After having mapped out the halls nearly every day for the four years I’d spent at Lake Forest High School, I still managed to stumble around aimlessly looking for anything that resembled Room 138F during lunch on a Wednesday afternoon.
In my defense, few of my classes had ever been located on the first floor toward the back of the building, a sector mainly dedicated to special education and other select services given by a more tightly knit portion of the staff. A small landing at the top of a staircase nestled in the tiny, secluded corridor was just about the only thing that looked familiar to me; it led out to the parking lot filled with the modest but sturdy automobiles that had been used for my driver education class. (This might explain the location as my personal deterrent, given its psychological association with a past incident in which my instructor calmly stated during a lesson, “You could’ve killed me there.”)
But you know, so what? I had to walk around a little. Posted on the whiteboard at the front of his classroom, Mr. Scott’s motto of the day — and for the past couple of days — happens to inform me to “be concerned with curiosity, not compliance.” Curious I was on this Wednesday, reader; I’d heard that a teacher employed here, Ms. Rich, was retiring after the current school year and could make for a good final conversation, perhaps one that would fit in an article of mine. I figured that finding her was the least I could do as a student before she headed off into the next stage of her life after offering up so much of it here.
After about ten minutes of searching, however, it seemed as though she might retire before I actually found the room that once was her office.
For some individuals (one of whom I had yet to meet at this time), the glass is chosen to be half full, even when there’s only a few drops at the bottom. Sure, this article would’ve been a little more cramped without a couple of intriguing responses to the questions I’d scribbled in my notebook, but it would’ve been an article nevertheless. I eventually did manage to discover the rectangular lounge tangential to a circle of small chambers where I found Ms. Rich (this was all tucked behind a door which I could’ve sworn I’d passed upwards of five separate occasions, each dispersed throughout that morning scavenger hunt). What if, in a wayward misplacement of my navigation skills, I’d had merely the time to stick one foot into the room, pop my head in to look around the corner and past the plate-glass divider surrounding Ms. Rich’s sector, and witness five seconds in the undocumented life of my would-be interviewee?
I guess, then, that I couldn’t have really been torn up. I’m no minimalist, but I’d say that if those five seconds were the only ones that counted, I still would’ve been graced with a generous ray of the teacher’s ebullient personality, one that I could take back to the word processor with me.
Ms. Rich — at least, I could see as much from a distance — sat leisurely slumped in a chair off to the side of her window. Her posture was slightly crumpled, glasses were loosely balanced atop her nose, and her back was positioned as if it would slide completely from her seat and onto the floor if allowed to do so. Across from her on the other side of the desk were two bubbly students, each perched side by side in identical pieces of furniture and holding fanned hands of playing cards so closely to their noses that their form alone could have them moved up to the pros on ESPN3. While the visual for that rather intentional metaphor may surely have been intimidating to an outsider like me, something about this scenario gave off the air that these players didn’t take themselves so seriously. Where the infamous presumption of the ill-fated teacher’s desk is commonly rooted in the emblem of authority, Ms. Rich’s seemed to serve its lazily selective need purely in that it was (1) flat and (2) positioned central to the room such that its inhabitants could easily and properly facilitate any group gaming activity if and when the urge for one arose.
If I started to feel a little guilty for knocking on the door, I was reassured shortly thereafter that the party was soon to be over with anyway. In a lightning-fast draw, one of the kids thrust his stack down in front of his casual rivals on the playing mat, soaking in what looked to be accomplishment. Judging from the guy’s reaction, the odds probably hadn’t looked in Ms. Rich’s favor from the start; he embraced the win like he had trained for it.
To be honest, I didn’t get too good of a look at how the other student competitor handled the loss, but as for Ms. Rich — an educator with thirty-six years of teaching under her belt — the quality of her sportsmanship appeared to have been developed throughout the entirety of her time spent working at the building. While some folks might’ve expected an individual with her kind of background to abide by an all-business regiment (in line with a respective degree from Hard Knocks), the loyal member of the special education department was willing to prove that she had won her battle with time.
Mirroring the victor, she tossed her cards to the table and, in an act of self-ridicule, extended her shoulders into her chair and threw her head back in exaggerated turmoil, barely able to hold back her laughter.
In her words as much as in her action, Ms. Rich consistently radiates much of that same spontaneity. She can be unexpected and, when you call for it, unapologetically frank.
“When we started at west campus [in ‘81],” she remarked after being questioned about high school life back in her first year working in Lake Forest, “the room I was in was above a little alcove that the kids were allowed to smoke in. So I was above the smoking room… this teeny tiny room.” She gestured to the modestly compact abode we happened to be sitting in at the moment. “Smaller than this.”
One can appreciate her transparency and, as a result of the former, her profound connection with young people (in light of some recent fire alarms, I think we can all detect some parallels with our own era of angsty teens).
This isn’t to say, however, that she’s without a filter. An open book she might proclaim herself to be, but the tales which she’s delighted to reveal are all delivered with patience, sensitivity, and sincerity. Even though she attended Stevenson as a young lad growing up on the North Shore (“when it was still as small as Lake Forest,” she adds), she discusses her earliest recollections as a figure of the LFHS body as if she had packaged them from her own days of high school, from playing kickball in the spring with the kids of Arden Shore — a facility in Waukegan providing child and family services for locals — to being served homemade dinners from the principal, Arthur “Art” Kleck. “Every Thanksgiving,” Ms. Rich made sure to emphasize to me.
Her craving for finer detail is partly derived from the nature of her chirpy, stylistic storytelling. Perhaps most integral to her character, however, is her devotion to immediacy, the medium, in many ways, through which she lends respect to those who have given her stories to tell in the first place.
“At west campus and when I started here, we had Dr. [Robert] Metcalf as our superintendent, and everything — for a lack of a better word — was family-oriented [with him],” Ms. Rich reminisced about her interactions with the school board executive, who would continue as Lake Forest’s superintendent for thirty-three years. “He knew every teacher by name, he knew my children’s names, and he knew almost every kid in the building as well because he was out and about. It was a way of embracing new people and bringing them in the fold.”
It was one of the many forms of hospitality that she felt she would need to return during the span of her career, not only bound between the walls of the classroom but as a prominent, externally conscious role model in her own right. While raising two boys as a single mother, she intermittently led Junior Varsity cheerleading, spending about six years as the program’s head coach. She fondly recounts her camaraderie with her athletes as her precious “girl time,” and under her direction, the pressure to perform was mercifully controlled relative to the rigor of preparation required of other teams in the sport. Her gleeful memory as a coach suggests that she enjoyed practices as much as the kids did.
As if she hasn’t been busy enough, Ms. Rich has also dutifully worked to facilitate a thorough, palpable sense of communal spirit, not only throughout the maturation of her students but in her own self-construction as well. She herself founded the school’s Youth Activity Council — she enunciates YAC (“yack”) proficiently and with enough heart to let on that she clambered not-so-accidentally for the acronym — an extracurricular organization encouraging kids to make an impact in the field of service; after its popularity reached a certain threshold, the source of its funding expanded beyond exclusively parents and was accommodated by school resources. As a supplement to these efforts, she collaborated with a couple of members of the English department to coordinate Community Outreach, a similar foundation integrated within a course of the high school’s curriculum in which students could plan and predicate their own individual projects as volunteer workers (flashback to Project Citizen for the former Lake Bluff eighth graders among us).
Ms. Rich makes clear that her involvement with these groups exposed her to a variety of bright young people she wouldn’t have come across otherwise, and she doesn’t short its influence on her life. “I started here and I’m finishing here — I’ve never really been anywhere else. Thirty-five years in one building allows a lot of personal growth.”
Some of that growth has come to her swiftly — and rudely. As with surely anybody who’s undergone the same agony, her diagnosis of lymphoma — discovered in the midst of her life as a teacher — posed one of the most challenging ordeals that she’s ever been forced to pull her composure through, even at the cost of her often vibrant, upfront mannerisms.
“When I had cancer, I shut everyone out,” she nodded truthfully to me, speaking quieter and more delicately than she had been before. “It was me and myself. The staff… wanted to contribute to me in some way. They money they raised was used to clean out my vents. It was a nice gesture. I had a couple of teachers who tried very hard to bring me food that I shut down. I don’t know why,” she said with a pause, fumbling for an answer to her own question. “I just needed to be alone.”
It was as much of an emotional sickness as it was a bodily one.
Perhaps it’s the grim, albeit unifying, core of weakness that brought about my hesitation as I strode into the rectangular lounge on that Wednesday morning. Momentarily, even when I had reached my destination, I considered that it was possibly the essence of my task that had caused this behavioral friction in the process of searching. Could this individual have given into the throes of physical isolation? Was her designation a sign of retreat, a submission to mental burden?
If it’s possible to experience joy in the realization of being wrong (and I believe that it is), then this very emotion of enrichment swept over me, in a wave that few other journeys of mine have been able to instill, upon comprehending within those five seconds that Ms. Rich — holding as much strength within her happiness as relief — hadn’t knelt to her spiritual adversaries, or even shifted for them. She had championed over them.
Some card game.
“The more I talk with others, the better I am,” she affirmed, mulling through the wisdom that she’d been lucky enough to gather over the years. “I can’t even tell you how much I’ve grown just with the ability to talk with my peers on a much more regular basis than before.”
I noticed a couple of other items lying around in her room from my temporary footing afar: a bookshelf, a filing cabinet, the arms of a few more chairs sprawled around arbitrarily. Ms. Rich may not dip into such tin-like observations; sure, she could use a deck of cards now and then, but what she needed more than anything in her office that day was a game. Whether they’re kids with a taste for kickball, principals with a knack for cooking, or students with a drive for poker, she looks for people to fill her life.
It took a while for me to understand that these two kids were in on Ms. Rich’s joke as well. There seems to be a certain irony to the falsified, hyper-aggressive rule-book of competition.
As if life is meant to be played that way.