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Tough Love discovers redemption in classroom

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Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a two-part series regarding Lebanon Special School District teacher Greg Love and his book, There Is an Urgency. Part two will run in the March 24 edition of The Wilson Post.

 

Greg Love, 36, serves in his third year as the alternative behavioral teacher at Walter J. Baird Middle School in Lebanon. He puts a high priority on helping his students develop a love of books.

KEN BECK / The Wilson Post 

Meet Mr. Love Greg Love: Alternative behavioral teacherWhere: Walter J. Baird Middle School in Lebanon, third year  Age: 36Education: Bachelor and master degrees at MTSUHobby: CookingAuthor: There Is an Urgency: A MemoirWeb site: www.thereisanurgency.comBy KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

Surviving an X-rated early childhood and haunted teenage years, Greg Love hit official adulthood at the age of 21 with a single thought on his mind: he wanted to kill the only father figure he ever knew. 

But in one merciful second, he slammed shut the door to his murderous intentions, packed his stuff and fled the East Coast for Middle Tennessee where during the past decade he has found redemption as a gifted teacher to children with troubled backgrounds similar to his own.

Walter J. Baird Middle School alternative behavioral teacher Greg Love, 36, like many good teachers, is making a difference in youngsters’ lives one day at a time.

The instructor cuts a foreboding figure with his shaved head and tattooed forearms extending from his dark polo shirt. He teaches five subjects: math, English, American history, world geography and science, but more importantly, he demonstrates tough love while providing boundaries.

“I love my kids, and I love to see the growth, and I see it every single day,” Love said. “I see change every day in every one of my students. That keeps me going and excited. I’d do this for free. I feel so lucky to have the job that I have.”

“Lucky” is not a word anyone would ever expect to fall from the lips of a man with as tragic a childhood as the one that Love endured.

When friends and associates ask him to describe his young life, he answers: “It was definitely tumultuous and atypical. I grew up in foster care, and it was very different from a normal childhood. It was so distressing.”

If you want the real story in graphic detail, Love has laid it out for the world to see in his autobiography, There Is an Urgency. It’s not a read for the fainthearted.

Born in 1973 in Bridgeport, Conn., to a woman who was a prostitute and drug addict, Love never really connected with his biological father, a Vietnam war veteran and drug addict who spent years in and out of prison. The only father figure he knew was an abusive guy he called Bobby, who was also his mother’s pimp, lover and a drug supplier. For the first six years of his life, Love lived in squalor and torment of every kind, mainly because of the brute who ruled his tiny apartment, one of 1,063 apartments in Father Panik Village, an inner-city project that had turned into a nest of lost souls in Bridgeport.

At 6, Love and his brother, Matthew, who was one year older, were pulled from their squalid home where little if any nurturing was ever displayed. They were deposited in a group home setting only to be physically and sexually abused by their caregivers.

At the age of 8, Love finally landed in a safe haven with Marie and Chris Tucci.

“From the very first minute they picked us up, it was a great experience,” he remembered. “For the first time I felt like I had a family and was normal.”

Three years later, the Tucci marriage fell apart. The couple divorced, and the state would not allow Marie to keep her foster sons.

“That was the point where I just shut down and didn’t have any faith in the system,” he said. “I had no faith in a family or ever having a family. I literally turned myself off and could not connect with anybody else after that. That’s been a real tough thing.

“I just floundered in several foster homes after that. There was a lot of bouncing and moving around. The state claims they were trying to protect us from any influence from Debbie (his biological mother) and harsh contact with Bobby. There were lots of layers to the situation that made it very complicated.”

Eventually, Love graduated from Maryland’s Poolesville High School with the second to lowest grades in his class. The only student with lower grades was his brother, who was by then in prison.

After receiving his diploma, Love began trying to decipher who he was and what he wanted to do with his life. And, he said, “I started plotting to kill Bobby.”

LOVE IN THE CLASSROOM

Inside his alternative behavior classroom three posters promote reading with the likenesses of LL Cool J, Yoda of “Star Wars” and Ice Cube. Bright yellow study cubicles command two corners.

“The first 10 days I let a new student sit in a cubicle. It’s a place where they can feel secure,” Love said. “When I came here the room was full of them. I didn’t see the need for all of them, so I took them all apart but for two.”

This semester he has six students, seventh- and eighth-grade boys. He addresses each as “Sir” and expects them to call him “Sir” in return. 

“A zero tolerance offense lands them here,” he said, “bringing a weapon to school or contraband such as drugs or cigarettes. The main thing that brings them in is willful and persistent breaking of school rules. They lack self-control.

“When I am asked by people what I do, I tell them I teach students how to control themselves. I’m here to teach pro-social skills as opposed to anti-social,” said last year’s teacher of the year for the Lebanon Special School District grades five through eight, an honor he received from his peers.

“You’ve got to have a lot of skills. Mr. Love definitely has those,” said Scott Benson, now in his fourth year as principal at Walter J. Baird Middle School. “He doesn’t have the typical kid. He has a passion for kids with behavior issues, and the patience to deal with those type issues on a day to day basis. He has that. He has an ability to connect with kids that other teachers might have difficulty connecting with. He does a super job of that.

“Our staff recognizes the passion that he has for his kids and the success he has with them every day in the classroom. He tries to use tough love and compassion in showing his students the right direction and giving them the ability to make right decisions in areas they struggled with previously,” Benson said.

For Love books are a major key in helping his students unlock doors to a brighter tomorrow. Plus, he has a few unorthodox ideas to make them flex their brain muscles. 

“I just love teaching and reading. Very few ideas or methods I use come from my college courses. Many ideas and teaching methods come from current research and outside reading and in-service training,” said Love, who is working with the Tennessee Alternative Education Association to help schools be more cohesive in their approach.

On his desk rest five small rubber heads with faces that represent such feelings as anger, frustration, sadness, happiness and exasperation. He uses them for creative therapy every morning as he asks his young charges to pick one and describe what emotion they are feeling and why.

Love also keeps a blue rubber ball and a yellow tennis ball on his desk.

“I throw a ball to a student because it makes them much more open. It’s just something to get their mind off of what they’re saying to me. They open up because they’re concentrating on throwing the ball back.”

Along a wall, several bookcases groan with hundreds of books. A black bookcase holds more than 200 books from Love’s personal library. The titles run from Malcolm X to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

“These are lots of books specific to young male readers who are not used to reading. These are books we read every single year, and they just eat them up,” the teacher said. “I make a point to read picture books regularly. The guys really like that. They like to have a grown man reading to them.

“You can see the kids connecting to the story. They’ll pay attention to a picture book, and then they read it themselves. I kind of trick them to read.

“They can load to laptops or MP3 players and listen to audio books as long as they have the book in front of them and are following along. I have seen students’ reading jump by leaps and bounds,” Love said.   

“Reading and math are two things I stress the most. Math keeps them from being ripped off. I read continually and make sure they see me reading my own books. Right now I’m reading Alice in Wonderland. The boys say it’s a girl book,” he grinned.

Also resting on his desk is a coffee cup, stuffed with pens and pencils, that is labeled: “So many books, so little time.”

“Reading saved me,” Love said. “I love the library. That’s what I tell my boys. If you don’t like being at home, go to the library. It’s a safe place.”

OUT OF THE PAST    

After high school, young Greg Love worked a variety of jobs that included construction and employment at a beer store, a donut shop, a record store and a three-hour stint at McDonald’s before he decided he was not about to cook French fries.

“I was always selling drugs on the side. I always had some kind of hustle going on that wasn’t legal and needed some kind of job to cover up the money I had,” Love recollected.

At 20 the sunshine finally began to beam into his life. He reconnected with Marie Tucci, who was now married to Jim Love, and found the family for whom he had so desperately been searching.

Living in Maryland, Love got a letter from his former foster sister that had been forwarded several times. He described it as “truly a miracle.” The letter had been floating around the postal system and had no return address.

“Within 30 days I had a family: a mom and a dad and sisters (Kerry and Kelley) and I had a brother (Jamie). It just felt right, and I was comfortable, and I was loved,” Love said. “I knew I was home and where I belonged the minute I saw Marie. We both started to cry. Everything that had happened in the past 10 years didn’t matter anymore. I knew I had a family and that was all that mattered.”

There was, however, one other thing that mattered. It mattered a lot to Love. He longed to get even with the man who ripped the heart out of his childhood. This ambition consumed him.

Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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