In the second installment of our interview series, we’re introducing the delightful Manzanita early childhood assistant teacher Rod DeRienzo. Mr. Rod is known to many children on our campus as the famous voice of the Gold Monkey and Jeremy the Giant, two characters from an original story series he created for his daughter (if you aren’t a fan already, you can listen to one of his stories by clicking here). To grades students, he’s Mr. DeRienzo, last year’s lead aftercare teacher and the creator of stories about Phillipe, Suzette, and the mice of Córdoba.
Below, Mr. Rod shares how he began making up children’s stories, how he found Waldorf education, and what he likes about working in the Manzanita classroom.
Tell me about your background.
I grew up in New Jersey, in suburbia. My father was the mayor of my little town for 30 years.
Yep. Proud Democrat! And I got my first job before I was a year old.
And what was that?
I was a male model. I was the “dry baby” for the Pampers commercials that ran for about three years between 1972-75. You can still find them on YouTube.
Yes, millions of people have seen my rear end.
How do you even get cast for something like that?
That was my mother. She thought I was such a cute baby.
Did you see yourself as a teacher growing up, or is that something that came later?
Again, with my father being mayor, he was always involved in Scouts and coaching and all that, so I think I inherited his interest in helping children. For a time I was the adult leader of the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, when I was 18 years old. Yup, I’m an Eagle Scout.
I’ve always been interested in education. I helped tutor my niece and nephews before I had my own family. I went to a Montessori grade school so I’ve always appreciated alternatives to the standard.
After college, I went right into the family business, which was corporate moving in the New York–New Jersey area. I ran crews of 100+ men, big trucks in and out. I got to yell a lot. But that experience probably helps with staying calm amongst herds of children.
What brought you to Waldorf?
My wife. She found it for my stepdaughter, Oona. To be honest, at first I thought it was silly. I thought the children would know nothing but churning butter and knitting. But when Oona was in kindergarten I volunteered in the woodworking class, as a father volunteer, and that’s when I started looking around and realizing how wonderful it all is.
Dave Alsop, who was involved in the Bay Area Center for Waldorf Teacher Training, was running a new dad circle where we would meet at the school once a week, read a book, and talk about how to be good fathers. It was through him that I learned about the teacher training and my wife suggested that I take it. She knew my destiny long before I did!
I enrolled in BACWTT in 2013. That year BACWTT was moving their summer session from the East Bay to the Marin Waldorf campus and they needed someone with moving experience.
No, I’m not.
So since 2013, I’ve been on BACWTT’s board of directors. Actually, now I’m the president of the board. So I’ve come a long way from my initial what are these hippies doing?
My first Waldorf job was in the kindergarten with Ms. Lisa, even before I graduated from the teacher training. I was the early childhood aftercare assistant. I’ve taught a combined 5th/6th grade at another Waldorf school and have substituted in all the classes here at MWS and was the grades aftercare teacher here for a few years. During training, I wanted to be in the high school track, because my college degree is in medieval history, but fate seems to bring me to the little ones.
What’s the best part of the day in the Manzanita class?
The best part of the day? Hmm, it’s hard to say. I think the best part of the day is observing the children during free play. I’m part referee, part lifeguard. And to see them—how they interact, how they’re growing, how they work through their dilemmas—it’s just wonderful to see.
What’s it like working in early childhood and having your son right across the way?
It’s perfect. We want him to be independent and not always with Daddy, but I get to look over the fence and see him playing. I can hear the teachers singing, “Ozzi, put that stick down!”
You know, it’s precious, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Our children grow up so fast. Oona is already in 8th grade! And here we are, starting from the bottom up again. It’s kinda nice.
That’s where all the stories come from—it’s from Oona. Because I would tell Oona stories every night, and the books we had—the standard Doctor Seuss and whatnot—I thought I could do better. I started telling her stories and we would be giggling and laughing away in the room and my wife Tanya would wonder, What are you telling her, is it appropriate? What’s going on in there?
To provide proof of my appropriateness, I began to record our stories. It then became a tradition to record all of our bedtime stories. For Oona, I have 800 or so recorded. And for Ozzi, we’re on 604 as of last night.
So Tanya could hear them too?
Yup, she trusts me now. After a decade or so!
Well, now your stories have made you famous on our campus.
For years I’ve told the children stories in aftercare, both grades and early childhood, as well as during the distance learning last year. I also recorded stories during the summer for my fans.
Are you sure you don’t want to write a book?
No, you know, it’s the sound and the voices. I like uploading stories to my Patreon site. I intend to add some more stories for November. Actually, my wife and I do have a rough draft of a historical romance we’ve written together. But that story is not for the kids!
Interview by Julie Meade. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.