Profile of a Teacher

ML—Just writing to confirm that we're on for Tuesday at 8 a.m.

You can park in the guest spots right in front of school. My office is on the 2nd floor when you come in the main entrance, take a left, go past the chapel and up the first set of stairs on the left.  I'll keep an eye out for you!  If you need to reschedule, give a call or email.



At 7:35 a.m., they begin to arrive in droves: a silver minivan, an SUV, and a bus release young boys at the front glass doors of Catholic Memorial High. While in one of the visitor parking spaces out front, I see a few boys help what looks like a coach carry folding chairs from the Donahue Hall across the street into the main entrance.

They are neatly dressed in khaki pants that fall squarely on the tongues of brown shoes. Almost all wear a collared shirt that cradles a tie. They walk quickly, some shouldering bags that seem to weigh more than they do. They look eager to learn.

Main entrance…past the chapel…first set of stairs

“May I help you?”

My roaming halts. “Who are you here to see?” an inquisitive woman with short dark hair asks. “Is someone expecting you?”

I tell her. She ushers me into her office and places a call to Joseph McGonegal, whom the school’s staff directory lists as “Teacher, Director of Communications,” and leaves a message.

“Joe, I have Marsha here to see you ... I will take her down to the office.”

At 8:06, Joe hurries into the office and inquires if I've been waiting long. He holds himself back from greeting me with a professional handshake. Joe and I are enrolled in Magazine Writing at Harvard and are assigned to tackle a class project together.

As we enter his office, I see that it has one rare window and a horseshoe-shaped, wooden desk. A desktop computer, a laptop, and a Cannon DSLR jockey for position on his self-described messy desk. He removes an outer layer to reveal that a crisp collared shirt, too, outfits his slender frame.

I notice that his computer monitor is under siege: Yellow sticky notes are suspended from its bottom edge and work their way up, north, along the right side of the screen.

“We’re competing against schools that have three of me,” says Joe, legs crossed ankle to knee. “I feel people are grateful for my work, but I do feel very short-staffed.”

The salt and pepper gray-haired, six-time marathon runner is still, however, composed and shows comfort working at his desk.


Born in New Jersey, Joe grew up in Burlington, Vermont, with three older brothers, all of whom went to the University of Vermont. When it came time for Joe to go to school, his father sat him down to reveal that they had nothing left for his higher education. He applied and received a full scholarship to Marquette in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for Navy ROTC.

"I was kind of into boats growing up," says Joe, whose uncle manned a boat called Sense; recently Joe has purchased a 14-foot aluminum boat he’s named Nonsense.

An English major from the start, his love of boats couldn’t keep him in school. A year and a half into it, he dropped ROTC and had to repay the Navy the money they had invested in him. His English studies then took center stage, as he moved in an accelerated fashion through the program in three years. Unable to land a job by graduation in 1995, he went on to complete a master’s in English at Marquette.

In 1997, master’s in hand, he landed a teaching job in Boca Raton, Florida, which he found while perusing the New York Times. No Internet then, he reminds me.

He points to a framed photograph hanging over my left shoulder. “That’s a picture of me with my first class.”

He was much larger then; his warm smile illuminated round cheeks that glistened in the wake of the camera’s flash.

“I had gained 30 pounds with all the Jewish mothers feeding me," Joe laughs. "Thirty minutes of Jewish prayer a day in Hebrew. I shared a class with a Hebrew teacher so I learned a lot of Hebrew. But I was a Catholic boy, born and raised.”

He remembers making a lot of teaching mistakes while there, at times even yelling at the kids. But after a three-year stint, when he'd gained his “teaching legs,” he grew nostalgic for home.


His next job in rural Peterborough, New Hampshire, paid $27,000-a-year as a freshman English teacher.

"It was as full-time as you could get, grading papers all night and just sweating it…and the kids were just rotten to me,” says Joe, giving his eyes a contemplative rub.

He remained in that position for only one year and eventually moved to Catholic Memorial in 2001, where he was an English teacher for eight years.

He moderated the school newspaper, helped with the yearbook, and crafted other alumni publications as well.  He began freelancing in 1997 for the West Roxbury Transcript and convinced the president of Catholic Memorial that they needed someone to manage the school’s communications.

“We don’t have a marketing director here, and I keep doing stories about our school for the local paper. Why don’t I do that in-house?” Joe implored.

He's been Communications Director at Catholic Memorial for four years now. About two years ago, he married an altruistic public defender who is now an assistant DA in Woburn.

Joe recently began the journalism master's program at Harvard, and he says one of his greatest accomplishments came this past summer, when he wrote a piece for about the dismantling of the vessel used in the filming of the Voyage of the MiMi.

Currently, Joe is working on a piece about tracking right whales along the eastern seaboard. Ten years from now, he sees himself either writing a novel or a piece of nonfiction. But whatever he chooses to write, it should involve a low beam of sun dancing on water, tree roots tangled in mangroves, a receding shoreline, or a maritime adventure with his Nonsense, perhaps.

 by ML Cornwall