- May 20, 2020
In the corner of Bella Rubal’s first grade classroom at Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary are cubbies that always have been filled with her students' backpacks.
Now that Rubal has begun her first year teaching at the school, something else has joined those backpacks — a stuffed animal, school mascot Wally Wildcat.
This school year marks a return for both Rubal, who attended McNeal as a student, and that particular Wally Wildcat, who was given to Rubal when she was a kindergartner at the school.
At the time, kindergarten teacher Stacy Freeman would present her students with different stuffed animals. Wally Wildcat was Rubal's favorite.
“I vividly remember being so happy that she chose me to take him home,” Rubal said. “As a little kindergartner, that was just the best thing in the world. I remember being so excited.”
Now Rubal keeps Wally Wildcat in her own classroom as a daily reminder of Freeman, and the impact she had on her as a child.
She doesn't need too many reminders as both teachers work on the staff at McNeal. Now McNeal is Freeman's colleague.
Several teachers in East County have come full circle, working at schools they once attended as students.
When Kate Cucci walked onto Braden River Middle School’s campus in August for her first day as a new assistant principal, Diane Minero, the senior secretary who retired in August, recognized her immediately.
Cucci said at first Minero thought she looked familiar and probably was a cousin of her husband, Steve Cucci. That was until Kate Cucci reminded Minero of her maiden name, Joseph. Minero then remembered her and her brothers and pulled out a yearbook to reminisce.
“That really solidified that I was right where I should be,” Cucci said. “I had this long adventure of figuring out who I wanted to be and why, and I ended up in a place where people remember me as a student. I want the same for my students, to have that connection.”
For Rubal and Cucci, returning to their former schools, now as a teacher and an administrator, was a dream come true.
Rubal said her goal always was to return to McNeal as a teacher. She purposefully stayed near home for college, attending the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee so she could intern at McNeal with the hopes she would be hired full-time.
“I felt like I was coming home,” Rubal said. “I was coming back to where I belonged. Everyone here is so helpful, welcoming and warm. I just felt like this is where I belong and this is what I’m meant to do.”
Freeman, who now teaches third grade, said Rubal was a quiet student who always looked out for her classmates.
“She stood out as being a very special, kind-hearted person,” Freeman said. “Honestly, she was an amazing student. Then for her to turn around and share that personality and all of her kindness now with a whole (new) generation of kids is amazing.”
Freeman said she catches herself sometimes calling Rubal by her first name in the hallways rather than Miss Rubal in front of the students.
Rubal said working with her former teachers was intimidating at first because she looked up to her as a child. She quickly learned there was no reason to be intimidated.
“To little kids, teachers are superheroes, they’re their whole world,” Rubal said. “I quickly learned they’re just people, and they’re really nice people.”
Mindy Swartling, Rubal's fourth grade teacher who now teaches fifth grade at McNeal, presented Rubal with a plaque with a quote about being a teacher for her desk.
Rubal gets some teaching tips from Swartling during the break they have each day when their students have lunch. They both share advice.
"In the teachers lounge, I was so excited to see her in there at the same time because I can see her every day," Swartling said. "I can check in on her and see how things are going."
At Lakewood Ranch High, Thomas Durante never thought he would become an educator let alone return to his alma mater. When he graduated in 2007, his sights were set on music composition. He later opened a business when he was 26, repairing and rebuilding pianos before he started teaching.
His return to Lakewood Ranch High School in September 2021 seemed bizarre to him.
“Seeing (former teachers) from a different viewpoint, holding all the keys to all the doors and all the places I’m still discovering was very eye opening,” said Durante, who teaches orchestra, guitar, and other music classes. “You have more sympathy for what (teachers) do. You don’t understand everything that goes into being a teacher until you’re actually doing it.”
Durante said he ran into his former marine sciences teacher, Larry Hickman, who still had a project Durante did in his class. The assignment was to pick a topic from the class and do something creative with it. Durante decided to write a song about flying fish.
“That was cool to see that," Durante said. "Wow!. I had kind of a memorable impact on him just as much as he had on me.”
Durante always wanted to become a college professor but teaching AP Music Theory, which is a college course, has satisfied that desire.
“What I’m realizing as I’ve done more teaching is that this is what I’m meant to be doing,” Durante said. “I feel like I’ve arrived where I belong. Everything I do, I’m super passionate about. I’ve never been a morning person, but I wake up at 5 a.m., I have my coffee and I’m ready to go. It’s been life changing just being here and having this opportunity.”
Durante has become accustomed to leading the orchestra rather than being in one of the seats playing viola or violin. He’s even added his own flair for being a director. For example, during the orchestra and band’s May 4 Star Wars theme concert, he didn’t hesitate to grab a lightsaber and started conducting with it.
Cucci often tells the students about her experiences at Braden River Middle School when she attended from 1994 to 1997. The teachers and coaches she had helped her to realize she wanted to be a middle school educator.
“If you’re going to influence and mold a student, middle school is when we have the availability to do that,” she said. “Middle schoolers can be a little bit easier to influence and to guide, and they’re looking for that.”
Cucci just moved to East County from Sarasota. She remembered being a student and riding her bike to school and having to adjust to being in middle school on top of being at a new school.
“It was exciting to start something new, but definitely intimidating to not really know that many people,” she said.
But she had some great experiences.
Somewhere stored away in the school's gymnasium, which currently going through renovations, is the Golden Shoe Cucci and her 4x100 meter relay teammates earned at a track meet.
Stephen Gregorich, a physical education teacher at Braden River Middle, remembered Cucci as an energetic student and now knows her as an energetic assistant principal.
"She's almost the same kind of person, but just in adult form," Gregorich said.
In some ways, Cucci, Rubal and Durante are still students as they take every opportunity to learn from their former teachers, and veteran teachers.
“The teachers still on staff, who were part of my middle school years, are some of the best and brightest,” Cucci said. “Knowing that, I’m coming from a perspective of 'you raised me up.'"
Now they all have combined to help build future leaders together.
"It’s quite humbling, Cucci said. "It’s a monumental year for me to learn how to coach alongside the best of the best.”