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Former students affirm that longtime Palm Harbor Middle School teacher made a difference

PALM HARBOR — It was Marga Kiss' last day in the classroom after a quarter of a century.

Room 5-109 at Palm Harbor Middle School "had no color, no life, just so much gray concrete block walls," she said.

She tossed the labs for the history of the atomic model and the paperclip lab demonstrating surface tension and volume.

While she cleaned out 44 cabinets of clutter, she thought of her former students out there in the world.

How did they turn out?

So Kiss, 67, decided to write the St. Petersburg Times an open letter to them, asking them if they made it through high school, if they're married and if they found the perfect profession. She wanted to know if they're happy and if anything she taught them influenced where they are today.

Did the high expectations she had for them make them better people?

The former students contacted by the Times said yes.

Mark Terry, 30, is happy in his life as an actor and producer of straight-to-video movies in Los Angeles. He said Kiss is "a large part" of who he is today.

"She really believed in her students," he said.

He said Kiss is one of the top five teachers in his life, that she taught him to think outside the box, which helps him in business today.

"Any time somebody tries to get you to overachieve, that's a good thing," Terry said.

• • •

Children used to cry when they learned they would have Kiss as their sixth-grade science teacher.

She was no easy A.

She had a reputation for demanding nothing but the best from 12-year-olds.

"I wanted students to be more than what they thought they could be."

Born in Jacksonville, she was a member of Future Teachers of America in high school, but got married and became a mom instead to Karl, now 47, Michael, 45, and Stephanie, 37.

At 40, after divorcing her physician husband, she started teaching.

When the children walked into her classroom at the beginning of the year, she asked them, what do you want most out of life? Every year she got the same answer: more freedom.

Then she asked them who had the most freedom. They always answered "the president."

She then asked them who had the least freedom. They always answered "people in jail."

So she would write "jail" on the left side of the board and "president" on the right side.

She told the kids, every decision they make pulls them to one or the other.

"Even if you don't take a shower in the morning, that's a negative because teachers don't like to teach stinky kids," Kiss said. "The kid would say, no one is going to care if I don't take a shower. The problem is, the student doesn't care."

One of her mottoes was: "You must begin today to act like the person you want to become."

She didn't tolerate a child blaming Mom or Dad if the student didn't get the work done.

And she didn't tolerate misbehavior in class.

• • •

Although she sounds tough, James Terry, a former student, remembers Kiss as an "extremely kind" person who was one of the few teachers who was "really instrumental" in shaping his life.

"If the kid didn't succeed, she didn't succeed," he said.

Terry, 32, graduated from Clark Atlanta University with dual degrees in education and black history.

He started out as a teacher and is now a placekicker for the Rock River Raptors arena football team in Illinois. He's single with no children, and jokes that he is "waiting for Ms. Kiss to get divorced again."

His brother, Mark Terry, said she was so much better than some of his other teachers: "I had a high school teacher who said to me, Mark, you are a piss-poor person and won't graduate from college or play basketball."

He ended up playing basketball for Saint Leo University and got a degree in theater and writing.

"A lot of friends I keep in touch with stayed clean, stayed out of drugs and became successful," he said.

• • •

Christian Zarra, 35, is a corporal with the Clearwater Police Department. He has worked undercover on narcotics cases.

Zarra has been married and divorced twice and has two children, 13 and 10.

He graduated from Florida State University in 1994, earning his master's degree from the University of Phoenix last year. He started with the Largo Police Department in 1995 before transferring to Clearwater.

In answer to one of Kiss' questions, Zarra said he "found the perfect profession."

"She really cared about her students," he said. "She always came up with creative, hands-on lessons. She was always trying to take me to the next level."

Because of Kiss' influence, he started out wanting to be a marine biologist before realizing it didn't pay very well. But "I still to this day have a love for nature, the outdoors and science," Zarra said.

Part of the reason he succeeded in school and life is because "when you know someone cares about you, you strive hard to please them," he said.

• • •

Kristina MacDougall, 34, considers herself a success. She enjoys her career as a real estate assistant, owns a home in Oldsmar, is engaged to be married and is raising two children.

She said Kiss "taught me to never give up."

"She was a great influence, and (helped prepare) me for my journey ahead. She was very organized in her classroom and expected the same from her students.

"Her words have stayed with me and her smile of encouragement is still in my mind when I encounter a new challenge."

• • •

Soon, Kiss plans to move to Jacksonville Beach with her fiance and open a gift store or a floral shop.

She will continue to root for her kids.

"They will forget what they learned in sixth grade, but they'll never forget responsibility," she said.

On Kiss' last day, June 2, an e-mail arrived from the school administration office. It concerned room assignments for fall. But it had a more melancholy meaning: The message signaled the school had moved on without her.

"It looked very, very strange to see '5-109, Mr. Shay,' " she said. "For 25 years, it had been my classroom and now one small e-mail made me face sooner than I expected the example of putting your finger in a bucket of water, pulling it out and measuring how much water was missed. Somehow Archimedes' theory of water displacement meant little to me at that moment."

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Former students affirm that longtime Palm Harbor Middle School teacher made a difference 07/04/09 [Last modified: Sunday, July 5, 2009 8:18am]
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