ST. PETERSBURG — English teacher Philip Belcastro removed his black boots as he crossed the threshold into the Museum of Motherhood. The gray Craftsman bungalow stands across the street from St. Petersburg High School, where he’s taught the past three years.
Belcastro, 36, who was trying to leave his job, had come with another teacher on his day off to visit his students. High school juniors Olivia Watson and Greta Ferwerda curled into couches in a room that was wall-to-wall books, composing the pop-up exhibit’s social media posts.
“I didn’t even know this was here,” Belcastro said, scanning the room.
A timeline of the women’s rights movement hung on one wall. A curio cabinet of vintage fetus replicas stood at the entrance. Antique forceps – metal clips from the 1800s – rested on top.
Before long, the museum founder was helping Belcastro into a 20-pound pregnancy vest over his “Beetlejuice” T-shirt to simulate the weight a woman carries.
“I was a big baby,” Belcastro said, sighing under the load. “Nine-and-a-half pounds.”
“I don’t know why I never thought about mothers before,” said one of the students, Olivia, 17. “They play literally such a big role in everything and then we never talk about them, and I was like, ‘That’s so wrong.’”
Belcastro nodded. He loved seeing where their minds took them when they were engaged.
It made his decision so much harder.
Originally from Long Island, Belcastro had come to teaching high school English late, after jobs playing in a band, delivering office furniture, working in a record store, a recording studio, a Quizno’s, a Kohl’s, a J.C. Penney, a Publix deli. With the help of a Pell grant, he graduated with majors in English and Spanish from the University of South Florida in 2017.
He loved his job and engaged with about 200 students in six classes every week. And though many were on their phones or didn’t turn in their work or disrespected him, he saw signs he was needed. He’d encouraged a student who had created a trans zine and was fearful of presenting to the class. He understood Spanish, and was able to grade another student who wrote her papers beautifully in Spanish.
And he loved St. Petersburg High School and its administration, which allowed him to talk freely about his thoughts and fears. He and another teacher had even started a podcast about teaching in Florida, in which he made comments like this: “With all the rhetoric coming out at the state level, I don’t know what my job is anymore.”
It saddened him to think that the little community of kids who orbited his classroom, the ones who came in to play his acoustic guitar and piano between classes, to eat lunch or do homework on the floor and fiddle with his 1970s walkie-talkies and the “Ghostbusters” and Godzilla figurines, might simply vanish for good. He wanted to see them graduate, be part of their lives.
But there was an analogy he used often with his students.
“When you go on an airplane, you have to put your own mask on first before you help other people,” he told them.
And how could he be an effective teacher if he was struggling?
His rent had doubled earlier this year, forcing him to take a much smaller apartment from someone who felt bad for him. But the new rent was still $300 more a month than he’d paid before and almost half the take-home pay of his $51,810 income. It had essentially wiped out his 2022 wage increase. A few weeks ago, his dentist had rejected his teacher’s insurance.
Then there were the book bans, the worries about whether he’d get in trouble if he said something that offended a student, the politicization of his classroom.
He felt exposed. He’d made a concerted effort to stick to district guidelines, but he often taught books with racial themes, including “A Raisin in the Sun,” a play by Lorraine Hansberry, and “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” written in 1937 by Zora Neale Hurston.
The back wall of his classroom was a mass of 200 titles, his personal library containing everything from Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” to Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Rather than register those books for the district, as a new law ordered, he’d decided to take them home and, in their place, tape up a copy of that law.
Belcastro cradled the belly of the pregnancy vest. “Oh, I don’t think I could do this for long,” he said with a grimace, trying to rearrange the weight.
He’d wanted to buy a house in Kenwood, across the street from school.
Instead, in these last few months, he’d interviewed for two teaching jobs in Oregon. He’d submitted an application to teach high school at Department of Defense installations around the world. Thinking of financial stability, he’d looked into officer training school at the United States Space Force, the newest military branch created to protect U.S. interests in space.
But he was overweight, so he’d started working out with another teacher. He’d lost 16 pounds. Ten more to go before he submitted that application.
Belcastro and his students talked about the scarcity of sex education, student apathy and how to handle difficult teachers.
“I say over and over again, you guys are my boss,” Belcastro said. “I’m a public servant. My classroom, it belongs to you and your parents.”
“I’ve never had a teacher that’s had that experience before,” said Ferwerda.
Belcastro lifted off the vest. He straightened up his spine.
In a few days, he would sit on a desk in his classroom and look at a birthday card a student had written him, and it would cause him to sob.
“You deserve everything you want and more,” she’d written. “So if you really want to join Space Force, do it.”
For now, he waved goodbye to his students and made plans with his fellow teacher to meet that night to work out at Crunch.
About this series
Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes, they may be part of it. To suggest an idea, contact editor Claire McNeill at email@example.com.