There’s a magical place in New York City. When I’m there, it’s hard to remember that I’m still within the city limits. The weather is often different there than it is anywhere else in the city. There are rarely any taxis. There are a couple of subway stops, but they’re run with the kind of dreamy inefficiency better suited to a sleepy Italian village than the NYC MTA. The people there sound like they’re from Brooklyn or Queens (or both) but dress like they’re going surfing, because they often are—the beach is never more than five minutes away. This Brigadoon-ish place is a spit of land that launches itself off Queens into the Atlantic Ocean, where it curves around Brooklyn. If you’ve ever flown out of JFK, you’ve probably seen it from the air. It’s beach and boardwalk, skyscrapers and marinas, the cold swell of the November ocean, and the bright heat of a July day. Although it’s made up of many different neighborhoods, everyone just calls it Rockaway.
It’s better known than it once was, thanks to the national coverage of the devastation Hurricane Sandy wrought there, as well as the subsequent rebuilding and rebirth of its shoreline. But until 2012, if you had heard of Rockaway and you weren’t from there, you were a Ramones fan, or you remembered that a jet crashed there almost exactly two months after 9/11, or you were a New Yorker who liked going to the beach. When I first went there, in 2004, I had only vaguely heard of it, even though I’d lived in Brooklyn for about four years by then. If pressed, I would have guessed that Rockaway was in Connecticut, because everything New York–adjacent whose location I didn’t really know turned out to be in Connecticut.
There was a Catholic girls high school in Rockaway Park on Beach 112th Street—in that name is everything that makes Rockaway special—that needed a substitute English teacher, so the principal, Geri, called me in for an interview. Even though I wasn’t keen on teaching in a Catholic school, and especially not a single-sex one (especially one in Connecticut), I desperately needed a job, and it was the Friday before Labor Day weekend, which meant classes were starting in five days, so I was almost out of time… so off I went to that enchanted place.
“The name means Mary, Star of the Sea, perfect for a school so close to the Atlantic Ocean that the faculty parking lot bumped up against a sand dune.”
I’m overselling Rockaway, I know. It’s just as dirty, oily, and smelly as any other part of the city, and while it is beautiful in places, the trash still piles up next to rickety old buildings, the smell of pee is somehow pervasive, and strangers yell at you for no reason. It is New York, after all. But for me, Rockaway is magical because I got that job, and it changed my life.
Stella Maris High School was the school on Beach 112th. The name means Mary, Star of the Sea, perfect for a school so close to the Atlantic Ocean that the faculty parking lot bumped up against a sand dune. The building dated from the 1960s. If you google it, you’ll see that it’s a classic boxy design from that time, as school-ish as can be. Stella, as everyone called it, as if she were a friend, had long served the Catholic daughters of Rockaway Park, Far Rockaway, Belle Harbor, Roxbury, and Breezy Point, all the communities on that spit of land. Its reputation was of a good, safe, tight-knit school at a relatively low price, the tuition at least half of what private schools in Manhattan cost. At its high point, longtime faculty told me, Stella had been so crowded that they had to convert the teachers’ lounge into a classroom, had to ask some of the nuns from the attached convent to teach.
By the time I got there, those days were long gone. The school was on its last legs, the cost too much for the Sisters of St. Joseph to bear any longer, or so they said. Like much of the Roman Catholic Church in America, the Diocese of Brooklyn was in crisis, combining and closing churches and schools. Fewer parents wanted their children to attend a Catholic school, and there were fewer nuns and priests to teach for free—in fact, while I was there, no priests taught at the school at all and only a half dozen nuns did, all of them over the age of fifty. Every year that I was there, the diocese and the Sisters warned that the school’s enrollment had to soar, even though it wasn’t really that bad: four full classes of freshmen every year. But all things mortal must pass eventually: Stella Maris closed in 2010, two years after I left.
I miss Stella. It was the best school I taught at before I came to Pitt. There are so many things I want to remember, I can write her an alphabet.
A Is for the A Train
I took the A train to get to Stella. Perhaps the best way to illustrate my gratitude for having that job is to tell you about my commute, which was so nuts, it had to have been an act of devotion. I had to leave my apartment before six, almost always in the dark or at dawn, and walk about ten minutes to the Seventh Avenue F train stop. I’d take the F to Jay Street, in downtown Brooklyn, and switch to the A train, making sure that I got the one heading to Broad Channel, which sometimes meant watching three trains go by before mine arrived.
Once at Broad Channel, an island in Jamaica Bay, I’d get out and wait on the platform for the S train. Often, students from Stella who commuted in from other parts of Queens or Brooklyn would be there, and we’d grimly greet each other, each of us unhappy with our lot in life, whether we were too hot or too cold. What was maddening about that particular moment in the commute was that the S train we needed to ride was inevitably already at the station, just off the main train tracks in a holding area, waiting. But the S shared a track with the A, and the A trains on their way into Manhattan got priority because, after all, who would be commuting to Rockaway at 7 a.m.? Sometimes we’d watch three or four As come through, while the S waited and waited until finally, finally, it would lumber out of its holding pen and pick us up.
From the Broad Channel stop the S train ran on a narrow subway-only bridge crossing over the rest of Jamaica Bay and then along an elevated track into and through Rockaway. That early part of the trip was both mysterious and beautiful at any time of the year, in the fogs of fall, the icy depths of winter, or the sharp, hard sunshine of spring and summer. Because the bridge wasn’t visible from inside the train, the view as we surged along made me feel as if we were flying somehow, just skimming over the water. The juxtaposition of being on a subway—the most urban mode of transportation—and yet seeming to glide through an almost uninhabited world of water and fog and seabirds stunned me every time. Even on the day I went to interview at Stella, running very late, I was struck by its strange beauty.
The subway let us out at Beach 116th Street, so the last leg of the trip was a brisk walk/near run of four blocks to get to Stella on time. Occasionally I arrived early enough to walk on the beach, or at least the boardwalk, before school, another beautiful aspect of that commute, which had me singing happy Springsteen songs in the sunshine and grimly sad ones in the fog and cold. But let’s be honest: I was only there early enough to do this maybe once a month.
“I stood out for many reasons, being not Catholic, not from New York, and new to teaching high school.”
It was my great luck that the commute was so beautiful because it was incredibly fricking long. If—if—everything ran smoothly, I could go door to door in about ninety minutes. But things rarely ran smoothly because of that S train mishegas. So I was perpetually nearly late, and fairly often actually late. To their immense credit, no administrator ever seemed to care as much about this as I did, but oh, it bugged me. I never wanted to seem ungrateful.
B Is for the Beach
Sometimes during lunch, I would walk out of the front doors of the school, up the sidewalk on the half block to the boardwalk, and then down the stairs onto the beach. When I looked out across the Atlantic Ocean, I would remember that when I’d visited the west coast of Ireland, someone had told me, as we looked across the ocean, “Here, we say the next diocese is Brooklyn.”
C Is for Colleagues
Stella was the first school where I had colleagues who weren’t all in their first few years of teaching. They were fantastic women—and two token, also fantastic, men—full of wisdom, and eager to share it. I stood out for many reasons, being not Catholic, not from New York, and new to teaching high school, and thus a great recipient for their collective knowledge about teaching. From them, I learned how to make a multiple-choice test, oversee detention, and determine whether anyone was reading the assigned book. I was also without a vehicle of my own, nearly unheard of that far east in the city. Before our first parent-teacher night, I innocently asked someone in the teachers’ lounge about the likelihood of getting a car service to take me back to Park Slope at 9 p.m., and a hue and cry was raised about my vulnerability to murder on the streets of what had to be one of the safest neighborhoods in the city. The other teachers immediately made sure I would never have to miss an event or, God forbid, walk around at night because of needing a ride again. Liz, the talented art teacher, chauffeured me around for four years, and was a delight about it throughout. It still boggles my mind that she would do that without any reward, but at least now her kindness is recorded in this book.
D Is for Diversity
One aspect of Stella that I immediately loved was the diversity of the student body. Even though most of the girls were Catholic, not all were—we had students who were Lutheran (I know this because I once offhandedly mentioned I was Lutheran to a class, and for years afterward, the other Lutheran and Protestant girls I didn’t even know would find me to make contact, which always made me feel like a minor character in a British costume drama), Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and, of course, no religion at all. We had tons of Mary Katherines and Marias, as Rockaway remained strongly Irish, Italian, and Irish-Italian, but we also had girls with Puerto Rican, African American, Caribbean, African, Indian, Scandinavian, eastern European, Colombian, Mexican, Venezuelan, Spanish, British, Guyanese, and Moroccan roots. Many students claimed mixed ethnic backgrounds too, with names like Modesty Hannah Hernandez and Veronica O’Reilly-Castro.
Queens is often described as the most diverse borough in the most diverse city in the world. I have no way of knowing if that’s true, but Stella definitely made it seem that way. After years of teaching mostly white students, I was so happy to work in a school that reflected the broad swath of humanity I saw in New York.
E Is for Evaluations
Teachers at Stella sent home midterm evaluations every marking period. The other teachers usually sent one home only if a student was failing or causing mayhem, but I chose to fill one out for every student, which meant that I wrote about a hundred evaluations four times a year. I did it because, especially during my first year, I felt that, like the baroness in The Sound of Music, I was there on approval. I had to prove that I was worth hiring back.
One day, as I was filling out the stack of evals in the faculty lounge, one of the other teachers noticed. “You’re filling one of those out for every student?” I nodded. She snorted. “Yeah, okay, we’ll see how long that lasts. You’ll get over that quickly.”
She was teasing, probably out of a little insecurity, and I couldn’t really fault her for dragging me for being a new teacher: I was a new teacher, and I was definitely trying too hard. I mean, I felt like that was the only appropriate approach to my job.
“We learned how to wear a sari, apply false eyelashes, test the oil in a car, and how to hide the smell of cigarettes on your breath.”
On the other hand, writing those evals took so little time, and the girls and their parents appreciated it so much. Many parents told me that they had never received any positive communication from a teacher before. A few even told me that they’d stuck it up on the fridge at home. I quickly saw that going the extra mile (if it even was a mile? It was, like, the extra hundred yards! It took thirty seconds per eval!) was beneficial for my students and went a long way to making our time together pleasant.
F Is for Food
When I taught sophomore English, the students were required to give a presentation of some kind. Not that Stella had a rigid curriculum—thankfully, we teachers were mostly left to teach as we felt best—but there were some general guidelines. Since many of the students were terrified about speaking in front of the class, I decided to assign a “How to . . .” presentation, in which they could teach us something that they knew how to do. I figured they’d be too busy doing the task they had chosen to remember how nervous they were once they got started, which mostly proved true. As it turned out, the presentations were absolutely fascinating, so I repeated this assignment every year. We learned how to wear a sari, apply false eyelashes, test the oil in a car, and, from one sheepish but much appreciated student, how to hide the smell of cigarettes on your breath (after that, I started screening topics).
Mostly, though, we learned about special foods and how to prepare them, since that’s what got the biggest response: Italian zeppola, Jamaican patties, Irish fudge. (Okay, I don’t know what was specifically Irish about it, but my student said her Irish grandmother had taught her, and it was delicious, so… sure!) Agua fresca, Green Goddess dip, Scottish shortbread. Whoopie pies. Horchata. Lingonberry jam. It was all delicious, and none of us ate lunch that week.
G Is for Geri
Geri was the principal at Stella Maris, and the only good principal I had in my teaching career. Along with the equally adept assistant principals at Stella, Ann and Sister Barbara, Geri was absolutely firm in how she ran the school, making sure every decision was for the girls’ benefit.
I have a vivid memory of Geri lecturing the girls about a bodega on the boulevard not far from the school that was reliably linked to drug dealing. She said to them, “Girls, you know that I rarely give you an order…” and went on to forbid them from going to the bodega, her voice almost cracking with emotion. Hearing that, I realized she was right: she rarely laid down the law so firmly and with such passion, and it had an immediate impact on the students when she did. They got that it was serious.
I definitely filed that away for the future: I try hard to be easygoing about most things except those that really count, which is why my students aren’t bedeviled by my complicated heading requirements or page layouts but know that if I catch plagiarism it is the end of all that is good about our class. This moment confirmed another thing I had suspected about teaching: a teacher gets to cry/demand/yell/lose her mind exactly once per class. So make it count.
H Is for Homeroom
The key to why Stella worked—and also drove us all crazy sometimes—was the school’s insistence that we were some kind of family, a polyglot hodgepodge of plaid skirts and sensible shoes, door knocker earrings and broad accents, swimsuits under polos and compression socks under dress pants. And the administration’s key to instilling that sense of family was that each girl was placed in a homeroom for their entire four years at Stella.
Toni, the teacher I was subbing for, had just had a homeroom graduate the year before, so she was due to get a new freshman homeroom. It turned out that she wasn’t able to return that year—although, thankfully, she was back the next, turning out to be as wonderful a colleague as she was a teacher—so I became a real teacher with a yearlong contract, and that homeroom became mine. I’d stick with them, room 312, for their entire high school career. When I told them that October morning that I was staying, there was actual applause and whooping (really, at least one whoop!). It was nice to be wanted. It was even nicer that I wanted to be there.
Like all families, my homeroom was not perfect. We made each other nuts sometimes. I watched them fight, sleep, bicker, complain, and needle. Some of the girls got bullied (though never on my watch, if I could help it) and some were bullies. A few of the girls never felt like they fit in; I thought they did, but that doesn’t change what they felt. I didn’t always contribute as much as I could have. They watched me figure out how to be a teacher with what I’m sure were rapid changes in style and manner—one day trying to be overly controlling, the next intimating that I’m not like the other teachers, I’m a cool teacher. But all that forced time together, twenty minutes at the beginning and ten minutes at the end of every day, and always sitting together everywhere we went, did bond us.
One story about my homeroom. As I wrote above, my commute sometimes made me late. One day, I ran into 312 with just a few minutes left before first period began, in a frenzy about needing to take attendance. One of the girls stopped me, saying, “We did it already.” And they had. In fact, they’d do it every time I was late. A group of fourteen-year-old girls took attendance of themselves and then walked it to the office, my initials forged at the bottom of the slip. And they did it accurately too, never giving an absent friend a break by saying she was in school. I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble for turning in attendance a little late, but wow, that still impresses me so much, the lengths they went to in order to protect me. Thanks, girls.
I Is for Interview
As you know, I arrived late for my initial interview at Stella. Geri was remarkably forgiving, and we talked for a while about the job. One of the four English teachers had had emergency surgery, and they needed someone to cover her classes—mostly freshman English, with a middle school class thrown in there, if I remember correctly—for about six weeks. The job, Geri made clear, would likely not extend past that point. She was also clear that she was in a bind. I was too, so that worked out.
Geri took a real risk in hiring me, one that other principals simply wouldn’t take. So many times up to then I had made a strong case for myself as a good hire in an interview, and the principal had almost hired me, but then he lost his nerve and hired someone with more experience. Geri took a chance, and I hope I made her glad about it. That willingness to follow one’s gut can’t be taught, and many people wouldn’t be as brave or as honest.
J Is for Journalism
Because no teacher ever just teaches, I was the adviser for the student newspaper and the student literary journal at Stella. I wouldn’t say it was hard work, exactly, but it was time-consuming, helping the girls plan what they wanted to write, editing their work, designing the pages, then arranging for the printing. The newspaper was sent to the printer via a dial-up modem and printed on real newsprint, then shipped to us. Very old-school. I loved it when the loudspeaker would crackle to life and Sister Barbara would call me to the main office: “Ms. Reed, your newspapers are heah.”
I’d faithfully distribute enough copies for every homeroom, and later that day I’d see the newspaper scattered all over the floors of the school, as if we expected to have a horde of hamsters visit. It was always a little deflating, more for the student writers than for me, but it was a good lesson for all of us that few people care as much about a piece of writing as its writer does. Soon, Sister Kathleen, the caretaker of the school who was aces at her job, would have her team of janitors at work, and the school was back to perfect the next day.
(An aside about Sister Kathleen: Once, I was in downtown Rockaway ordering flowers for one of the school’s events. The owner of the flower shop was very nice to me, no doubt because Stella Maris ordered flowers constantly—we must have been the reason entire carnation farms stayed in business. But there was a dude in the shop who, once he found out where I was from, started complaining about Sister Kathleen. Apparently, he had once worked at the school as a janitor and “She was on our case all the time about keeping that school building clean! It was impossible! It’s way too big!” I turned to him and said, cold as ice, “It sounds like you weren’t up to her very exacting specifications,” and turned my back on him. You come for Sister Kathleen, you come for me.)
K Is for Kathy
It took me a while to ease into feeling comfortable at Stella Maris. I found interacting with students outside the classroom especially tricky. Most of the teachers at Stella had a mom-ish vibe going on, but I was only ten years older than the students. Everything from chatting after school to chatting on the subway was weird for me. If I saw the girls hanging out after school on my walk to the subway, I defaulted to New York Blankness (a performative stance that says, “I don’t see you even though you are naked and screaming”).
“You won’t meet many teachers who aren’t aware when we’re being brownnosed.”
Thank God, then, for Kathy, a freshman. Kathy is a naturally gregarious person, and, as a native New Yorker, she wasn’t the least bit intimidated by my amateur’s New York Blankness. She would walk right up and start chatting with me on the street. At first, I tried to answer quickly and let her be on her way, figuring that she was just being nice. Eventually—and this took an embarrassingly long time—I realized that Kathy genuinely liked me and wanted to be friends, which we became and are to this day, as I am with many of the Stella girls who joined us to chat, complain about the S train, or buy Slush Puppies at the deli on the corner.
I know that some would say that Kathy and the other girls were suck-ups, but honestly, they really weren’t. Kids like that never are because they don’t need to be. They already have As and are friendly because they’re at ease and like their teachers. Besides, you won’t meet many teachers who aren’t aware when we’re being brownnosed. Often there’s not much we can do about it, so we politely ignore it, but oh, do we know.
L Is for Literature
Perhaps the most startling thing that happened to me at Stella that first year was that I realized, despite my confidence in pursuing the job, I was not actually all that well equipped to teach English. I mean, I was great on vocabulary and pretty good on writing, although I quickly learned that being good at something yourself and being able to teach it to others are two entirely different things. I was shakier on grammar, but we had a very helpful and thorough grammar textbook to which I could refer. I had the girls write in journals at the beginning of every class, so I felt that they were developing their self-expression too. The big problem was literature. I just hadn’t read enough of it.
At my first English faculty meeting of the year at Stella, Helen, our wonderfully competent and kind English chair, distributed a list of all of the book sets we had available for class reading, and asked us to decide what we would teach. It was shocking and embarrassing to go down the list and see that I hadn’t read most of them. Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby, The Diary of a Young Girl… these were books that were classics while I was in school, so how had they never been assigned? (And why, on the other hand, had I army-crawled my way through Tess of the D’Urbervilles?)
So began my self-education. I took on the typical freshman English curriculum as suggested, which included all three of those books, and started reading. Luckily, I had hours of commute to fill, and I was soon a person who had read most of the books available in the book closet, including The Crucible (for where there are fifteen-year-old Americans, there is The Crucible) and Romeo and Juliet.
The best part of reading those works, of course, was the discovery that a book that was hundreds of years old could still speak to my students (and me) today. We were horrified by Jane Eyre’s abusive household, and delighted when she found someone to love her. We were baffled by the passion Romeo and Juliet felt, and wanted them desperately to slow down. We were charmed and appalled by Daisy and Tom, then devastated by the way they walked away from the pain they caused.
Reading with the girls was So. Much. Fun.
M Is for Maura Clarke
There was a small middle school program at Stella Maris named after Maura Clarke, a Catholic martyr who had attended Stella for high school before becoming a nun who served the poor in Latin America. She was murdered in El Salvador in 1980.
I taught two classes of middle school English in my years there, and they were both hell. Unlike the high school program, the middle school was coed, and the boys ricocheted with aggressive hormones—how could they not, with all of those girls around them? I couldn’t get them to sit still, let alone read. That was the first time I grasped that I wasn’t the kind of teacher who could get anybody engaged with literature. I was not the Pied Piper for “The Gift of the Magi.” Individually, every single one of those students was a gem of a person, but oh, collectively, gaaaah.
The funny thing is, teaching those middle school classes helped me to reflect on the benefits of single-sex education: the girls at Stella tended to be more outspoken, more independent, and more invested in their interests (including their studies and future career goals) than students I had seen in coed programs, including myself. As girls in the Maura Clarke program often went on to attend Stella, it was apparent to me that they became more self-confident as they became older teenagers, exactly opposite the norm in most coed schools. I had been very skeptical, especially since I was and am a woman who has many male friends (and, to be fair, girls at Stella often complained about missing boys in their school lives).
But the contrast between Stella girls and Maura Clarke students was so strong, I began to see that good could come from separating the sexes in education.
N Is for Never Smile Before December
I was repeatedly told this teaching maxim when starting out as a high school teacher. The idea is that you have to be super tough on your class—lots of rules and regulations, demanding protocols, all with a stern visage—so that they take you seriously. And then you can start smiling at them in December, shortly after they’ve decided that they hate you.
I sort of thought this was BS, but also, as I’ve mentioned, I had no real idea what I was doing, so I decided I would be firm and not jokesy like I usually am. My first day of class, I got the schedule wrong, was shocked when a bunch of girls showed up to be taught (I thought they were arriving the next period), and broke into semi-hysterical laughter about how tricky the schedule was. Pulling myself together, I then passed around note cards and asked them to tell me about themselves, including any questions they had for me. I read aloud and answered their questions at the end of class. One was “Are you a nice teacher or a mean one?”
“I’m a nice teacher!” I said. I smiled. Then I remembered my decision and tried to hide the smile. “I mean, I’m firm about things because I want you to learn. And I’ll definitely go hard-core, just straight up education if you goof off.” I was scowling now. The class looked back at me, uneasy. I couldn’t help it: I smiled again, and said, “But I’d rather have fun while we learn. Okay?”
They all agreed that this was okay, and we all let out a huge sigh of relief. And that is how I have always taught my classes. I smile a lot! Smiling is nice! People like people who smile!
O Is for Ohhh MY GAWWWD
This is probably a good moment to mention that about 75 percent of the people at Stella had anywhere from a mild to an extremely strong Queens or Brooklyn accent. Think Janice from Friends. As a hearing-impaired person, I’ve always been fond of just how fricking loud Brooklynites are, and Whoa Nelly, Queens folks are EVEN LOUDAH. It was great. I barely missed a word.
And they were truly fascinated by my Western Pennsylvania accent. “You sound like a character on the TV!” one girl exclaimed. I was also asked by more than one girl if I was British, as my mild accent was apparently closer to a PBS costume drama than anything they’d ever heard in New York. Our differences actually led to small communication breakdowns—once, Kathy asked to borrow a pencil, and I told her, “Sure, get it out of my desk drawer.”
I say it with two syllables: “Dror-er.”
She couldn’t understand me at all, and we went back and forth:
“The drawer, Kathy, the drawer!”
Until finally the light bulb clicked on. “Oh, you mean the draw.”
If I may say so, my imitation of the Stella girls’ accent was spot-on, as it should have been since I heard it nonstop, and I often delighted my friends with it, although they did tend to think I was exaggerating for comedic effect.
One Saturday, I was walking with some friends through Times Square after midnight. All of a sudden we heard “MIZZZ REEED! OVAH HERE! MIZZZ REEEEED!” It turned out that some of my students were hanging out with their dates on a nearby stoop. I went over and hugged them, chatted, gave their boyfriends the stink eye, and returned to my friends.
“I can’t believe that they called over their teacher,” one said. “I would never have done that in high school.”
“Well, it’s a special school,” I said.
A pause. Then, “So, you weren’t exaggerating that accent at all, huh?”
P Is for Parents
Parents at Stella could be tough. I once had a parent excoriate me because I used a phrase (“Don’t slack off”) she found objectionable on her daughter’s otherwise very positive evaluation. (Yes, I did briefly consider ending my Evals for All program after recovering from her diatribe.) Another parent was livid that I had failed her daughter, although her daughter had done absolutely none of the work for the semester. Like, zilch. That complaint went to Geri, who asked to see my grade book, looked at the line of zeros under the girl’s name, and tossed the book down in disgust as she dialed the number of the complaining mom.
This was another way the admin at Stella were great: they backed up the teachers. But we didn’t need to be backed up too often. Parents of Stella girls mostly believed that we teachers were doing the best that we could by their daughters, and almost always took our side. I have so many vivid memories of parent-teacher conferences, which were attended by all, even parents of seniors, with enthusiasm. I learned to try to heap on as much praise as I could so that when I turned to the small, worrying parts, the parent wasn’t primed for complete outrage.
“Rhonda is doing so well, and her last paper was really good!”
“And she has been studying for her vocab—”
“Mizz Reed, if I may, what’s her grade?”
“Well, she has a B right now, but—”
“A B?! A B?! RHONDA THERESA VINCENTA MACGREGOR, WHY ARE WE PAYING AN ARM AND A LEG TO SEND YOU TO THIS SCHOOL FOR YOU TO GET A B? YOUR GRANDMOTHER IS GONNA BE DEVASTATED.”
They were loud people. Rhonda’s grades almost always improved. I loved those parents, who almost never assumed I was at fault.
Q Is for Queer
This was before the word “queer” was commonly used outside academia, but yeah, there was a strong, if small, queer population at Stella. As a theater person, I knew tons of queer folks, but hadn’t really considered in that straight, cisgender way of mine that if queerness was genetic, it was present in every population, including youth. So watching girls at Stella come out, struggling or easy as pie, was a great reminder for me, and I’m glad I learned it. Now I look at every class and remember that someone in it is working on coming out of the closet. I ask myself what I can do that helps, usually without ever finding out who it was.
R Is for the Regents
Stella was also the first time I encountered the New York State Regents, a series of standardized tests on the subjects covered in a secondary education. They are administered three times a year (January, June, and August) to students in New York. In order to graduate from an accredited New York City school at the time I was teaching there, a student had to pass five Regents with a grade of 65 or higher: a science, a math, a history, English, and an additional subject test as decided by the school. Many students take more Regents, but that’s the minimum. When I taught sophomore honors English my second year at Stella, my class took the English Regents that year, as did the junior English classes, which meant trying to heave all of them—so many girls!—over the finish line to passing.
It was very hard for teachers as well as students. I mean, the actual work of grading the Regents was overwhelming: two straight days spent in the high school library, reading and evaluating essay after essay. But the emotional fallout was even harder. I recall seeing one of my colleagues weeping in the hallway because not very many of her students had passed the Regents in her subject: all that work, yet little success. And now instead of moving on in the curriculum, perhaps learning something much more interesting, she would have to spend another semester teaching the same material to the same girls, hoping it lodged into their heads better. English usually posted better results—American education teaches reading and writing if nothing else—but we still had plenty of failures. The worst outcome was when an entire class passed… except for one girl. That happened twice in my time there.
I rapidly got better at teaching to a test, much as I hated doing it, and soon was pretty good at advising students on how to read quickly and well, then write even more quickly and well, so that they could pass the English Regents. But there were always students who just weren’t readers and writers (which is fine, we are vast, we contain multitudes) and they struggled. One student failed three times, and then I tutored her after school for three months to help her get ready, and then she failed again and lost her music scholarship to a college she could not otherwise afford. I doubt that college would have worked out for her, but ugh, the nightmare of the whole thing broke my heart.
“If you want to know about a lot of different kinds of new music, hang out with a large group of Queens teenagers.”
I hate standardized tests—they mislead in demonstrating students’ skills, invalidate perfectly intelligent young people, and mostly test a body of knowledge that is white, straight, middle- or upper-class, and not representative of the majority of students I’ve taught. You won’t find many teachers who disagree.
S Is for Statues
Every floor at Stella had a giant statue of either Jesus, Mary, or Saint Joseph at one end of the hallway. When I was assigned to be the hall monitor, which meant asking the girls to show me their pass when they left a classroom, my favorite thing to do was to sit just in front of the statue and say, “Jesus and I would like to know why you’re out of class.”
T Is for Trips
I have never encountered a high school with more special days than Stella Maris. I think we maybe had one week in the entire year where we just went to class, nothing special, for five full days. It was great—not only did I love the extra days off, but it made school really fun. Besides the Regents and the myriad days off that the NYCDOE has in order to accommodate the significant holidays of so many religions, we also got major Catholic holidays off: Andrew was always particularly galled that I got to stay home on Immaculate Conception Day (“It is not a holiday!” he would grumble as he left for work, especially peeved that as a Lutheran I didn’t even have to go to church). We also had in-school special days, including the Marathon (a fund-raising stroll up and down the Rockaway Boardwalk, definitely not at marathon speeds), Career Day, various class retreats, and special masses. And things happened—it snowed, a water main on the corner broke, a pope died, and the MTA’s bus drivers went on strike, which meant that Geri picked me up on Flatbush Avenue in order to get me to work because I had no other way to make it there, bless her. (This was right before Christmas break, and finally they closed the school two days early. I can still vividly picture the way the girls sat up expectantly when the loudspeaker crackled to life just before Sister Barbara began explaining this. The joy that followed!)
But the best special day of all was Culture Day (CaulTAH Day). This was a day in which the faculty set up field trips into “the city” (as Manhattan is inevitably termed in Brooklyn and Queens, which are part of the same city) and the girls could sign up to attend them. The girls loved this day, as you can imagine. We took them by school bus into Manhattan, did something cultural, and then allowed them to return home by public transportation on their own. After a couple of years, I was invited to be the co-chaperone of the Broadway trip, an honor and a delight, even when the show was a revival of West Side Story, which seemed to be about fifteen hours long. It was so much fun, and while it felt wrong to release the students into Manhattan after the show—like sending baby Christians out to the lions—I got used to it.
U Is for Unhappiness
Life at Stella was not always cuddles and rainbows. A girl OD’d in class (she recovered). Girls showed up with bruises, which we had to report to the proper authorities. Girls had what were clearly mental breakdowns, screaming, crying, and hitting the wall in the hall. There were fights. There were homophobic and racist slurs. Several girls were cruelly ostracized and eventually left. Parents couldn’t or didn’t pay tuition, and after everything else was tried, their daughters were called down to the office and sent home, an extraordinarily embarrassing event that the administration tried to avoid at all costs but was occasionally forced into.
The faculty had issues too. There was bigotry from a few teachers, and one or two were so hard-nosed about the dress code that you knew there was something up with that. Someone relapsed. Marriages broke up. People got sick. The beloved school nurse had a heart attack. A teacher died. There were arguments and disagreements that would have seemed petty if each side hadn’t held on to their grudge so intensely.
The saddest issue for me was when a student realized she was gay but felt she couldn’t be honest about who she really was to her deeply Catholic parents. I watched this wreak havoc, as girls fell in love with each other but kept confused boyfriends around as a front. So many people got hurt. It’s heartbreaking when you can’t keep your students from hurting themselves and one another, which I saw everywhere I taught, including at Stella.
V Is for Variety
If you want to know about new music, hang out with teenagers. If you want to know about a lot of different kinds of new music, hang out with a large group of Queens teenagers, and soon your iPod (remember iPods?) will have meringue, rap, hip-hop, and angry female singer-songwriters where once only circa-1990s alternative bands and show tunes lived.
I don’t miss a great deal about teaching at the high school level, but I do miss being immersed in the cultural world that my students were part of. I didn’t like everything (sorry, J.Lo) but I loved a lot of it, including, to my great surprise, Eminem. In later years, I’d impress other groups of teenagers by knowing all the words to “Lose Yourself,” thanks to Stella girls and their endless rehearsal for a school show that included it. Feet, fail me not!
W Is for Writing
After a couple of years at Stella, I settled into a pleasant groove. It wasn’t the kind of boredom that drove me out of teaching preschool, but I did sometimes feel a little understimulated. The students were so nice overall, and they genuinely behaved well, and clearly were learning. Even though I enjoyed teaching them, I found I didn’t always have a lot to do outside of the classroom at least some of the time. (Later, I would look back to this time with an almost palpable longing.) I liked teaching and thought I was getting better at it, but I missed creating things. I briefly considered trying acting again, but after a heart-to-heart with Andrew about what exactly my talents were, and what I ought to do with my life, I started writing more intensively, finding time to do it almost every day.
And I started writing plays. A lot of them drew from what I was reading with the girls, like Horatio & Ismene, my short play about what happened when Hamlet’s best friend and Antigone’s sister meet up. These plays actually started to get produced, and I began, with great hesitation and a sure sense that I was going to be knocked back on my heels soon, to think of myself as a writer. You see where that led.
I couldn’t have done that without the reasonable demands placed on me as a teacher at Stella, and I’m forever grateful. And I worry all the time about teachers who don’t have enough time to pursue their other interests, and the people who don’t pursue teaching even though they might be good at it because they want a more balanced life than what most schools demand—unfairly and unnecessarily.
X Is for Xtravagant
I know I’m cheating with that spelling. I couldn’t figure out how to make X-ray or xylophone work.
I don’t want to imply that Stella was at all extravagant, because money was watched tightly and not wasted. This was, after all, a school where I made about $35,000 a year. In New York. But they were extravagantly loving to the girls, especially at graduation and the events around it, which seemed to number in the dozens. As I’ve mentioned, there were flower arrangements galore, and corsages, and, if I’m remembering correctly, flowers for teachers too. We had a senior luncheon at the most amazing banquet hall in Howard Beach, Queens, which sometimes, but not always, featured a chocolate fountain. Every year in the month leading up to the luncheon, I asked Liz a million times if she thought this would be a chocolate fountain year. My last year, my graduating homeroom made sure they had a chocolate fountain and dedicated it to me; possibly the moment of my teaching career when I’ve felt most loved.
Faculty was treated well too. We also had lunches at the holidays and at the end of the school year, where we received small bonuses and gifts. At every one of these events, Geri would celebrate us, by telling the girls that they’d always be Stella girls, by telling us we’d done a good job by them. And she’d raise a glass and toast us. Simple gestures, but things that most schools don’t do, I think.
I’ve always had trouble saying goodbye to my students at the end of the school year. The first year that I taught preschool, I broke down when I got home, sobbing over not having them in my life anymore. Now I no longer sob, usually, but I still have trouble accepting that these students, whose company I’ve spent so many good hours in, who’ve made me laugh, think, and feel, are just, you know, done with the class. And in college, it happens twice as often. Not great.
“I’d somehow gotten a do-over on high school, and, unsurprisingly, I’d done a far, far better job the second time around. ”
So I look to the model from Stella to help me—I try to turn that last time together into a kind of celebration, extravagant in feeling if not cost. I bake something yummy for the class, and I tell them that I loved teaching them and will always be their teacher. We talk about what we learned. And when they leave, after the hugs and promises to stay in touch, I raise my water bottle and tell the empty room that I loved them.
Y Is for Yikes
So one time, one of the religion classes put together a display with every teacher’s name on it and an adjective to describe them. For some reason, I heard about this before it was actually completed, and before long I was very invested in this because I am very into people complimenting me. Once it was up outside the main office, I eagerly looked for the cross with my name on it (wasn’t that a Johnny Cash song—“The Cross with My Name on It”?). My colleagues were described as “kind,” “warm,” and “loving.” I was… “dependable.” I mean… I was crushed. For once I didn’t burst into tears, but wow. The youngest, coolest teacher in the school, or so I thought, and I was… dependable. Like an old mule.
Here’s the thing, though. I have thought about that adjective for years and realized that it’s actually a pretty amazing compliment. What the girls appreciated was that I was there when I said I would be, graded the papers when I said I would, took them to the field trips I had promised, and generally just showed up, albeit occasionally at a brisk pace and slightly late because of the A train. For some of these students—in fact, for some of any teacher’s students—we are the most dependable people in their lives. That’s an extraordinary thing to realize, and one that keeps me grounded. I try very hard to keep my promises to my students, implicit or explicit, noticed or not.
Now I am honored to be seen as dependable. I work hard to keep that a true description.
Z Is for Zenith
Graduation was held at the nearby public high school on a Saturday, since our building lacked a large enough space to gather the graduates and their families. To get to that school, I’d take my academic robe on the subway, hanging it up on the overhead railing to keep it from getting wrinkled. I looked so young back then that people often congratulated me on my graduation, which I always accepted with delight. Every year; another degree, yay me!
Liz was kind enough to drive me home afterward. She always reminded me not to leave anything in the dressing room at the school, because the faculty processed out of the auditorium at the end of the ceremony and then just kept right on going, out to our cars and off to an end-of-the-year lunch.
So that’s how I left Stella in June of 2008, on my way to teach at a theater-based public high school in Brooklyn. I’d told Geri I wasn’t coming back that spring, and in April I’d told my homeroom that I’d be graduating from Stella with them. I really felt like I was—I’d somehow gotten a do-over on high school, and, unsurprisingly, I’d done a far, far better job the second time around. I’d been more popular, kinder, funnier, and better dressed. Would that we all had such an opportunity, the kind rarely presented outside of high-concept rom-coms.
At graduation, when I walked through that scrum of excited parents and giggling girls, waving and dispensing hugs, and also getting the hell out of there, I didn’t know what was ahead: that my next school would be a nightmare much of the time, that Stella itself only had two more years in her, that I’d be leaving New York in just over four years, that the writing I was starting to do was going to turn into a whole thing. But I was smart enough to know that a beautiful, if occasionally exasperating, portion of my educational career was coming to an end, and I was sad.
On the way to lunch, Liz chatted about the summer ahead, but I hardly listened. I watched the bay go by. I pressed my face against the glass to glimpse Beach 112th Street one more time. I rolled down the window and thought I could smell the ocean, yes, but also chalk, and incense, and Italian donuts, and drugstore perfume. Or maybe I didn’t smell all of that wafting in from Rockaway at all. Maybe it was just inside me now. Maybe I was and am still a Stella girl.
Excerpted from WHY DID I GET A B? published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2020 by Shannon Reed.