As news of V. Louise Higgins’ death spread yesterday, former Staples High School English students from 4 decades posted their memories on “06880.
Andrea Libresco’s were longer than most. They deserve their own story.
Today, Andrea — a 1976 Staples grad — is a professor of social studies education at Hofstra University. She spent 19 years as a high school social studies teacher, and is the author of 2 books on education. It’s clear Miss Higgins had quite an influence on her. Andrea writes:
When my son was in 1st grade, he told us, “I am learning so much, she is making my head explode!” I had my own version of his teacher.
V. Louise Higgins, my 12th grade AP English instructor, wrote 1-2 pages of single-spaced comments on our papers. Her personalized journal assignments were designed to make each of us wide awake in the world.
Every 2 weeks, each student was charged with writing a response to a particular article that Ms. Higgins had picked out particularly for him or her. It was not until I became a teacher that I truly appreciated the volume of individualized preparation and grading that these assignments entailed, not to mention the assumption that members of our class were individuals with different interests and needs.
My first assignment was a “My Turn” piece in Newsweek. An immigrant had written about immigration policy. I was tasked with writing a letter to the editor in response. I felt pretty good … until it was returned with a full page of comments.
Ms. Higgins wondered why my letter had been so impersonal; why I had not, amid my policy analyses, extended a welcome to this recent immigrant to America. Her comment reminded me that analytical thought is but one aspect of being a citizen in a democracy. Another is recognizing and valuing the individual experiences of the variety of citizens who make up our multicultural democracy, and greeting them with the humanity that they all deserve.
I also remember the comments she wrote on my senior author paper on Sinclair Lewis. They began, “Andrea, dear, you’ve written your usual safe ‘A paper…” She detailed the directions I might have taken, had I chosen to think a bit more. These comments burned in my mind every time I sat down to write a paper in college, and I never (not consciously, at least) wrote a “safe” paper again.
I would be remiss if I did not mention her wicked sense of humor. When she was teaching us about the meaning of “sardonic,” she invited us to try our hands at making a sardonic comment. One student took up her challenge. He directed his stinger, “Nice wig,” at Ms. Higgins.
We looked from him to her, aghast. She elected to take him down, not by explaining how his insult was childish; rather, with barely concealed glee, she commented on an aspect of his dress: “Lovely sweater – knit it yourself, dear?” As usual, she had the last – wry – word.
Ten years ago, I re-connected with her when I was running a program at my university called The Teacher Who Shaped My Life. Students, alums and faculty talked about a teacher they felt had greatly influenced them. Although she could not attend, it began a 10-year correspondence with her that I have treasured. There was not a letter or email that didn’t make me laugh.
For example, her comments on Teach For America: “My fragile bones stop me from slugging grandparents I overhear counseling their grandchildren that they should use the TFA as a way station while they figure out what to do with their always enormous talents. However, one must be content with hoping all with such TFA views are operated on by young surgeons who just dropped in to medicine to get background for the string of novels or TV scripts they intend to write as soon as they have enough info.”
Her observations on her escalating physical infirmities allowed me to picture her jauntily battling them: “I am still recovering from hip replacement surgery, a rite of passage for almost everyone over 85. (The only bonus which comes with surviving it all is that one is able to wield a black, silver-handled cane with authority and strike poses that intimidate even medical persons.)”
She ended every email with the exhortation, “Onward.” And we, who were lucky enough to have V. Louise as a teacher, mentor, or friend, have no choice but to obey!