In the fall of 1959, Ciro Scala, just out of high school, was commuting to a clerical job in Times Square from Staten Island and also going to City College, uptown on Convent Avenue in the evenings. The trip home — which relied on the IRT to Lower Manhattan, the Staten Island Ferry and then a bus to New Brighton — took about two and a half hours, although sometimes it extended to three, getting him home, in every instance, past midnight. Ground down, he eventually gave up and stopped attending classes, which he did with a sorrowful resignation.
The youngest of five children, Ciro was the son of Southern Italian parents who had resisted assimilation. “They never talked about school,” he told me recently. “We had to work. The whole idea was to get a job. High school, yes, but after that, college was not discussed.” Instead he was to help support his family.
The move to Staten Island, when Ciro was a teenager, meant they had a home with a shower for the first time. Previously, the family had lived in a cold-water flat in Brooklyn on the border between Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant at a time when the area still had many factories. Bathing was a matter of standing at the kitchen sink. Ciro’s three sisters all shared the same bed — two at the head, one at the foot. In the summer when it was hot, everyone slept on the roof.
Success, of a kind he had not foreseen, would come in the decades ahead: a climb up the ranks of the textile business, which began with a stint in a mail room; a Brooklyn Heights townhouse, bought fortuitously in 1979; a daughter sent to private school; summers on the East End of Long Island. But these markers of an urbane, affluent life on the other side of the world from where he had grown up, only a few miles away, were not the endgame. He could not shake the regret he felt over failing to complete his education. Now in his 70s, he resumed the journey that had been interrupted so long ago.
“I just never wanted to die without a diploma,” he said. “I lived a life. I felt I was successful. But without that diploma I was not whole. I didn’t want to leave that legacy for my grandchildren.”
Ordinarily, I would have met with Ciro at his townhouse, where my husband and I had rented an apartment on the top floor 14 years ago. When my son arrived early, in advance of the crib I had bought, we got home from the hospital to find that the Scalas had set up a bassinet for us in his nursery. We were speaking on the phone now because Ciro was understandably nervous about Omicron.
Nonetheless, the pandemic had not struck him as a time for languishing. As so many others retreated from their ambitions, he leaned deep into his own. A few years earlier he had returned to City College; by the end of 2020 he had completed not only his bachelor’s degree in political science but also a masters in history. Eventful as that had been, it was not the whole story. Everywhere at school he saw versions of himself at 18 — students who were at once energized by their aspirations but also held back by their insecurities or need to make money, in conflict with parents who clung to traditional cultural values.
At one point, he met a young Egyptian woman who had a distinct vision for her future. “She’d talk about her family and wanting to bust out,” Ciro told me. The family owned a pharmacy. “She’d say, ‘I’m not just going to be a pharmacist’s wife.’ The family didn’t love it. She was a modern woman who also happened to be Muslim.”
All of this inspired him in still another direction. Two years ago, he approached Andrew Rich, the dean of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at City College, about setting up a program to help students who were the first in their families to go to college. Theoretically, this is where City College, founded in 1847 as an experiment in educating “the whole people” excels. Only 14 percent of undergraduate students are white. But the agenda Ciro developed, focused on a series of workshops around subjects like impostor syndrome, is regarded as singular in its intensity.
“A big part of Ciro’s program is at the earliest point possible to help students realize how they can take full advantage of this place,” Mr. Rich said. This was a direct line to fellowships and paid internships. “Ciro brings a distinctive commitment and compassion to making sure these kids make it through college.”
Returning to school after nearly 60 years had presented its own series of bureaucratic challenges. The high school Ciro went to in Brooklyn could not provide his transcript, which turned out to be on microfiche and thus might as well have been preserved on bark. City College had maintained a record of his time there, but still he would be required to take an entrance exam, he was told.
“I said: ‘What kind of test do I have to take? I opened a business; I closed a business. I traveled the world. I haven’t done algebra in a million years.’” Eventually he found someone who simply let him enroll; he began again, with a single course on the presidency. “And then I just kept going,” he said, “because time was of the essence.”
Moving along with a mission among people who were decades younger, he had not imagined acquiring a social life, but his classmates gravitated toward him — students from the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean. “We’d finish up after class and they’d say, ‘Hey, Ciro, what are you doing? Want to go get coffee?’ and I’d think What?” One evening he found himself joining his new friends to hear music at a tavern in Gowanus.
With Mahir Syed, whom he met in a class called The Historian’s Craft, he got involved in an ongoing text chain about the Yankees. Sadaab Rahman befriended Ciro in a class on African-American political thought. “He came in with a legal pad; everyone else was on their laptop,” Mr. Rahman, now a law student, told me. He was impressed by the way that Ciro modeled both how to use his voice in class but also how to hold back and let others have the floor. “He really helped people speak their truth; it was like having another professor in the class, a coach.”
In 2020, after he graduated, Ciro decided that he wanted to teach. Last year, he fulfilled that goal on the cusp of turning 80. Professors sent him out into the market with letters of recommendation outsize in their praise of his leadership and academic rigor and convinced that he would make an “extraordinary teacher.” He sent out many applications, a number to charter schools, where he thought he would be especially valuable, but to no avail because they typically favor young graduates of liberal arts colleges who often have little in common with the students they teach.
A few months ago, though, he got a call back from Mary McDowell, a private school in Brooklyn that specializes in children with learning differences. Soon after, he began going to work there most days as a roving substitute teacher, working with high school students. “The fact that I am surrounded by young people is extremely fulfilling,” Ciro wrote me one afternoon. “I recommend it for all adults. Spend time with young people. Don’t put the ‘mentoring’ hat on. In my opinion, that’s a turnoff for kids. Meet them at their level. Listen!”