Before the start of each school year, Joe Boris pulls a picture out of his desk and says a little prayer.
The picture isn’t of a family member or close friend. In fact, it’s been more than 40 years since he last talked to her.
It is a picture of Boris’ fifth-grade teacher, Elizabeth Williams, whose comment to the 12-year-old Boris set off a chain of events that led him to where he is today.
She told him, “You know Joe, you’re going to make a very good history teacher.”
Never miss a local story.
Though he didn’t think much of it in the moment, that comment stuck with him.
“From then on, my whole life has been a rehearsal to do this,” he said.
The State College Area High School teacher can now relax and look back fondly at his 40 years teaching social studies in the district, as this year will be his last.
Boris retired at the end of this school year.
Boris was born Feb. 17, 1949, to Anthony and Mary Boris in Pottsville.
It was a small town where he knew just about everyone, and his elementary school and high school were both short walks from his home.
He grew up in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region. Both of his grandparents died of mining asthma, or black lung.
The town was so small, Boris refused to even date any girls from his school.
“It would have been like dating your sister,” he said.
It was a small town life that he came to love, but after high school he was ready for a change.
Following his father’s wishes, he went to three post-grad Navy schools before deciding that he needed to pursue a teaching career.
After two years at the Penn State Schuylkill campus, which he called an extension of high school, he came to State College, and the rest was history.
He had found his new home.
Laying the foundation
Boris said he realized early on that his first few years as a teacher would play a huge role in defining him.
One of the most important aspects of being a good teacher was to earn the trust of the students, he said. If a teacher earns the reputation of a trusting person, it will last for the rest of his or her career.
In part, to earn that trust he made himself known and tried to meet as many people as he could.
“One of the biggest things a teacher can do is be flexible,” he said. “You have to be flexible and you have to be visible.”
He was hired by the district right out of his student teaching days and never had the urge to go elsewhere.
There was an initial culture shock when he came to State College, but Boris and his young wife, Stephanie, adjusted quickly, and before long he didn’t want to leave.
“I felt like I was home there,” he said. “I felt like this was my home now.”
‘The students’ biggest cheerleader’
Any time one the the school’s athletic teams is about to leave for a big game, Boris is on the bus.
He speaks and yells and motivates and sends the players off with words of wisdom.
But those aren’t the only times he gets into the school spirit.
When he first came to State High, Boris didn’t think the school had enough pep rallies. He wanted the students to have some more school spirit. So he took matters into his own hands.
Whenever there is a big event coming up or the mood strikes him, Boris will stand in the hallway and start his own impromptu pep rally.
If the stationary event isn’t enough that day, he’ll start a “snake dance.”
He’ll grab some students and move around the North Building or travel across the street to the South Building, holding up traffic on Westerly Parkway if he has to.
“He has more spirit for this school than anybody here,” secretary Pam Mock said. “He is the students’ biggest cheerleader, always.”
After an altercation in the middle of the intramural basketball season more than 20 years ago, the program was left without a leader.
As if being the school’s favorite teacher and biggest cheerleader wasn’t enough, Boris was asked if he would take control of the program. And, of course, he jumped at the chance.
“I said, ‘I can give it a try,’ and I fell in love with it,” he said. “I put my life into that for the next 20-some years.”
He grew the program to one of the biggest in the history of the school. At one point, the ninth- and 10th-grade students had to be broken off to start their own league.
It is as competitive as ever, and when the championship rolls around the whole school comes to watch.
He would come in at about 5:30 p.m. and leave at 11:30, writing up statistics, standings and even game summaries when he had the time.
Personally for Boris, his days in the gym with the intramural basketball program were some of his favorite and most memorable times at the school.
He plans to continue working with the program next year even after his retirement.
His teaching legacy
Boris is now 40 years into his teaching career, and he is the most popular teacher every year.
“Joe has been the most requested teacher for our seniors since I’ve been here,” said Steven Guthoff, a guidance counselor who came to the school in 1992. “It’s almost become a rite of passage to have Mr. Boris for sociology.”
Guthoff added that every school needs to have a Joe Boris.
And the sentiment is the same among the students.
Kevin Paroda, who graduated last weekend, only had Boris for one semester, but he was affected from the beginning.
He would just sit back in the class and listen to Boris’ stories. Sometimes, they didn’t even directly relate to the course material, but they would always be valuable life lessons that Paroda will carry with him.
“He’s certainly one of the best teachers I’ve had at State High,” Paroda said.
“On the road to find out”
LeAnn Marshall rarely has to change her calendar.
Boris comes into the office every morning to say hello to the attendance secretary and change it for her.
If he knows he will be out a day, he will write it into his lesson plan for the substitute teacher to change it. Now, even though he may come into the school to swim some mornings, she will have to change it on her own.
“I’m sort of pretending it isn’t going to happen,” she said.
But, for Boris, it’s time.
He has had the best times of his life in the school and will ease his way out of teaching by subbing and running the basketball program. But he knows it’s time to leave.
One of the mottos that he lives by is that he is “on the road to find out.” He hasn’t seen it all in his 40-year career, and if he taught another 40 years, he still won’t have.
He is learning every day and will always be on the road to find out. He added that the realization hasn’t hit him yet. He hasn’t had a good cry, but can feel it coming. He knows that midsummer, he’ll be ready to come back.
He said he doesn’t know how he will replace teaching in his life, but knows for sure he won’t be making a comeback to educating full time again. He doesn’t have any grand plans to travel the world or move out of the area but will spend more time in his garden.
Gardening has been a hobby of his for years, even starting his own little earthen sanctuary at State High two years ago.
“I know the world is out there,” he said. “I just like to tend my little garden.”