New Hyde Park author reconnects with teacher who inspired him

New Hyde Park author reconnects with teacher who inspired him
Michael Cascio reads his book, "When I Was a Child, I Was Always Afraid," at an event in December 2016. (Photo from Michael Cascio via Facebook)

When Michael Cascio published his debut children’s book, “When I Was A Child I Was Always Afraid,” in January, there was one person he wanted to thank, but couldn’t — Joan Pilla, his fourth-grade teacher.

It was Pilla who took a 9-year-old Cascio under her wing and essentially taught him to read, he said. But they lost touch after that year at St. Joseph’s Patron School in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

“She was super instrumental and one of those blessings that comes by in life that without, your life could have been much much different,” said Cascio, who lives in New Hyde Park and works as an accountant.

After searching for Pilla in recent months with no success, an old grammar school report card led Cascio to her this week. They spoke Monday afternoon for the first time in more than 40 years.

“I was on the phone with him and I looked up and I said, ‘Thank you god,’ I mouthed it,” said the 67-year-old Pilla, who now goes by Joan Pilla Ferraro. “It’s such a feeling to know that you enabled someone to be so successful.”

Cascio, the son of Italian immigrants, was a rambunctious student at the Catholic school on Suydam Street in early 1970s Bushwick, managing to move up despite “atrocious” grades, he said.

Cascio remembers being particularly loud in Pilla’s classroom one day.

She told him more than once to stop joking around, and ordered him to sit in the front row for the rest of the year when he didn’t listen, he said.

“In my mind I’m like, ‘I’m so happy, I’m gonna be sitting in front of the pretty lady,’” Cascio said.

Pilla, then in her early 20s and in her second year of teaching, eventually recognized that Cascio couldn’t read as well as his peers.

After school each day, she sat with him next to a large window in the classroom and read Dr. Seuss books with him, Cascio said.

Those lessons not only helped Cascio to read better, but also taught him to love learning and made him realize that the written word was nothing to fear, he said.

That drove Cascio to further his education at a time when many of his friends were working in stores or learning trades, and eventually to write his own book, based on a poem he wrote for his own kids, he said.

“As far as writing is concerned, she’s the one that lit the fire,” Cascio said. “Would I ever have written otherwise? I don’t know. I think I would have ended up like a lot of kids from my old neighborhood.”

Joan Pilla Ferraro taught Michael Cascio at the St. Joseph’s Patron School in Brooklyn. (Photo from Joan Pilla via Facebook)

At the end of that school year, Pilla wrote her Borough Park, Brooklyn address on Cascio’s final report card. It wasn’t something she would normally do, she said Monday, but she knew she had a special bond with him.

After another year at St. Joseph’s, Pilla left for a teaching stint in New York City public schools and later returned to Catholic schools.

She left her longtime Brooklyn home for Staten Island in 2007, where she helped oversee a daycare at a Jewish community center and as a private nanny.

After searching for Pilla on the internet and asking the school for information about her, Cascio found his old report cards in an envelope in his closet on Sunday.

He put her address into Google Maps and eventually found her on Facebook, where they exchanged messages.

He called her Monday afternoon and they spoke for about an hour, making plans to eventually meet in person, they said.

“I felt like I was in class again,” Cascio said. “Even the voice had that familiarity in it.”

Pilla said she remembered Cascio’s voice, too, with its slight Italian accent. It was only the second time an old student has contacted her, she said; another from her first year of teaching in Greenpoint, Brooklyn called her last year.

Cascio’s call gave Pilla some much-needed validation at a time when she had been questioning her teaching career, she said.

“Human beings get down on themselves,” Pilla said. “I never put myself on a pedestal, so when you hear something like this you think, ‘Oh, you did accomplish something.'”

Teachers don’t get to hear often enough from students about the influences they’ve had on students’ lives, Pilla said.

“If you have a teacher that has impacted you, you should tell that person, because I don’t think we’re really told that often,” she said.

Cascio’s book, “When I Was a Child I Was Always Afraid,” is available on

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