Saturday, May 1, 2010

Queen of Sh!t to leave the building

As the trying months of winter descended, my mentor revealed an idea that she had been deliberating.

“I’m seriously thinking about leaving,” she entertained over the telephone. “I might retire.”

“Retire?” I chuckled, my voice rising partly out of amusement, largely out of disbelief. “You’re too young to retire.”

“No, really,” she replied. “We need to look at the money. Can I afford to leave?”

Her tone revealed a sense of seriousness.

Would the season, indeed, change so soon?

Knowing that Marcy could possibly say goodbye to the classroom just was not fathomable to me. After all, she is clearly the person who most shaped my personal philosophy on public education.

Granted, teachers enter the field with their own tenets of how instruction can and should be delivered. However, for the lucky ones, that tenet changes when we cross paths with people who end up molding our own beliefs, making us more dynamic, better cross-trained professionals. This happens when we encounter people who exhibit qualities that we wish to embrace, to embody in our quest to improve our students and ourselves.

And for the past 10 years, the person I so wish to emulate has been Marcy.

When we first met in 2000, my world had just changed personally and professionally. I was still coping with a shattered engagement to a talented writer. Depression owned me. Add that to the fact that I had just left behind the newsroom, my home away from home for nearly 15 years. I had not yet kicked the habits that journalism can nurture: lots of crowing, lots of coffee, lots of cursing. I left behind the familiar comforts of a daily deadline in a busy newsroom of writers and shooters to embark on this new career, tackling the daily stresses of 100-plus high school students in a district with socio-economic factors that weren’t pretty.

An easy transition it wasn't.

And then the bombshell hit when I joined this new venture: I discovered that a stunning, sophisticated former homecoming queen with a penchant for Talbot’s and fine wine agreed to mentor me, a newbie struggling with a serious caffeine withdrawal, a truck driver’s mouth, and bad shoes. Within the first two days or so, I probably shocked her with my constant colloquialism: “This place is a clusterf@ck.” I said it as if I was talking about the weather. But that’s what happens when you’re been breast-fed by gritty editors and jaded writers. Profanity becomes your dialect.

That first year, she scared me like no editor had ever done. Little did I know it, but a few others feared her as well. Confident, articulate, well spoken, and well bred, she wore these reading glasses over which she could peer at me with furrowed brow. For the first few months, I grew worried that this was never going to work. She didn’t like me, I figured. But I would make the best of it.

Within time, however, something happened.

I started to get her, and she started to get me. And that was it. I dubbed her the Queen of Sh!t, my moniker for a woman who rises above all others. It's a phrase I use sparingly.

For the next nine years, my mentor became one of my dearest friends, a woman who I now trust with my life, a woman who works harder than any other teacher I know, a woman who had three approaches to getting kids to reach for the bar: “Rigor, rigor, rigor.” It didn’t take long for me to hang on to her every word, as I still do.

Over time, Marcy’s ability to appreciate strong prose, engaging poetry, and beautiful photography (taken from her talented eye) made me realize how alike we are—an idea I would have never envisioned.

As a teacher, I’ve had frank conversations with students who had Marcy as a teacher. Many say they were scared of her. Why? She made them work, she expected them to work, she demanded their best. She didn’t give grades. They earned them. But what do they all say? That she was the one English teacher who made them learn the most, who best equipped them for college, and for that they were thankful.

And now, now that she has finally made her decision to leave behind Salinger and Shakespeare and SAT prep, my heart grows heavy. For as this chapter of hers closes, the world of education will lose a truly talented, dynamic, and knowledgeable spirit, a person who never settled for mediocrity, for ineptitude, for short cuts that compromised high standards. I cannot fathom how many hundreds of young people she touched. But to me, the fact that I was privy to have her touch my life makes me just as rich as those kids.

Last month, I cried to her on the phone about how I felt Freedom was losing one of its best educators. But as she chooses a greener path, I realized that as long as I command a classroom, she will be right there next to me for I carry so many of her qualities with me. The following day, as I prepared to administer a vocabulary quiz to my kids, I repeated one of her favorite phrases: “Assume the position.”

My professional goal is to do just that. Assume the position. I can do this by emulating the Queen of Sh!t as best as possible, a woman for whom I have the highest respect.

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