built on Cedar Avenue, leaving the ivy covered walls of our beloved Academy behind. It started the first day at the new East Greenwich High School. I checked my schedule. Sure enough, Algebra 1, Room 8. Iron’s room. I had him. He had me. It would be war. No teacher was going to rule me! Not Iron. Not Rodrick. Not Maude. No one!
I went to my first class with him and took my customary seat, way in the back, the furthest seat from the teacher’s desk.
Iron entered the room. He was big. Solid. Well built. He had that no-nonsense look that scares most freshmen half to death. In those days, remember, the teacher was always right. Even when they were wrong, and they held your life in their hands. I was not fazed.
The first words out of his mouth were, “Where’s MMMastracchio?”
Naturally, I just sat back, and gave him my coolest stare. He didn’t scare me. His eyes searched me out. “GGget out of that seat, boy! And, BBbutton that shirt!”
He then commanded me to come to the front and sit in the seat right in front of his desk. “And, get that pencil off your ear,” he shouted.
I made my coolest moves as I ambled to the assigned seat, one that proved to be mine for the next four years. I brushed by him and slouched in my seat. WHACK! I received what would be the first of many blows to the head (open-handed, of course) over the next few years.
“That’s for nothing, Mastracchio. Wait ‘til you do something.”
The war had started.We skirmished all out for the next two years. He did all he could to bring me around. I did all I could to make his life miserable. Iron was the assistant football coach, in charge of newcomers! That was me, and I had him for three more hours each day.
He was a good coach, and my buddies claimed they learned a lot from him as their line coach. I was a back, and got away from him for a bit of practice anyway. But not too far away. Iron handled calisthenics and drills before working with the linemen. Then he got back to us as he handled the conditioning.
I breezed and laughed as he tried to wear us down. I could run all day back then. He could not wear me out physically, and that made him mad. Mentally, though, I was taking a beating. He flunked me in algebra the first quarter. It was the first subject I had ever failed.
“What do I care how many apples the farmer has,” I used to say to him in class, “If I want to know I’ll just ask the farmer.” Iron did not understand my common-sense reasoning. His answer was instantaneous. WHACK! I would NOT surrender.
My freshman year, Iron broke 17 of my pencils. I liked to wear them on my ear and that went contrary to his Rules.The next year he broke 24! I was determined to fix him. The answer to that lay just down the road.
In fact, I saw the light when I went into Mrs. Henry’s little five & dime variety store on Main Street (where Ed’s Roost is now). The answer jumped right out at me from the candy & novelties section. Mrs. Henry had a supply of rubber pencils!!!
The light bulb came on in my head. “Iron, you’re mine,” I said. Word spread quickly through our little high school (250 in grades 8-12). It seemed the whole school knew. Everyone but the teachers, of course. The students all waited expectantly, and I would not disappoint them.
Iron almost did disappoint though.
Usually, he’d come into his classroom like an eagle, surveying all around him, ever on the alert. He’d notice the slightest thing. Nothing escaped his gaze.
On the “day of the rubber pencil,” though, he came in a little distracted, and though I had “the pencil” displayed prominently on my ear, he missed it. I turned sideways. I moved. I squirmed. Anything to attract his attention. I jived. I juked. I did everything I could to get him to notice the pencil. Nothing!
He started the class and students went to the blackboard to explain how they solved the problems of the previous night’s homework. Those problems had always been, and still are, Greek to me. Iron went to lean against the radiator, by the window, which was just to my left. I turned so he could see the pencil in my ear, acting like I was interested in the problem on the board, which Don Carcieri (later, governor of R.I.) was explaining to the class.
I could not see Iron, but I could sense him!
He had noticed the pencil! I heard his mind and his Silent Scream – “That Mastracchio! How dare he?” I felt him pounce. He reached out and grabbed the pencil from my ear, put it between his fingers, and, just as he had done many times before, he squeezed hard, expecting to crunch the pencil, knowing he would break it in two! Only this time the pencil did not break! This strange look came across Iron’s face as he stared at the rubber pencil in his hand. He looked like King Kong looked when he burnt his fingers in that famous motion picture. Iron just stood there with a puzzled look on his face, staring at the pencil that wouldn’t break. Our class went into an uproar. They were laughing and screeching. Classrooms 7 and 9 emptied into the hall to look in on our scene. They had known what was coming and they wanted to be in on it. They all wanted to see the 195-pound monster tied up in knots by a rubber pencil.
“Mastracchio!” Iron bellowed, as he dropped the pencil and swung his mighty right hand in my direction. This time, though, there was no Whack. I was already on the floor laughing, and laughing, and laughing. I had won! This tale was already in the all-time annals, and it was witnessed by three classes. Iron didn’t have a chance!
About midway through my junior year, our war wound down. Iron and I settled into an uneasy truce. But when it came time to think about college, well, let’s say that most of my teachers were not very encouraging. In fact, most thought I would not make it at the next level of learning. Maybe they were right. I had majored in sports and screwing around for five years. But, it was Iron who told me to go. He said I would do fine, that I would make it in college and beyond.
“This was my enemy speaking,” was the thought running through my mind. Was he putting me on?
He wasn’t. I did do well. In fact better than I did in high school, and when I started teaching I found myself using many of the same methods of my former foe. It all starts with discipline to get self-discipline, and then it’s downhill from there.
Of course, every once in a while a whack is needed, and sometimes a kiss (not literally, of course), but carrots, and honey, and sometimes, vinegar. But this guy, who turned out National Merit Scholars as a matter of course, who was the driving force in giving EGHS its reputation for academic excellence, did it in the smallest high school, in the smallest state, in the greatest country on Earth!
This mental mathematician, metal monster saw things in me (and also other students) that I did not see in myself. I even took a couple of math classes in college and scored B’s, though I never got more than a C from Iron.
Later on, when I was home-schooling some students I did a better than passable job with algebra, geometry and trig. Funny, I even surprised myself. I am now retired from teaching, but still do some coaching in my 70s. I even worked for small computer company for a while. Life has taken a lot of interesting twists and turns since that day with The Rubber Pencil. That day when the war finally started to wind down. “Oh, and Iron, in case I forgot to tell you. Thanks a lot!