Student-teacher spark leads to White House honor

Medford science teacher Al Siedlecki inspired Lee Buono to become a doctor. Last month, Siedlecki was honored at the White House for his impassioned teaching.
Medford science teacher Al Siedlecki inspired Lee Buono to become a doctor. Last month, Siedlecki was honored at the White House for his impassioned teaching. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 08, 2011

It was a seminal moment for both the teacher and the student, though neither knew it until about 25 years later.

When instructor Al Siedlecki noticed the "incredible hands" of a 14-year-old student, Lee Buono, skillfully dissecting a frog in his eighth-grade science class at Medford Memorial Middle School in the mid-1980s, he knew this kid could go far in medicine. And he told him so.

It was that teacher's expression of faith in his ability that propelled Buono, 40, now a board-certified neurosurgeon at Capitol Health Systems in Hamilton, Mercer County, to pursue a career in surgery.

And it was Buono's recognition of the 66-year-old Siedlecki's ability to really reach his students that led to the educator's being honored at the White House last month.

That honor came at a pivotal time in Siedlecki's 43-year career, when he had begun to question how he felt about being a teacher.

"It's different from your parents encouraging you when someone you respect so much tells you something like that. It means something different when it comes from a teacher," Buono, whose late father was a physician, said, remembering the moment in "Mr. Si's" class that changed his life.

"Without that, I don't know if I would have become a doctor. But after he said that, I really didn't want to be anywhere else."

About 25 years later, after Buono had pulled a patient in Texas through dicey brain surgery in which he was able to restore the man's verbal skills, the doctor got around to thanking Mr. Si.

Just before the operation about three years ago, the patient had come under Buono's care for a benign tumor that had pushed on the speech area of his brain, causing him to speak in a jumbled, unintelligible manner, almost like "someone had sewed his mouth closed," Buono said.

"His wife was there, and we were trying to lighten the mood. They began asking me about my background and who had influenced me, and I told them about Mr. Siedlecki," Buono said.

When the patient, a retiree, came out of surgery, he was joyful over his recovery. Among the first things he did was to exhort Buono to contact Siedlecki and thank him for his positive influence.

"He said, 'You make sure you call that teacher, you thank him.' So I did," said Buono, who now lives back in Medford.

When he got the call, Siedlecki, also of Medford, was in the middle of preparing students for a difficult test and reluctant to pick up the phone. But Buono was insistent, and Siedlecki took the call that he says changed his life.

"I was flabbergasted. Of all the people in his entire career, he wanted to thank me? I couldn't believe it. It was the same feeling I had when my kids were born - and I started to cry," Siedlecki said.

The call led Siedlecki to write a heartfelt essay for the New Jersey Education Association publication Classroom Closeup that got noticed by a producer from the National Public Radio StoryCorps project.

The mission of StoryCorps, launched in 2003, is to record the stories of everyday Americans and preserve and share them.

StoryCorps staffers have traveled across the nation, recording about 30,000 interviews from roughly 60,000 participants. It is considered one of the largest oral-history projects of its kind.

The project has various focuses, including preserving survivor stories of the 9/11 attacks through its September 11th Initiative and the ambitious Memory Loss Initiative, which reaches out to people affected by Alzheimer's and other disorders.

Its National Teachers Initiative, which celebrates the work of public schoolteachers, published the story of Siedlecki and Buono on NPR's website, which led to a video of the two that wound up on YouTube, which then captured the attention of the White House.

The pair were honored by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the National Teachers Initiative was inaugurated there Sept. 19.

As teachers and their labor unions have come under attack in recent years from politicians and others trying to scale down the cost of education, Siedlecki said, he felt browbeaten.

"Lately, I almost am afraid to say that I am a teacher to some people," he tells Buono in the touching video. "But now I'm not because you called me. I am a teacher, and I'm going to help as many people as I can find their passion, too."


To hear the NPR StoryCorps account of the teacher and the grateful student, go to: http://www.philly.com/teach


Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

 

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