Out of the shadows
Former teacher bringing dark past to light through book
November 03, 2005
For nearly 40 years, Arvada resident Jimmy Corso kept quiet about his past.
Corso's friends, children, and even his wife had no knowledge of the dark and painful memories he kept locked away behind a friendly, outgoing personality.
But after some four decades, Corso knew it had to come out.
He started mentioning some details of the first quarter of his life to an old friend, Bunk, in e-mails in 1997. Bunk was so enthralled with the story, he urged the now 65-year-old retired teacher Corso to write a book about his life.
After finishing the first draft of the book, Corso gave it to his wife, Karren. It was like handing over the key to a closet full of skeletons.
"Karren couldn't get past page 60," Corso said. "She just started crying, thought it was too painful what I went through to read."
Corso's book, "A Small Italian Life," was published this year through Indiana-based AuthorHouse Publishing. The true story follows how a troubled childhood and one IQ test almost ruined a man's life.
Perseverance over life's difficulties, however, is what Corso said is the true point of the book.
Corso taught high school biology at North Arvada Junior High School, Bear Creak High School and finally retired from Arvada High School in 1997 with more than 30 years experience as a teacher.
But Corso didn't always like school.
Family life was chaotic for Corso growing up New York. His mother repeatedly suffered mental breakdowns, while his father was a struggling alcoholic who couldn't hold down a job. By the time Corso was 15 years old, he had attended 10 different schools in different parts of New York.
He flunked kindergarten, first, second and third grade before teachers decided to give Corso an IQ test.
In 1949 at the age of 9, Corso was pegged by teachers as being "retarded" after scoring 70 on the IQ test. He was placed in special education classes, but they didn't help the already struggling boy.
Moving again, this time to Saranac Lake, NY, in 1956, Corso was placed in seventh grade at the age of 15 because the Saranac Lake High School didn't have a special education program.
He struggled, but worked hard and eventually graduated from high school at the age of 21.
He made it, but the stigma of being labeled "stupid" and a "retard" for years still left its mark.
But Corso wouldn't give up. He wanted to go to college, but was rejected by eight colleges in New York alone due to his academic record.
He applied to the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley in 1963, which agreed to accept him on a probationary status after a friend from New York attending the university vouched for him.
It was a chance to start over, but he was still behind in his education at age 23.
"College was hard, but I studied for hours and hours," Corso said. "I was in a new place and I just didn't tell anyone about my past. I was very embarrassed by it."
In college he met Karren and soon went on to earn his bachelor's degree in biology and then a master's degree in science.
Corso started teaching at North Arvada Junior High in 1967, a career that put him right back in the classroom so he could help struggling kids firsthand.
Meanwhile, Corso kept his past a secret. He waited to write the book until after he retired.
"Kids can be cruel, I didn't want any repercussions toward my family or toward my career," Corso said. "I didn't want to be know as the 'retard teacher.'"
Carl Churches, who taught with Corso at Arvada High School, said he was shocked and amazed after he read "A Small Italian Life."
"I couldn't believe it," Churches said. "Anyone around would agree that Jimmy is one of the best high school teachers to ever come out of Arvada High School.
"He has come further in his life than anyone I know of."
Corso said he feels relieved to finally share that part of his history with others. He wrote the book not to pat his own back, Corso said, but in the hopes that a struggling student or their parents may read his story and discover that there is hope if you just try.
"The book is about overcoming difficulties in life," Corso said. "Dreams can come true, you just have to have realistic dreams."
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Oswego Palladium Times, NY - Jul 25, 2005
OSWEGO FIGURES IN JIMMY CORSO'S 'SPECIAL' LIFE STORY
By ADELE DELSAVIO, Staff Writer
OSWEGO - To say that Jimmy Corso moved around a lot during his childhood is an understatement.
With a father whose big break was always in the next neighborhood and a mother who was too depressed to rein him in, the family moved at least ten times during Corso's childhood.
They lived in houses, apartments and relatives' homes in Oswego, Syracuse and Saranac Lake. Corso and his sister attended at almost a dozen schools.
The family lived in Oswego twice - once during his elementary years at Kingsford Park School and again when he was in high school.
An active, distractible child, Corso had trouble paying attention in school. He repeated kindergarten, but his real troubles began when he did poorly on an evaluation test. He was labeled "mentally retarded," pulled out of his regular classes, and sent to special ed.
His special ed teacher told him later that he had scored 69. Seventy was the cut-off point for "retarded."
Corso was born in 1940. He attended school during a relatively unenlightened time when it came to understanding learning disabilities. The label "retarded" stuck with him through most of his high school career.
He was finally allowed to take regular classes when his family moved to Saranac Lake, New York and he attended Saranac Lake High School, where he found that he was good at science. The move to Saranac Lake was a turning point in Jimmy's life. The Saranac Lake school system gave Jimmy the help he needed and here he met many life-long friends, who he keeps in close touch with to this very day. He has returned to his adopted home town several times and plans to revisit whenever possible.
After graduating from Saranac Lake High School, he decided to go to college and try to salvage his life. Several, including SUNY Oswego, turned him down. He was accepted at junior college and went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees.
Ironically, the "retarded" student spent his adult career in academia, teaching high school biology in Colorado.
He also married and had two children. The marriage thrived.
After he retired, Corso decided to write a book. He called it "A Small Italian Life."
"I did it to teach the value of perseverance. A kid can read it and realize that their life isn't going down the tubes. If I could do it, so can they," he said recently in a telephone interview from his home in Arvada, Colorado.
Corso spent five years writing his book after he retired in 1997. He waited until he was retired to write the book for several reasons.
It wouldn't be a good idea, he decided, to write it while he was still teaching. "I didn't want repercussions from my students if they knew their teacher had been in special ed. I didn't want to be called 'dummy teacher.' The scars (from my experience) are still there," he said.
Another reason was his sister's sexual abuse by an uncle, which he briefly mentions in his book. "I needed to get clearance from her. She was 7 to 12 when it happened. She needed shock treatments to try to obliterate some of that stuff," he said.
His sister, Joan is now a massage therapist in Arizona with a close, loving family. "The book was cathartic for her" he said. "It got it out. She kept the secret for so long."
The third reason was his reluctance to write the book while his parents were still alive. "The book is difficult in parts. I had to air the dirty laundry sometimes," he said.
He said that his memories of Oswego are pleasant. "It was a quaint little town, and quiet. I loved the lake," he said.
He remembers swimming in Lake Ontario at night with his friend Tom Gumbo. He remembers his special ed classes: physical education with Mr. Barclay, and music. "The principal at the high school was Mark Fitzgibbons. I remember he always wore a bow tie," he said. He remember's hanging out in the local diners and Gumbo's pool hall.
Looking back as an educator, Corso has some theories about the cause of his school problems. "I'm pretty sure I had ADD (attention deficit disorder). I moved 10 times, of course, so that might have played into it. My mom and pop quarreled a lot. I probably shut down as a kid," he said.
"It was a heartbreaking book to write, but I had to get my message out. How many teachers spend six years in special ed?" he said. "I think my situation correlates to President Bush's program, 'No Child Left Behind.' I was that child left behind but I moved to the head of the class."
"A Small Italian Life," published by AuthorHouse, can be purchased at Barnes & Noble.com and Amazon.com. or in Saranac Lake at FACT AND FICTION BOOK SHOP.