SKANEATELES | Skaneateles High School Principal Greg Santoro was so excited to meet one of his former elementary school students that he instantly recognized the young man but could not remember his last name.
The Friday before winter break, Santoro's secretary told the principal he had a student from Niagara Falls asking to see him, and Santoro told her to send him in to the office.
"He comes in right away," Santoro said. "He goes, 'Hi, I'm Adam.' But, I stopped him because I looked at him. I said, 'You were in my fifth-grade class.'"
Later recalling the young man's name to be Adam Zaczek, Santoro pointed his former student out in the background of a photo on the front page of The Niagara Gazette of Santoro and his fifth-grade class at Henry F. Abate Elementary School with a story about the teacher and his students.
It was 2003 — Santoro's first year of teaching — and Santoro wrote an essay for a statewide contest about why his fifth-graders were the best class in the state. He won the contest, and his students got to ride in a limousine, go to the circus and appear in the newspaper as a result.
Santoro has that front page framed and hung on the wall in his Skaneateles office, and he said Zaczek told him he also kept the newspaper.
"He said, 'I'm right there.' I said, 'I know, Adam. I know you're right there,'" Santoro said. "It was unbelievable. I didn't have the heart to even say, 'Adam, what's your last name again?'"
Zaczek is now pursuing his doctorate at Syracuse University and had looked Santoro up on the internet in order to locate him in Skaneateles. Santoro said his former student tracked him down for a special reason.
With his fifth-grade class, the teacher-turned-principal played a variation of the game mumball that he called Vinnieball with a stuffed animal that had a soccer ball face, a red hat, legs and arms, and an Italian charm.
Throughout the year, Santoro said, the students marveled over Vinnie and ask if they could take the animal home at the end of the year. At the end of the year, he told them that whoever came to see him in no sooner than 10 years — wherever he was — could claim Vinnie for their own.
Zaczek got that chance, Santoro said, because a Syracuse professor told him that he needed to be committed, inadvertently echoing the words of his fifth-grade teacher. Santoro said he in turn derived those words from former Niagara Falls City School District Superintendent Carmen Granto, who hired Santoro as a teacher.
"He used to always tell me, 'Greg, it's all about commitment and compliance,'" Santoro said. "I used to tell my kids in fifth grade, 'We need your commitment. You have to have the commitment to graduate from fifth grade to middle school.'"
Hearing the words of his professor, Zaczek thought of his teacher. He still lives in Niagara Falls and decided to head home from Syracuse for winter break with a side trip to Skaneateles to visit Santoro.
Santoro said his former student recalled two of his favorite things from that fifth-grade year — the teacher's Christmas present to his students and his motivational moment for them at the end of the year.
Santoro said there was a Burger King near the school, so he and his students talked about the fast food restaurant all the time. So, he decided to surprise them while they were at gym class by buying each student a Whopper — "with no onion, of course, because they know Mr. Santoro doesn't eat onions on his Whoppers," he said — and a small French fries.
The students came back to the room with a nice napkin on their desks — "because I taught them about respect and being clean," Santoro said — with the Whopper and the fries also displayed neatly with water from the fountain.
"They came in, and you could see their faces. Their mouths dropped. It was unbelievable," he said, telling them that it was a present from him to them and emphasizing the importance of sharing a meal with friends and family.
That June, Santoro took his class up a hill overlooking the school building and then told them to turn around and face the school as they prepared to move from elementary school to middle school.
"I said, 'OK, everybody, you've earned this. You've worked hard. You've committed yourself to be successful,'" Santoro said. "'Take a look at that school. You've accomplished your goal. You are now going to the next phase of your life in sixth grade.'"
Santoro said Zaczek initially did not want to take Vinnie, but his former teacher told him that he was a man of his word and would let his student take it.
"As educators, as teachers, as principals, we work with kids every day and we give our best — our extra 10 percent," Santoro said. "It's stories like that that you never know the impact you make on kids. ... We're in a business that you don't hear a 'thank you' often. You don't hear all that good stuff. Here's an example, 13 years later, the impact that you felt you had on somebody. That's priceless. You can never put a price tag on that."
As he reflected on the experience of connecting with his former student and realizing the impact he had on him, Santoro said he wants the teachers he works with now that he is a principal to know that they have that same kind of effect on their students even if they do not know it yet.
"What you do does matters," he said. "You may not know it today. You may not know it tomorrow. You may know it in 13 years, but what you do and how you interact with your children, the students, every day —and you giving your extra 10 percent every day — it does pay off."