The recent past has witnessed the departure from this earthly reign of Lucy Singleton Penzold and Mary Lou Murray, who taught in our lower school for a combined 48 years. As such, their impact on the school, but more importantly on the Hampton Roads community, cannot be overstated. And while I will take occasion here to remind us of their many fine qualities as teachers and human beings, it is the passage of time that demands my attention just now. Some of Mrs. Penzold’s students are approaching 70; some of Mrs. Murray’s have just reached 40. That is an enormous, even a daunting number of living years to consider . . . but let’s try anyway.
Mrs. Penzold was, in the words of long-time Lower School Director Charlie Cumiskey, “one of a kind of the ‘old school marms.’” Mr. Cumiskey goes on to say that while technically he was her “boss,” in fact he was more accurately her colleague and quite often her student, that he learned more from her about teaching than vice versa. She somehow managed to be “proper” without being “prim.” Similarly, she ran a very strict classroom at the same time that her love for her kids was always evident. In a very formal classroom she made Greek mythology come absolutely to life for a room full of 10-year-old boys. I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t grateful that he had Mrs. Penzold in either the third or the fifth grade. (Pictured right)
Mrs. Murray took a slightly different route to pedagogical greatness. Unlike Mrs. Penzold, Mary Lou wore her love for her kids on her sleeve. She ran a class bubbling over with joy. There were hugs and smiles daily. Every year she picked an animal as a mascot for her first grade girls. Her last class, the one that will graduate this year, had pink flamingoes as its mascot. Those girls, every one of them, including those no longer at school here, entered the sanctuary at her funeral, hand in hand, each wearing pink. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is. (Picture right with students Tabor Furr ’13, Kathryn Fink ’13, Rachel Cook ’13, and Allison Bernert ’13)
But as I said at the outset, this is not intended to be simply a celebration of two lives. It’s just that Mrs. Penzold’s students are five decades plus out of her room, and Mrs. Murray’s are well into their fourth. And yet most remember their lower school days and their beloved teachers with a clarity that defies the passage of time. What is it about the time with a loving elementary school teacher that shortens the temporal distance between then and now? The brain scientists will tell you that early memories are changed every time they are brought to the surface – that the next time we dredge up an old memory we are really remembering the preceding call-up, not the event itself. Thus, we have learned, childhood memories can be greatly altered simply by the act of going to them from time to time. But the brain is not all about cognition and memory.
The connection, I believe, must be emotional. Whether or not your second-grade teacher said exactly what you remember her saying, it is the emotional bond you are really experiencing and not some particular event. I have had students from long ago tell me that they remember with great fondness something I said without my being to recall any of it. Maybe I didn’t say exactly what was referred to – but I must have said something that stuck. I hope it is because the young man or woman had forged some relationship with me that went beyond a lesson. It’s what we do here when we are at our best.
I sat in Mrs. Penzold’s third-grade class in the little red schoolhouse on North Shore Road for the 1961-1962 school year. My daughter Caroline sat in Mrs. Murray’s first-grade room for 1989-1990. I remember loving every day of school, and my daughter says she feels the same. And 80% of lower school days are spent in one room with one teacher, so the love comes from the woman at the head of the room. Multiply the good will generated in each child by the many generations of kids that were there in those rooms and you get a massive supply of emotions, almost all of them good. The best part? That the phenomenon is ongoing today.
Goodbye, Lucy. Goodbye, Mary Lou. Thanks for the memories.