Long before he was named Hillsborough County Teacher of the Year, cheered and feted and even squired to Jefferson High in a limo this week, Mr. Boyko's classroom became The Orphanage.
The kids who formed the group yearly called themselves that, 15 or 20 of them regularly drifting in after school to hang out. Plenty of them had perfectly nice families to go home to, but they came anyway. Mr. Boyko started having Orphanage Field Days at a local park with a tent, food, sports — a tradition the kids loved.
Maybe in school you were lucky enough to have someone like Patrick Boyko, the 34-year-old social studies teacher who majored not in education but history, who teaches lessons of wars and the Holocaust, and who, given his personality and enthusiasm, could make way better money elsewhere. And whose classroom door is currently decorated in big, red cut-out letters that say WE LOVE YOU MR. BOYKO.
Maybe you had a teacher who made the agonies of school less miserable, whose classroom was a haven and a place you looked forward to going all day.
Mine was social studies, too: Mr. Guthrie. He was young and had a cool car and a perpetual pack of bright, buzzing kids around him. I got in his class when my parents were divorcing, when every day felt like teetering on the edge. Mr. Guthrie's class was solid ground.
It wasn't like there was some dramatic after-school-special moment when he kept us all from joining a gang or off drugs or some such thing. Years later I would have a hard time putting to words what he was to the ragtag collection of us.
He was funny and kind and genuinely interested in what he taught us — kids can tell — and like a piece of paper catching fire, we got interested, too.
His classroom was ours. He was always there after school. He got us into projects and gave us school jobs and took us on field trips, a particularly memorable one to the Everglades, when the cool car got a flat. He wasn't our friend, exactly — always a grownup, always a teacher — but he listened and considered what we said like we had something worth saying. Kids have radar for that, too.
So I got this gift: An email from my favorite teacher, now retired. He'd seen a column I wrote picked up by his local paper. After all those years, we emailed back and forth, and last week, when he and his wife were vacationing here, we got together.
I got to take my teacher, who used to treat us kids to the newly opened Pizza Hut on special occasions, to one of my favorite restaurants for pasta. I got to tell him what it all meant and how it stayed with me. Though I'm not sure I'll ever get used to saying "Mike."
I asked Mr. Boyko about connecting with students and he explained it like this: "They know what it is to be invisible. I try and make them visible. I try and make them know I actually know they exist, because somebody did that for me when I was sitting at that desk." (Mr. Eckstein, for him, and Mrs. Hankins. Others, too.)
He has his own restaurant story: Recently he walked into a Mr. Dunderbak's for dinner when a group of seven seated at a table saw him. They started chanting his name.
Turned out they were members of the original Orphanage — "still friends and having a great time," he says. And connected, I'm betting, by a good teacher.