Last week, the world lost a masterful educator and a remarkable individual, Pat Kelly. I'm tempted to post her photo from her obituary, but it doesn't do her justice, capturing nothing of her enthusiasm for education (a high school newspaper photo will have to do). It also captures nothing of the terror she invoked in students who would be threatened with a visit to her office at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, where she served as Assistant Head of School during her more than 25 years there. She was a warm and wonderful person, but had a memorable reputation as the 'bad cop' in school, and her reputation alone kept thousands of kids in line over the years.
It's also odd to refer to her as Pat – it's borderline 'sacrilegious' (a word loaded with added meaning in reference to a woman who was once a nun and went on to help run a Jewish private school). She was always Mrs. Kelly, and I don't know if I ever had any exchange with her after leaving Schechter. I'm not on a first-name basis with her just yet.
Pat – that is, Mrs. Kelly – was my eighth grade math teacher. I had actually been thinking about her recently before her passing, having just finished "The Honest Truth about Dishonesty" by Dan Ariely. Much of our classwork was graded on the honor system, where we'd read aloud our assignment scores one by one, and no one would check how honest we were. I did alright academically. With math though, I typically made it to the advanced class but barely got by, bringing up the rear of the pack of the more numerically-gifted. I wonder how many times I inflated my grade – never by much, but just enough so I'd never feel too far behind the class. I wonder how many others were inflating their grades too, though maybe they didn't need to. It felt all too familiar reading Ariely's book, which notes that most of us will cheat by just enough to benefit ourselves while still maintaining the self-image that we're generally honest people.
There is one lesson from Mrs. Kelly that I remember well to this day, a lesson that nearly all of her math students probably retain. At the start of the year, she made her students memorize and internalize a single axiom:
"The more senses you bring into the learning process, the more lasting will be the learning."
I never forgot it, even though it's been 20 years since I sat in her class. If I had any doubt as to how well I remembered the sentence verbatim, the words reappeared in my inbox in a message from Schechter Headmaster Elliot Spiegel announcing his former colleague's passing:
Pat was a master math teacher to generations of Schechter Westchester Middle School students whose motto, "the more senses you bring in to the learning process, the more lasting will be the learning," became a guide to her students throughout their school careers.
What's far more meaningful is that in high school, college, and my professional life, I would repeatedly internalize Mrs. Kelly's lesson. I'd find ways to recite things aloud so I could hear them. I'd write out important passages long-hand so I could commit them to memory. I'd push myself not so much to be creative but to learn in creative ways. I didn't do this nearly enough and still could do this more; as authors tend to write in acknowledgements, Mrs. Kelly contributed to my successes, but my mistakes are all mine.
I can't remember a single math lesson from eighth grade, at least nothing specifically. I think I also avoided the dreaded assistant principal's office. I remember her voice though, her manner, and more importantly those words of hers:"The more senses you bring into the learning process, the more lasting will be the learning."
Thanks, Mrs. Kelly. Your words and deeds are still with us.