School of the Holy Child
Dog trainer, small business owner, ballet and ballroom dancer, symphony choir soprano singer, pianist, professional baker, competitive diver, swim, lifeguard and CPR instructor, certified Iyengar yoga instructor, English teacher, mom to KiranAdele ‘26 . . . These are just a few of the titles that faculty member Michele Calvosa has worn and could wear...if you could get her to tell you about them. A fascinating fusion of interests and talents, Michele, to borrow the Whitman phrase, “contain[s] multitudes;” however, unlike the poet, she is not inclined to sing a “song of myself” any time soon. Humility and shyness are more her speed, and after six years at Holy Child, at least half of her titles would come as a surprise to many of her colleagues, not to mention her students.
Humble though she may be, Michele is no wilting flower. She also embodies the other interpretation of the phrase “what we’re made of” - pure grit. The daughter of two physicians and the oldest of three, Michele was raised on high expectations by both of her parents but attributes her toughness to her mother specifically, who hails from a generation in which women did not easily go into most professional fields, let alone medicine. “My grandfather was old-school Italian,” Michele explains. “Women didn’t have to go to school in my grandfather’s world, but my mother did.” She recalls her mother fighting the familial patriarchy on her behalf at a young age. Her grandfather came by their Brooklyn home ready to take his grandson to a Yankee game, and her mother let him know that he would not be “taking [his] grandson unless he was taking [his] granddaughter too.” Needless to say, this made an impression on Michele. “Professionally, she had to fight twice as hard as any guy,” Michele says of her mother. That she did, and Dr. Frances T. Calvosa eventually became the Director of Pediatric Ambulatory Care at Staten Island University Hospital.
Her mother’s fierce determination rubbed off on Michele. At 15, she watched her neighbor literally get pushed around by the German Shepherd puppy he was trying to walk down the street and, a wisp of a kid that she was, went up to “the strongest man on the street” and said, “I can make your dog heel.” Michele had never trained a dog before. “I picked up The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete,” she says, “and I made his dog heel. It was the first dog I trained, and I just kept doing it for friends and neighbors.” Today, Michele is the owner of Go, Dog, Go! K9 Academy and a certified NePoPo dog trainer working with clients around New York state.
While her mother may have inspired Michele to take on any challenge and stand up for herself, ironically, this independence may have inadvertently thwarted her parents’ dream of Michele following them into medicine and, if not medicine, then law. Though accepted to law school after receiving her BA in English and Philosophy from SUNY Albany, Michele carved out her own path, earning a master's in Ethics and Asian Philosophy from SUNY and then pursuing a Ph.D. in Phenomenology and Existentialism at Marquette University.
It was another of her self-taught passions and her toughness that put her through her Ph.D. program. “The first day I moved into my apartment in downtown Milwaukee I saw a sign on a building ‘Coming Soon: Greater Milwaukee Bread Company.’ I went home and baked muffins, scones, and pastries and came back to the bakery and said to the owner, ‘This is what I can do. Will you hire me?’ I worked there for the next eight years.”
Knowing that tenure track positions were rare for one person, let alone a couple (her husband, Dr. Paul Gyllenhammer, whom she met and married while at Marquette, is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University), Michele finished all but her dissertation and embarked on teaching as an adjunct professor at the undergraduate level. Eventually, she and her husband made their way back to New York, and Michele found herself teaching English at the secondary school level.
While the discipline she taught may have changed, her passion for philosophy, particularly Eastern religions and philosophy, was carried into her approach and thinking around teaching literature. Where Western philosophy focuses on logic and argument forms, eastern philosophy’s holistic explorations of what it means to be human intersect with one of the many reasons Michele loves literature - character.
“A lot of academic people in literature believe the character is secondary, and you can’t treat them like real people, but how do we learn anything from them if we don’t?” she posits. “For me, everything revolves around what it means to be human in the world,” Michele explains. “What is character? How do we build character, and what is this text saying about what makes us human?”
In a way, it comes back to a question of “what we’re made of” - the experiences, the feelings, and, often, the mistakes are what shape a person, real or fictional.
Not surprisingly, then, it is Lydia Bennet - the youngest of Pride and Prejudice’s Bennet sisters - not Elizabeth, who is Michele’s favorite in the classic Austen novel. Silly, immature, and rash, Lydia is the character who speaks to Michele. “She’s the one who gets blasted - she makes human mistakes,” Michele says, contrasting her with the heroine. “Elizabeth has to learn that she is making mistakes, but Lydia never sees the reality before her, never sees that she is making mistakes, like most people.”
The ability of literature to show all sides - to make Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Othello, to name a few of her other favorite characters - deeply sympathetic and simultaneously infuriating and hateful are what drive Michele as an educator. “There’s a difference between the flaws that you know you have that you can fix versus the flaws that you don't even know you have because you can’t figure out who you are yet or what place you have in the world,” she says. She hopes that her students, like her, will build compassion, see the complexity of what we’re made of, and harkening back to her philosophy roots, in Nietzschean terms, come to love the characters who are “human, all too human.”