Finding Miss Malbin

In July 2014, Hazel Malbin had just retired. She’d been a teacher for 35 years. The last 24 were in Westport. The 4th graders and their parents at Long Lots School loved her, and gave her a great sendoff. She was ready for the next stage of life.

Now, Hazel had time for things like Facebook. One Saturday morning she idly checked out a page for Greenfield Girls’ Primary School in Cape Town. She’d grown up in the South African city, and that’s where she started her teaching career.

Miss Malbin with her Grade 5 class, in 1975.

Miss Malbin with her Grade 5 class, in 1975.

One post caught her eye. “Does anyone know what happened to Miss Malbin?” asked Tanya Baron.

“Here I am!” she replied.

The response was immediate. Former Grade 5 students flooded the page with responses. Among the most intriguing was one from Tanya. A high school English teacher herself, she thanked her long-ago instructor for inspiring her life’s work.

Hazel and her husband had already planned their 1st big post-retirement trip. The following April, they’d head to South Africa. She’d never forgotten her native country. All during her Westport career, she’d included lessons about growing up with white privilege during apartheid. Her Long Lots retirement gift was a butterfly garden bench, with a quote from Nelson Mandela.

When she retired in 2014, Hazel Malbin was honored with a bench in Long Lots' butterfly garden. The plaque includes a quote from Nelson Mandela.

When she retired in 2014, Hazel Malbin was honored with a bench in Long Lots’ butterfly garden. The plaque includes a quote from Nelson Mandela.

On Facebook, she told her former students about her upcoming trip. That was all they needed to hear.

“One of my ‘little girls’ said they’d make a party for me,” Hazel says. So a few months ago, she headed home. She left a week before her husband, to immerse herself in memories.

The party was wonderful. More than 25 women came. Her former students were now in their 50s. One brought her mother. She’d been Hazel’s “room mother.”

Another flew in from 1000 miles away. She’s a teacher now, and a writer. She said, “I had to be here.”

Today, Hazel Malbin looks the same age as her former "girls." She's standing, 4th from left. The proteas are South Africa's national flower.

Today, Hazel Malbin looks the same age as her former “girls.” She’s standing, 4th from left. The proteas are South Africa’s national flower.

Hazel was just 21 when she started teaching. Looking back, she feels amazed.

“In Westport we have paraprofessionals, support services, help for everything,” she says. “In Cape Town I had 38 girls, all by myself. And this was a top school! I apologized to them if I had not given them everything they needed. They said they loved having me. We were all so young!”

The “girls” — who Hazel says now look indistinguishable from herself — shared stories of their year together. Some remembered lines from Shakespeare she’d recited. Others recalled her platform heels, and the perfume she’d worn.

“Their life stories were etched on their faces,” Hazel notes. “Yet I could still see the little 10-year-olds hidden in those sunny smiles.”

After the party, one woman insisted Hazel come to her house. She wanted her former teacher to meet her husband, children and mother.

“It was all so special to me,” Hazel says. “I’d just closed a chapter in Westport. Then I had this lovely party in South Africa. I never expected anything like that. It was so unplanned, meeting these girls from 1975. Now we’re friends on Facebook.”

One woman brought her Grade 5 report card to the party. Hazel says, "How simple it was!" She adds, "I am utterly embarrassed by the comments I wrote."

One woman brought her Grade 5 report card to the party. Hazel says, “How simple it was!” She is also “utterly embarrassed” at the comments she wrote.

Hazel calls teaching “an incredible journey. If you’re fortunate, you affect people’s lives for years to come. They, in turn, enrich you in so many ways. But to be transported literally fast forward across a continent, and be immersed in a gathering of your classroom 40 years earlier is surreal.”

Hazel says that Westport offered “such a rewarding career. I worked with brilliant colleagues, and made lifelong friends with parents as well. But even those relationships, and being nominated for Teacher of the Year, can’t compare with finding my original class. There’s nothing like being 21, straight out of Teachers’ College, armed only with a piece of chalk, a smile, enthusiasm, and the excitement of a classroom to call your own.”

Soon, Hazel heads back to South Africa. She’ll travel with her daughter — and see her “girls” again. When she returns, she’ll go back to her post-retirement life — which includes tutoring elementary and middle schoolers in reading and writing.

But none of the stories she uses with her current students can match the one she recently relived, with her oldest ones.

(Former student  Tanya Baron Matthews offered her perspective of the reunion on her own blog, “Making a Difference.” Click here for that story. Hat tip: Kerstin Rao)

Hazel Malbin, in a South African vineyard. She returns to her native country next week.

Hazel Malbin, in a South African vineyard. She returns to her native country next week.

6 responses to “Finding Miss Malbin

  1. Allen Levenson

    3 of 4 my daughters had Hazel. She was a truly outstanding teacher, so I am not at all surprised at her legacy even back to South Africa. Westport has many great teachers, but Hazel is the best of the best.

  2. Tanya Baron Matthews

    So often, when school friends gather years after graduating, there are more questions than answers about past teachers. ‘Do you remember …?”, “I wonder what happened to …?” are the refrains of these get-togethers. The miracle of social media has given me the wonderful opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to a teacher who inspired me to follow in her footsteps. If there is a lesson to be learned about this reunion, it is ‘write that letter’, ‘make that phone call’ and ‘pay that visit’. In writing a tribute to Hazel Malbin, I have gained so much: classmates whom I have not seen in over thirty years have renewed friendships and I am now in regular contact with a woman who remains a role model. I can only repeat, “Here’s to you, Miss Malbin …”.

    • Tanya, that was a wonderful tribute you wrote on your blog, and I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments you expressed above.

  3. Hazel, I remember you from different workshops during my 34 year career in Westport. Your energy, your engaging smile and your deep concern for students and colleagues touched me and continues to inspire me. What a journey you’ve had! I’m still in touch with students I had my first year at Staples, 1969 and that’s amazing but it wasn’t my first year of teaching. I taught fifth grade in Carlisle, Iowa in 1967. Oh, how I would love to hear from those students. The excitement of that first year when teacher and students are learning so many things for the first time is breathtaking.

    I enjoyed this story and wish you well in retirement. Judy

    • Lesley Jacobs

      Judy Luster, my daughter Robyn Jacobs also had the pleasure of having you as her English teacher at Staples… You had a huge impact on her life as well as ours too! Another Gem of Teacher!! Thank you to both you and Hazel!
      Lesley Jacobs

  4. What a lovely tribute to one fabulous teacher! Hazel taught 2 of my 3 daughter’s in the Westport school system – what a privilege! One talented and dedicated teacher, enjoy your retirement lovely Hazel.. now I get to enjoy your company on another level my fellow ex-South African!
    Lesley Jacobs