By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Alexandria’s schools have changed a lot during the past 60 years, however, there has been one constant: Mr. Kokonis.
Louis Kokonis, 86, a math teacher currently working at T.C. Williams High School, has been a fixture in Alexandria’s public school system for six decades. He is the longest-serving teacher in the city’s history. He has worked long enough to teach at both Francis C. Hammond High School and T.C. Williams and long enough to witness the integration of Alexandria’s school system.
Despite all of these changes, Kokonis has continued to teach math, his lanky frame standing in front of the black- board – now smartboard – and his mind, effort and time focused on helping his students learn.
To celebrate his 60 years of service, the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria held an event on Jan. 11. Parents, teachers and students past and present gathered at T.C. Williams to honor Kokonis and raise money for the Louis Kokonis Teaching Legend Scholarship, which goes toward helping disadvantaged students afford a college education.
“I think it’s significant that students of their own accord would want to come together to celebrate his 60 years and to support in his honor,” Beth Lovain, executive director of the Scholarship Fund, said.
Raised in Washington D.C., Kokonis graduated from Roosevelt High School. He always admired his high school teachers, and, in 1959, he received his degree at D.C. Teachers’ College and started his own career as a teacher. Intent on staying close to home, Kokonis began teaching math at Francis C. Hammond High School in 1959, eventually moving to T.C. Williams High School in 1970 after Hammond and George Washington High School consolidated.
Kokonis was always drawn to math, and he still enjoys teaching calculus and algebra for the same reason he enjoyed learning it himself.
“The thing I like about math is that there’s a right answer,” Kokonis. “Unlike in history where you’re arguing about which is the best president, well, with math, two plus two is four. No one’s arguing.”
For Kokonis, who shirks the spotlight, the celebration on Friday and attention from media outlets and peers are nice but unexpected, he said.
“It came all of a sudden,” Kokonis said. “It’s the 60th year and then suddenly I’m getting all this attention that I’ve never gotten before. In a sense, it’s stressful.”
According to his colleagues and students, Kokonis has never been one to draw attention to himself. Even in his younger years, Kokonis was reserved, quiet and focused. He never raises his voice, but he commands the classroom all the same.
“His affect is very matter of fact. It’s not real animated,” John Porter, former T.C Williams principal from 1984 to 2006, said. “But you can tell he cares because he wants every kid to understand it, and he wants to make sure every student he has benefits the most they can from being in his class.”
Kokonis has always had two things the best teachers have: an incredible understanding of the content and the ability to impart that understanding to others, Porter said. His style might be straightforward and simple, but throughout the years he has fostered a relationship with his students that is built on his ability and mutual respect.
“There was an unspoken expectation that we would do the work and we could do the work” Mary Ames, who took Kokonis’ calculus class in 1964 at Hammond High School, said. “He was one of the few teachers that silently required respect because he gave it.”
After 60 years, Kokonis remains as dedicated as ever to his students. His five classes are still at capacity. This year, when the school didn’t have enough staff to run its math center for students who need extra help, Kokonis stepped in and volunteered his time. Principal Peter Balas, one of the last people to leave the school each day, said Kokonis’ 1982 Toyota Corolla is often still in its parking spot when he departs.
The Scholarship Fund’s event on Friday raised close to $17,000 for the scholarship in Kokonis’ name. Kokonis received a memory book full of quotes from students he had taught. Balas also unveiled a new T.C. Williams tradition in honor of Kokonis’ service: any teacher who works for 60 years will receive a parking spot in their name. Balas presented Kokonis with a sign that will reserve Kokonis’ spot until he, eventually, retires. The sign reads: “Reserved for Mr. Louis Kokonis. Inspiring students since 1959.”
The pomp and circumstance is new for a teacher who is anything but. In the end, Kokonis thinks of his 60 years in Alexandria’s schools in the same straightforward, focused way that he teaches.
“I went from year to year and then suddenly it was just 60,” Kokonis said. “I never thought about retiring. It never came to mind, so I just kept going.”
To donate to the Louis Kokonis Teaching Legend Scholarship, go to www.alexscholarshipfund.org/donate/ and note “Kokonis” in Special Instructions.