A Teacher Keeps His Promise
Published in Inside - Volume XVI, No. 9
When a former student needed help paying her college tuition, Tony Apuzzi stepped up to the plate
By Suzanne Guillette
Last December, Tony Apuzzi (MA Special Education, ’95) was brushing his teeth when he heard a knock at his door. There, standing on his steps, was Mariano Rivera, the famed New York Yankees relief pitcher, accompanied by Brandon Steiner, of Steiner Sports Marketing. Behind them stood a camera crew.
“I was thinking, ‘What in God’s name is going on?’” recalls Apuzzi.
What was going on was that Apuzzi, a former teacher, had recently sold his valuable and beloved collection of major league baseballs – including one autographed by the entire 1998 Yankee championship team -- to pay tuition at the College of New Rochelle for an ex-student, Jasalle Ruiz. Unbeknownst to Apuzzi, his best friend had written to Steiner to tell him the story. Now Rivera, considered the game’s all-time greatest closer, was presenting him with a check for $6,000 while the camera rolled.
The story had begun one Friday afternoon in 2000, when Apuzzi accepted a one-day trial assignment to speak to a troubled sixth grade classroom at P.S. 120, in the notoriously rough Bronx neighborhood of Hunt’s Point.
The class had scared off 12 teachers in seven months—but Apuzzi, a Bronx native was up for the challenge. The plan was for Apuzzi to deliver a guest lecture on the cardiovascular system. If the students liked him, he’d sign on as their permanent teacher.
Tall and self-confident, Apuzzi, a former personal trainer, quickly won the students over, engaging them with his first-hand knowledge of the body’s cardiovascular system.
The class was thrilled when he showed up the following Monday and announced he was there to stay. Soon, the once-rowdy class turned into a close-knit, focused group, as Apuzzi worked hard to learn each student’s story. Most had experienced some sort of hardship, whether economic or personal – but as he soon learned, Ruiz, whom he recalls as the “ringleader,” was dealing with particularly severe challenges.
She had been raised by her grandparents after her mother, a heavy substance abuser, lost custody of her, and her father disappeared. When she was five, her favorite uncle was murdered in a gang attack. When she was seven, her mother became pregnant again, only to lose the baby because she was still using drugs and alcohol. Then, when Ruiz turned 11, her grandfather passed away suddenly, and she began acting out and getting into trouble.
As Apuzzi established himself in the class, Ruiz opened up to him about her life and told him about a promise she’d made to her grandfather on his deathbed: to become the first person in their family attend college and, ultimately, to become a physician.
“I told her, ‘Listen, don’t worry about anything,’” Apuzzi recalls. “‘Just focus on your grades, and keep your grades up. If you need anything, come and see me.’”
The support Apuzzi offered came from a very personal place. His own father had left his family when he was 12 years old, and Apuzzi had subsequently run into frequent trouble with the police. His teachers were his positive role models, inspiring him to believe in the importance of education.
He sought to do the same for his Hunt’s Point students, among other things posting a stanza by Emily Dickinson on the classroom wall:
In this short Life
That only lasts an hour
How much -- how little -- is
Within our power
That only lasts an hour
How much -- how little -- is
Within our power
Ruiz took those words to heart, deciding that if she couldn’t change her family circumstances, she could at least work hard and make it to college.
When Apuzzi announced at the end of the year that he would be leaving to work elsewhere, Ruiz was crushed. The following day, her grandmother paid Apuzzi a visit.
“She asked if I would keep in touch with Jasalle because I was the closest thing she had to a male role model,” he says.
Over the next ten years, Apuzzi traveled from Westchester to the Bronx twice a week to tutor Ruiz.
“There is a part of me that truly believes my grandfather sent him from above to watch over me and guide me,” Ruiz wrote recently in an autobiography she’s working on.
In fact, Apuzzi continued mentoring Ruiz right through an Associate’s degree program at Bronx Community College to Lehmann College. Ruiz’s promise to her grandfather was never far from either of their minds.
“Eight out of ten kids I worked with at Lincoln Hall ended up dead or back in jail on more significant or more violent charges,” says Apuzzi, who spent many of those years working at a residential school in Westchester for boys who have been in the court system. “And Jasalle had come from a more challenging situation than most of those kids.”
Last year, Ruiz finally enrolled in a pre-med program at the College of New Rochelle. At first, it looked as though the College would offer her a sufficient financial aid package, with a month to go before classes began; she learned that she was $14,000 short. Apuzzi went to meet with her financial aid officer. “I wasn’t going to go back on my word,” he says.
After Ruiz made some changes in her plan—she would commute instead of living on campus, for example—the bill was whittled down to $6,000, a more manageable figure, but still high for Apuzzi, who had stopped working because of health problems. It didn’t take him long, though, to figure out where he could get the money: his prized baseballs, including three signed by the entire Yankee squads from the championship 1998, 1999 and 2000 seasons.
That money – plus the $6,000 from Rivera and additional funds raised by Steiner through an auction conducted on his company’s Web site, were more than enough to help Ruiz. But in an O’Henry-like twist, Ruiz, who knew that her former teacher was having his own financial difficulties, had other ideas. Once she learned of Apuzzi’s sacrifice, she enrolled at Lehman College, which had offered her a full aid package. Apuzzi helped set up a fund for her, including Rivera’s donation and the funds raised from the auction, which she can use for medical school.
While most people are struck by Apuzzi’s selflessness, Apuzzi believes the bigger story is Ruiz and her determination to stay out of trouble and make a better life for herself.
“It’s been a great experience to see her grow up and become a positive role model for other young people. I’m honored to be a part of it, “ he says, adding, “Keeping this promise means a lot to her. And keeping her in school means a lot to me.”
As Ruiz, who now plans on becoming a cardiac surgeon, wrote in her essay, “If every child had a person like Mr. A in his or her life, this would be a much better world.”