Fifth Grade, 1964.

The Cold War.

The space race.

And an amazing teacher.

I loved school back then. And after a long summer, I was ready to get back in the classroom. We always started the day after Labor Day. Who would our teacher be? We hoped she’d be a good one.

We got two surprises on that first day. First, our new teacher was a man, and we’d never had a male teacher before. There weren’t a lot of guys teaching in elementary school back then. (There still aren’t.) He introduced himself as Mister George Kolok, a tall, dark-haired man in his thirties. But this was nothing compared to surprise number two.

He would be teaching both the fifth and sixth grades. At the same time. In the same room.

It turned out the sixth-grade teacher had left just before the school year started and they couldn’t find anyone to fill in. So we piled into one large room, with fifth graders on the right and sixth graders on the left.

This would be interesting.

It would also introduce me to an incredible teacher.

Mister Kolok devised a very creative plan. He would teach one class while giving the other something to do. For instance, he’d tell the fifth grade to read a chapter in a history book while he taught math to the sixth grade. Then he’d give the sixth-graders math problems to work on and discuss the history chapter with the fifth graders. How he managed to juggle this is anyone’s guess, but his system actually worked.

(We devious fifth-graders quickly figured out that if we finished our assignments quickly we could listen in on what the sixth-graders were being taught. This little spy tactic would later make the sixth grade a breeze.)

But there was something that wasn’t in the curriculum. Mister Kolok was a news junkie. Having just gone through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and the JFK assassination in 1963, we kids knew a lot more about world events and politics than you’d expect at that age. When you’re a few miles from Manhattan and knew the Russians might nuke New York, you get interested in the news.

So one of Mister Kolok’s juggling acts was the assignment of “current events.” He’d pass out newspapers and ask each student to find a story that the class would discuss. This was a lot more interesting than the stuff in the history book. At that time New York had eight daily newspapers, so there was a lot from which to choose. He also brought his favorite magazine to share, US News and World Report. I tried reading it once but it was pretty serious stuff, way over the head of a 10-year-old.

Still, between what we saw on the evening news and Mister Kolok’s class, we became news junkies ourselves, clipping stuff out of the newspaper at home as well. (Mom asked me to not shred the thing until she’d read it, as she did not enjoy reading a newspaper with holes.) We became so in tune with the news that one day my friend Eddie came up with an idea. “Why don’t we start our own class newspaper?”

So a few of us wrote about things going on in the neighborhood: who was building a hut in the back yard, a story about making extra money collecting glass soda deposit bottles, and some sports. Since my mom had a typewriter, I changed the ribbon so our first edition would look good, took what my classmates had written, and typed it up on one page.

The next day we proudly presented it to Mister Kolok, telling him it was our neighborhood version of current events. He stopped what he was doing and read the entire thing to both classes.

Later that day he pulled me aside and asked me if I enjoyed writing. I told him writing the class newspaper was fun and I had grown to love reading about current events, so he challenged me to write a short story. Since I liked the Twilight Zone and the Cold War was in the news every day, I wrote a story about astronauts who returned to earth after a nuclear war. I handed it to my teacher and eagerly waited for his feedback.

The next day he told me it was a good story, but there were a few things to fix. He’d taken a red pen to it and pointed out a few mistakes I’d made about the Russians. Which taught me to do a little research if I didn’t know the facts. As my Dad always said, “If you don’t understand something, look it up.” Mister Kolok encouraged me to keep writing and to bring him a story anytime.

That was the year I didn’t look forward to summer vacation. I had never learned so much from a teacher, stuff that went far beyond anything in a book. I didn’t want the school year to end. None of us did. Each day we couldn’t wait to get to school, because Mister Kolok would share something interesting. When he talked about current events, he treated us like adults, because what was going on in the world at the time was serious stuff. He was our local news anchor.

And he turned me on to the joy of writing. Being a reporter. Being a storyteller. Thirty-five years in the news business and 24 novels later, I can trace the beginning back to Mister Kolok’s class and his spark of inspiration.

A few years ago I was watching a movie called “Mister Holland’s Opus” about a teacher who thinks he hasn’t accomplished much but finds out how many students he’s inspired. As soon as I saw it, I decided to look up some of my favorite teachers. I wrote to my college journalism teacher and thanked him. He wrote back.

But sadly, Mister Kolok had passed away. I felt bad that I hadn’t looked him up earlier, wishing I could have told him how he had inspired me, and how important he was in my life.

And that’s the point from this storyteller. If there has been a teacher like George Kolok who’s changed your life, take the time to say thank you before it’s too late.

Randy Tatano lives in Brewton and is the author of more than 20 novels, writing political thrillers under the pen name Nick Harlow, and romantic comedies as Nic Tatano. He spent 30 years working in television news as a local affiliate reporter and network field producer. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to