At Einstein High, guidance counselor Joseph Monte has been a teen angel for almost 50 years

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the vows taken by Jesuits. They are poverty, chastity and obedience, not poverty, charity

November 1, 2012

It is early morning at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington. Classroom doors stand darkened and locked; the swarm of teachers has yet to descend. School buses, with their groaning diesel engines and strobe lights, are not due to queue for another 30 minutes.

Way ahead of the pack is Joseph Monte, the beloved senior member of the school’s guidance resource counseling staff. At 80, he is the oldest guidance counselor in the Montgomery County Public Schools system. This is because 90-year-old Annabelle Jaffe of Wheaton High School called it a career this summer, after 50 years.

Monte has touched a lot of lives in his half-century of school work — writer Pat Conroy even immortalized him in a memoir.

To reach his office by the main entrance, Monte zips across freshly mopped tile floors, stopping en route to bid a cheery good morning to security guards. He moves like a human fireball. After settling in, wide-awake and displaying yoga-instructor calm, he lets fly an affirmation: “I’ve got good health, and I’m ready to go!” That’s followed by a theatrical fist-pump.

His day began at 5:30, a couple of hours before he arrived at the school, where he has worked since its 1962 opening. Upon leaving his house in Chevy Chase — the one he bought for $33,000 in 1965 — he stopped at the nearby Chevy Chase Recreation Center and swam three laps. Then, he picked up bagels and doughnuts for his colleagues.

His environment is peppered with photos of his wife of 49 years, their five children, nine grandchildren, plus religious images that reflect his deep Catholic roots (he studied for the priesthood). The walls are festooned with civic and professional awards.

Monte says his Jesuit training informs everything he does. “They taught me to see God, Christ, in everyone, to have a profound reverence for other human beings. … I belong to a profession of hope that dreams of students reaching their dreams. There is purity, a beauty of soul that they communicate. You can see it in their eyes.”

He managed to squeeze most of what he had achieved into a one-page résumé: bachelor’s degree from St. Joseph’s College; master’s from George Washington University; president of the National Association of College Admission Counseling; president of the Montgomery County Federation of Teachers; president of the Montgomery County Youth Orchestra Association; president of the Parish Council at Our Lady of Lourdes in Bethesda. He was also the co-founder and president of two education unions: the Montgomery County Federation of Teachers and the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

Monte, a native of Bryn Mawr, Pa., is the son of an Irish American mother and an Italian immigrant father. When Monte was a year old, his father landed the head chef’s job at Bethesda Country Club. “On Pearl Harbor Day, 1941,” Monte says, “the Japanese ambassador reserved a room and had a big party that night. He was thrown out of the country the next morning.

“My dad did the last supper,” he adds, laughing heartily.

By this time, the sound of footsteps and laughter fill the empty pockets of the school. Kids shuffle in with electronic gear occupying ears and eyes. As the clock advances toward 7:25 and the start of first period, the daily knot begins to form outside Monte’s door.

The general assembly at this intersection is a lively quilt of teachers, administrators, counselors and students seeking face time with the iconic counselor.

In the fall of 1962, when Monte arrived at Einstein (he taught Latin for two years, before becoming a counselor), Montgomery County operated 12 public high schools. Today, there are 25. White enrollment was 95 percent; today, it’s 33.7 percent.

Einstein, too, has experienced shifting demographics. When Monte started, most of the students were white and middle class. The rate of college-bound students, he recalls, was high. “These were sons or daughters of those who had gone to college.” Now, 41 percent of Einstein’s students receive free or reduced meals, and the racial makeup is 21 percent white; many of the current students, he says, are the children of immigrants. Today, close to 70 percent of graduates go on to college, with nearly half beginning their post-secondary journeys at Montgomery College.

What hasn’t changed is the role that Monte — intercessor, workaholic — plays in helping teenagers script meaningful life storylines. His longstanding policy is immovable: to see all kids, whether they happen to be on his official roster or not. “I will always bend the rules,” he says. “That’s part of our purpose. Otherwise, you just become a total bureaucrat.”

Thirteen thousand students have exited Einstein with a diploma, and Monte has written letters of recommendation for 7,000 of them.

Amy Sands, a 2007 graduate, went on to earn a history and English degree from Monte’s alma mater, St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia. “He was wonderful,” she says. “He taught you how to use your academic skills and also how to have a happy life.”

Having a centered spiritual core that promotes healing and wholeness, Monte believes, is a prerequisite for success as a guidance counselor. If the counselor is wrestling with his own issues, kids sense that. Of course, staying centered wasn’t always easy; being the father of four girls and one boy, meant inevitable conflicts at home.

John Monte, the son, says, “We butted heads quite strongly, in general.” Now a 45-year-old freelance photojournalist who lives in Mount Pleasant, John adds: “I was not a successful student; I was the rebellious one.”

Because Monte invested his heart and his head in his work, his wife, Mary Catherine, had to be patient and supportive, she says.

“I think he likes life,” says Mary Catherine, a retired MCPS English teacher. “He loves to meet people, tell his stories, hear their stories. He gets energy from that.”

But she knows that life has an expiration date. “He’d better walk out of that school,” she adds, joking. “There is another life. We’re ready for the next chapter.”

Monte’s road to Kensington and Einstein featured a three-year teaching stop at his alma mater, Gonzaga College High, a Jesuit-run school in the District. While a student at Gonzaga, he had joined a Jesuit order, the Sodality of St. John Berchmans. Following graduation, he entered the St. Isaac Jogues and Companion Martyrs Novitiate, where he studied for the priesthood. Eventually, though, Monte realized that taking a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience didn’t fit in with his personal plans. He was looking for something else: a wife and children.

His life as a Jesuit, he recalls, “had a direct influence on counseling, on teaching, on learning to write. He recalls taking three years “just practicing how to speak better. What was a weakness is now strength.”

While on the faculty at Gonzaga, Monte forged a reputation for his fire-breathing oratory. One of the students in his English class was Conroy, the future best-selling author. In Conroy’s 2002 book “My Losing Season,” he encapsulates the experience: “When the scholarly, charismatic Joseph Monte walked into 2A that first day, he radiated an owl-like authority and a passion for literature I’d never come across in a classroom. The way he talked about fiction must have been similar to the post-Pentecostal apostles spreading the word of God.” Monte, Conroy adds, exhorted his students to read only the great books. “Ignore the others. There’s not enough time.”

Monte says that in his counseling role, such storybook flourishes are rare. “The whole culture is struggling. Divorces outnumber marriages. In too many cases, the child is being raised by a mother without a father, someone to go to their games.

“The kid doesn’t know it, but there are times when I pray, ‘Lord, help me figure this out.’ ”

In the middle of an anecdote about the car he bought for $50 in his early days at Einstein, Monte is interrupted by another admirer: Tamara Garner, a special education paraeducator and 1968 graduate. Garner relates how Monte touched her life, when, during her sophomore year, her father walked out. Along with support, she needed a job. “I told him nobody would hire me because I had no experience.” Monte picked up the phone and called People’s Drug store at Wheaton Plaza. Garner was hired at $1.67 an hour. “It didn’t matter if you were his student or somebody else’s,” Garner says. “That man is always willing to help you. He’s just very loving.”

When Monte learned about the financial woes of former student Tommy Nguyen, who is now an anesthesiologist at Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie, he was even willing to help monetarily. He lent Nguyen $55,000. It wasn’t a financial hardship, says Monte, who makes $103,000 a year. “We lived beneath our means. I get the senior coffee at McDonald’s.”

Monte, Nguyen says, “is a tremendous guy. He’s been the most influential man in my life.”

So far, the doctor, 32, has repaid about $10,000 of the loan; he promises the rest of the money will come in the next two years. But Monte doesn’t seem especially worried about the matter. Shrugging, he says, “I’m 80 years old.”

Tony Glaros is a freelance writer and English composition assistant at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Lifestyle