The Words (aka: Dear. Mrs. Senderoff)

I grew up one child of seven in the Bronx.  My mom is from Mexico. Dad was from Puerto Rico. Neither of them never set foot in a school.  We grew up right in the time when Crack was really beginning to take form, ravaging families and communities block by block.  Through it all, my mother plowed through- belt in hand, and made sure that each and every one of us got our chance at school.  My mom looks back at these times and feels bad – often wondering what could she have provided for us that was better than what we had.  I’ve always looked at her is disbelief.  Access to a School, and the drive to want to get the hell out – that’s pretty much all we needed.

Right from the get-go – I was labeled as the “Smarty” kid of the unit.  School came relatively easy to me, and I found myself taking on more stuff and reading more stuff even at an early age.  My brothers teased me, but I think they were all really happy to see how much I was learning, and how much I wanted to learn.  One problem, however.  As it appears, hanging out on the street didn’t really coincide with wanting to learn – and I often found myself very schizophrenic about the things that I wanted to do versus the things I needed to do.  I was -supposed- to apply for all of these smarty smart specialized high schools in New York City (Bronx Science, Laguardia, etc).  What I wanted to do was play handball with my friends.. and I invariably blew off every deadline and every test to go to those schools. The problem was after I played a couple of games outside, I felt like I wanted to do something else.

An Angry Kid

I was in Junior High , and I get placed in this one English class being taught by Mrs. Edna Senderoff.  I remember being so angry at being there.  While everyone did their work during the first day of the term, I just sat there, arms folded.  I was determined to get kicked out of this class to go to my friends.  Mrs. Senderoff didn’t make any sort of scene about this, and let the class run as it should.  When the bell rang, she asked me to stay behind to chat with her.

“Do you want to go back to the other english class, Rafael?” said Mrs. Senderoff

“Yes.  Yes I do.” I quickly replied.

She turned away and started walking back to her desk “That shouldn’t be a problem.  I can make that happen immediately.”

Mrs. Senderoff would then turn and speak to me in a way that cut through everything I had inside.  What she said would be the fuel for most of my careers, and one of the driving principles for why I do what I do.

“Rafael I see such incredible promise in you – but you appear to be a very very angry boy.  I believe that I know -why- you are angry, and I know how to fix it.  You are angry because you have all of these different emotions running inside of you, and you have absolutely no way to tell them to anyone?  Do you know what an epiphany is?  This is a word that can explain a feeling.  You are in need of learning all of the words you can to describe all of the things that you feel.  Once you do that, you’re going to be suprised as to how much better you will feel.  I want you to think about that tonight.  If you don’t agree – I will put you back in Ms. *&(*&@(* class.  If you do agree – I want you to come back tomorrow and work, just like everyone else.”

She was right. Absolutely right.  It was one of those defining moments of clarity that I desperately searched for.. and there it was.. in a little old lady with a piece of chalk in my hand.

I was back the next day, committed to learning every single word I could to express what I feel.

I became editor of the JHS paper.. much to the surprise of everyone around me.

I decided I wanted to take English Literature in college.

I graduated when I was 15 and was in College by 16.

I also decided that I wanted to be a teacher.

All of this..  because of Mrs. Senderoff.


Saying Thanks

After a couple of different career paths (that went very well I might add) I did send her a note.  A few weeks later, I got a response from her congratulating me and writing me a series of vignettes of what she remembered.  Her memory was spot on, and I was so happy that I was able to email her and tell her thank for for setting me on the path that I did.

A few months ago, I went to write her a letter to tell her that I, out of all things.. that kid actually became an author.  I’d search online and find that Mrs. Senderoff passed away several years ago.  Talk about a punch in the gut. Somehow I think that she still got to see all of the cool things that I was able to do.  I at least believe that if she hasn’t, I’ll dedicate my time trying to learn more words and helping in the same manner that she was able to help me.

This is why I am a teacher.  This is also why I love it.


What Does This Have to Do with Photography

We spend a lot of time talking about megapixels, fstop, ISO, and power ratios.  Sometimes we don’t spend time talking about what all of these things do to help us express how we feel about things.  It sounds cliche, and im made fun of it often, but what we do photographically does come from the heart – enabled by the brain.

When you go out there to learn – dont get too sucked into things that dont feed either one of these things.  Don’t get sucked into the lifestyles, don’t get sucked into the marketing.  SIt down and look at Fstop, aperture, ISO, and all of those kinds of things as words you need to learn to make a sentence.  See the F stop as a noun. See the shutter as a verb. See light as an adjective. Then make words.  Words you need to start a conversation.  

Once you learn all of the words – forget about everything else, and focus on what exactly do you want to say.
This is still the hardest part for me – saying what I want to say. A part of me always criticizes myself  into wondering whether i’m good enough to be at the table and having the conversation.

It doesn’t matter.  I’ve learned the words.  I’m talking now.  I get to drive by and sit at the other side of the gate.  For that, Edna Senderoff, I owe you more than I can ever say.



  1. That rocks!!! Thanks RC

  2. Well said RC! Very interesting how she pathed the way to your love of teaching and the person you’ve become today.

  3. You are a very gifted teacher RC. And I’m thankful your wonderful mother and a special teacher were able to inspire you to pursue your talents.

    Personally, I have a hard time expressing myself verbally. Hopefully, my smile helps explain what my voice can’t! It is fun to watch you express yourself in a way that’s easy to understand and fun. You don’t ever teach down to your audience and always teach in a way that makes us want to learn and try more. Thanks for becoming a teacher!

  4. Thanks for sharing RC. I believe we are many things in our life time. Our paths cross many people and every so often, there are those special people that make an impact on us.

  5. Love the story and the message should be to always keep in mind that our actions and words influence others around you. I also teach photography and try to convey my passion for the art in a way that it becomes contagious. In the first part of my class I teach the technical tools but in the second part I teach my students how to see. To observe the world around them and to learn to see the image and then work to capture the feeling and mood of the shot. The greatest gift an instructor can get is to have a positive impact on the students life. Thank you for sharing something that is part of your very sole.

  6. I think that explains why you teach with so much compassion for the difficulty of the topic at hand. Your passion is the subject and your compassion is in the way you convoy the subject matter. Rock-on RC!!!

  7. Wow! Thanks a lot RC. I’ve got to say, as a fellow Bronxite born and raised, I read a lot of myself in this. Similar “anger”, similar yearn for an “epiphany”, and similar drive to learn as many “words” as I can to be able to express myself in every facet of what Im doing. This photography stuff… I cant even explain why I love it so much. At first it was just something new to learn, a new vocabulary, and thereby a new set of “words” by which I could express what’s inside. I definitely feel what you wrote, especially today for the strangest reason. But something you said really iced the donut for me, “what we do photographically does come from the heart – enabled by the brain” THAT’S ABSOLUTELY IT!! Photography’s just one a way for my heart and brain to, for at least that brief moment, that little click, to speak the same language and work together to express what’s in me to express. Thanks so much for sharing this. You’ve no idea how much I needed to read this. (;

    Seth M

  8. Well said Sir! I’m an old guy learning a new craft, Photography, and what you said is still true.

  9. We all have teachers who have everlasting impact on our lives and this could not be told any better. What is great about you is becoming a teacher to carry on with Mrs Senderoff’s impact on your life. Keep with with the good work, you are doing good stuff.

  10. Thank you for this blog post… it was excellent.

  11. What an awesome post, RC! If we’re lucky, we all have that Teacher Who Made A Difference in our lives. They are the gems of the profession. Like you, I am forever grateful to mine, Mrs. Wight.

  12. Awwww, what a great story RC! I think we all have that one teacher that made a difference in our lives. They took the time and interest in us that made us feel special. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Fantastic post. I loved the story and the followup as to where you went in your life. You’re right, we do tend to get sucked into “what ISO should I use” and those kinds of traps instead of just letting the picture we’re taking speak to us emotionally.

  14. Thank you for sharing your heart RC. All it takes is for a few people to show us that we are better, braver, and smarter than what we think. I pray I may be one of those people who will come along side those who need encouragement and truth in their lives…

    Vernon, BC

  15. I just last night set up a google + account. When it asked me to add people to my circle you were the first person I clicked on. After reading your story about Mrs. Senderoff
    I realized why I thought of you first.

  16. I’m sharing this a teacher who needs a pick me up. She was my mom’s best friend and know you have said just what she needs to hear. Thanks.

  17. Hi just read your splendid tribute to our mutual teacher and mentor, Edna Senderoff. Similar to you. Ms Senderoff offered a ray of sunshine when then the clouds seemed to obviously take over my world. I remember her with great admiration her stunning presence and beatiful speech. She was a rare person. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  18. HI RC – just coming to this post via your G+ page. Beautifully put and a fitting tribute to a special person in your life. Thanks for sharing this with us.
    ~ Mark

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