PISCATAWAY, NJ - Quibbletown Middle School teacher Kyle Gurkovich makes math fun and exciting for his students by showing how math is used in real-world situations, and then adding in a few unexpected antics.
He’s probably best known for the time he set up a small camp site in the middle of his classroom and emerged from a tent while shaving, showing his first period students how committed he is to them and to the subject.
“They thought I had a late night and stayed over so I wouldn’t be late for the start of school,” said Gurkovich, who also coaches 13- to 18-year-olds for the Scarlet Aquatics national swimming program at Rutgers University.
But when he’s not in the classroom or coaching Olympic hopefuls, he stays busy challenging himself in different ways. In 2014 he tested his physical limits and twice set world records with the amount of pull-ups he was able to do in 24 hours, all while raising money for pediatric cancer research and awareness.
And in 2015, he decided to take a leap of faith and self-publish his first book, which he began writing seven years ago during his senior year at the University of Delaware, where he studied elementary and middle school education.
Written for young adults, “Unsung Heroes” is the story of Cathal (pronounced Calhal), who travels through different historic periods of great destruction, battling evil in pursuit of saving the world.
“I really like the idea that each human has a special ability or superpower that just needs to be unlocked, and that there’s a specific way to get it unlocked,” said Gurkovich. “That’s why it’s called 'Unsung Heroes', because we don’t really know about it. We’re all unsung heroes in a way.”
“I actually started writing it my senior year of college,” he said about his debut novel. “I was in a class for teaching early childhood writing and how to be imaginative, and how to put your thoughts down on paper, and in the middle of class I thought ‘I have a lot of cool thoughts’. So instead of taking class notes, I was writing my own notes. Eventually I was writing so many notes I was like, ‘I could actually make this into a book’.”
Gurkovich’s friends thought his notes were pretty cool which gave him the encouragement to keep writing. “I combined everything I liked into one and mapped it out so it could be a trilogy,” he said as he described how the notes became the framework for “Unsung Heroes”.
But as he entered the workforce, Gurkovich’s story development became more of a hobby as he worked on it every now and then over the years. “If I wasn’t teaching, coaching, or working out, or hanging out with my friends, if I had some spare time, I would start writing,” he explained. “But there would be some years where I wouldn’t write a single word. I never wanted to force myself to write.”
Then, after so many years of working on it, the first draft of “Unsung Heroes” was finished in June 2015, and writing as a hobby came to an end. Gurkovich was awestruck by what he had accomplished.
“When I told the kids that I was writing a book, some of the students were questioning me because I’m a math teacher,” he said. But others remembered that he does pull ups, too. “So I told them some of us can do more than whatever. I told them not to be pigeonholed into something and that I like to put myself out there to do different things.”
Gurkovich’s demonstration of his self determination is positive inspiration for his middle school students. He always tells them to start writing down their ideas now. “Some of the kids have funny ideas for YouTube videos, and I’m like ‘Do it’,” he said. “There are people who are famous on YouTube, so there’s no reason why they can’t be, too.” He hopes that message hits home with them.
Gurkovich loves history and thinks back on how much he enjoyed writing “Unsung Heroes”. “It is historical fiction and fantasy, and I loved doing the research for it,” said the math teacher. “I think it’s an awesome topic, which the kids also found weird that my favorite subject is history.”
A lot of his inspiration for the book’s topic came from reading similar novels by other authors including those from Dan Brown whose plots “are always changing and mixing history into thrillers.” He also gives credit to the fantasy featured in “The Lord of the Rings”, and “Indiana Jones going through temples.”
Gurkovich describes the historical fiction and fantasy genres as “very cool” and wrote “Unsung Heroes” in an easy to read format. “Fan-Fiction is very popular,” he said. “It’s about awesome superpowers and introduces people to history that they might not really know about such as different time periods where things happened that weren’t overly shown in history books.”
While “Unsung Heroes” is the first book in a planned trilogy and covers familiar topics about Nazi Germany during World War II, it also takes the reader through other periods including “China right before that war, as there were some terrible things happening there such as with the Mongolian Horde,” Gurkovich explained.
“The second book is going to go to places that aren’t widely taught and is more informative, but adds a fantasy spin to it,” he said. He plans to introduce a new character with this installment that will allow him to add spin off books to the collection.
There is some violence in the stories but Gurkovich adds that readers who are in high school have really enjoyed it as do their parents and people in their late 20s. “It’s really a wide range of people that have so far enjoyed it,” he said.
“Unsung Heroes” is available in paperback on Amazon and also can be downloaded on Kindle. It’s been out only two months and it’s already getting rave reviews. Anya Lopez, a student at Piscataway High School wrote, “Very proud of the author and his accomplishments. An extremely well written novel! Very impressed with the quality of this book from a first time author. Once you start the book, you don't want to put it down.”
Gurkovich is always telling his students about how much he enjoys doing different things. Their big question is if he going to run for president for his next endeavor. He laughs and tells them he’ll be a singer instead.
But actually he’s going to attempt setting the pull ups record one more time on April 30-May 1. As he reminds his students, “Anybody can do it if they work hard enough.” Gurkovich has indeed unlocked his superpower and is an unsung hero of inspiration to many.