Sunday, January 10, 2016

Public Schools Work – Michele DeVinney

We begin 2016 with "Public Schools Work" where we will share stories of the great things that are happening in public schools.

I am a strong, devoted believer in public schools, thanks mostly to my own experiences as a kid. I had many great teachers in Henrietta, New York, and I know I received a top quality education. I had a math teacher in 8th grade, Mr. Vang, whom I idolized, and thanks to him and my desire to impress him, I earned a 100 on the algebra Regents exam. In high school, I had what I often lovingly refer to as my Holy Trinity of teachers, and then there was Mrs. Mertel. All three of these teachers were hugely influential to me, but if I had to pick one who most directly influenced me then and now, it would be Mrs. Mertel. She was my junior year English teacher, and she had us read such an amazing variety of books and short stories. Yes, Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Shakespeare and Steinbeck. But we also read The Palace Guard by Dan Rather and Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader. She set out to make us not only well-read and literate, but she also set out to make us good citizens. We discussed all of these books thoroughly, and I know that my experiences reading Sister Carrie and The Grapes of Wrath were life-changing in so many ways.

At the end of junior year, we were in a quandary. My friends and I were all honors students, and Mrs. Mertel taught honors English for juniors and seniors. We wanted to continue with her our senior year because we knew she was our best bet for being solidly prepared for college. Her focus on writing, critical thinking, and the greater public good all provided such a great and inspirational background for us as we started applying to universities in and outside of New York. The problem was another teacher taught AP English, and we also wanted that opportunity. (Many of us had had that teacher before and believed Mrs. Mertel was our better option—the only option.) She went to bat for us and battled the school administration and earned our honors class the opportunity to take the AP exam (which for some reason they were reluctant to do—go figure.) I have never forgotten that effort, nor the things we learned in that final year. Mrs. Mertel had us each write a senior thesis on one author, and I chose Albert Camus. As luck would have it, when I took the AP exam at the end of the school year, one of the essay questions was “Discuss the theme of isolation in Albert Camus’s The Stranger.” Score! I did extremely well on that exam and earned three credit hours of college credit thanks to all of that. I also entered college with a really strong grasp on how to write a research paper of that magnitude.

But beyond just academics, Mrs. Mertel made me a much stronger writer and thinker, and I credit her with the fact that I am now a professional writer and have taught composition, folklore, and literature at IPFW. She instilled confidence in me that I had lacked previously, making me believe in my abilities. In fact, to this day if I want a pat on the back, I know she will again tell me how I was one of the best students she ever had. I was undoubtedly one of her best students because I wanted so much to learn and to take advantage of the opportunity of being in her class."

I never once considered sending my kids to anything but Fort Wayne Community Schools as they grew up, and I loved Shambaugh where they all three attended elementary school. Just last week my daughter, the youngest of the three, ran into a former teacher, Mr. Cunningham, who may have had all three. He was very popular in our family! Mr. Brace was also fantastic, and he really stoked the fires for my older son who was born into a family of historians and who blossomed with Mr. Brace. Later they all attended North Side, and I have very warm feelings for that school for a variety of reasons. First, I feel they had some of the best teachers available while they were there. Two of my kids were editors of the yearbook, the Legend, and the yearbook supervisor Marsha Flora was their hero. I heard about “Flo” all the time and regarded her as their second mother—with no problems or jealousy at all! Matt Mertes, my daughter’s AP Government teacher, not only sparked a passion for politics and government in her, but she decided then to major in political science (and ended up earning degrees in that and African-American studies at Penn State) and attend law school. She completes her studies at Northern Illinois University’s Law School in May.

Perhaps what I love most about my kids’ experience at North Side, however, is the diversity of the student population. They all learned so much and have empathy for people of all cultures and beliefs, and when it came time for their alma mater to ditch the Redskins moniker, they were completely enthusiastic about it because they understood the larger issue at hand. I can take credit for some of that, but it was through the talent of the faculty at North Side and the opportunity to interact daily with people of different political, religious, social, and economic backgrounds that proved extremely important in their development at a very crucial time. I cringe to think how many kids are denied that, and having worked at IPFW over the years in a variety of capacities, I see how hard it is for kids deprived of those opportunities to adjust to the rigors and social climate of university life. I am very happy to have had a public school education and am proud of the work my kids have done academically thanks to FWCS. And most of all, I thank and respect all the teachers who are out there changing people’s lives everyday. I don’t know where any of us would be without them!

Go North Side Legends!

Michele DeVinney

No comments: