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Leading Lady

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Burrillville, R.I.

As if answering a cattle call for a movie about the French Resistance, Mary Lee Drouin's English literature students, like Drouin herself, are dressed in black pants and turtleneck sweaters. They maintain a conspiratorial silence about their monochromatic look until late in the afternoon when a senior, index finger pursed to her lips, lets the cat out of the bag. "We are followers of Drouin," she murmurs.

It's all a jest, of course, a scheme designed to perplex a visitor. But like all good jests, it contains a kernel of truth. For Mary Lee Drouin, a 17-year veteran teacher at Burrillville High School in the weathered New England mill town of the same name, has amassed a band of devotees over the years.

"School should be closer to the family experience than the industrial experience," Drouin says. "If we take our strengths in the ways in which we relate to our own children and apply them to our students, those students will most likely feel loved."

While Drouin says nothing about being loved in return--indeed she insists that she neither wants nor needs 17-year-old friends--it's apparent that her students revere her. They show up at performances of Pendragon, a celebrated traditional music ensemble for which Drouin is the lead singer. They attend plays at the local theater she operates with her husband, Bob, also a Pendragon performer. And, of course, they are present in her classroom, which for all its institutional limitations--a bright orange partition divides her room from the next--is a small theater in which she holds center stage.

Alumni frequently drop by her classroom, sometimes with poems or novels-in-progress in hand. "You never knew what was going to happen in her class on a given day," says Scott Dumouchel, a former student who successfully nominated Drouin for the 21st Century Rhode Island Educator of the Year Award in 1993. "Sometimes, we'd have these poetry slams in which we would all just sit down and write, read, and talk about poetry." Dumouchel, who attends a local community college, sometimes returns to Drouin's classroom just to hang out. "I miss it here," he says.

Burrillville Assistant Principal Lee Malbon, who arrived at the school with Drouin in 1979, says students frequently emulate her. "They come back from wherever they are and whatever they're doing and take on the artsy role she displays," he says. "In fact, young people coming back to visit look more like Mary Lee than Mary Lee looks like Mary Lee."

Spending a couple of days at Burrillville High School with the dark-haired, blue-eyed Drouin--in jeans and a shawl, she looks like the archetypical folk singer--is a bit like attending a reception before a testimonial dinner: People seek you out to deliver breathless encomiums. One sophomore girl, stopping in Drouin's classroom between classes, chirps, "Isn't she wonderful?" She's back the next day, perched in the doorway: "Isn't she terrific? The best teacher ever?"

A young English teacher, Lisa Carpenter, drops by to tell me that she has modeled her own teaching after Drouin's. "Mary Lee can motivate the slug of slugs," she says. "That's what charisma does for you. You need to have it if you want to motivate today's students. You have to put your personal life aside, come in, and think, 'This is my performance now."'

Drouin is also featured in a book titled Coming of Age: The True Adventures of Two American Teens. Although author Wayne Miller's focus is ostensibly on a love affair between two high school kids, he ends up writing extensively about Drouin, even naming one of his chapters after her. Of her classroom teaching, Miller concludes, "Drouin simply had the touch."

But the most powerful testimony is a large cardboard box, kept as a sort of lidless mailbox near Drouin's desk. Out of it spills the detritus of her teaching career. There are grant proposals, old assignments, pictures of former students, and scads of letters from students, several of which read like this: "Missed you today--yearning for a solid good hug and the smell of rose petals. ... I remember how you said I'd be the kind of child you'd want to have. But in more than one way, I am your child."

Or this: "I shall clasp you tightly to my cold, dark heart and call you sister."

Or this: "I don't know if you will remember me, but you were my English teacher in '81-82. I've written this letter many times over the years because I always wanted to let you know what a special teacher you are. ... I've gained understanding I could never have gained without you."

Other student letters are less effusive but appreciative nonetheless, thanking Drouin for instilling in them an interest in arts and literature. A letter from a former student at Smith College quite boldly states, "I'll dedicate my first novel to you."

Exactly why the great majority of teachers are all but forgotten like so many minor characters in a Russian novel while a rare few like Mary Lee Drouin are remembered years later is a large and complicated question. In Drouin's case, as her colleague Carpenter points out, it has a lot to do with charisma, a quality so slippery, so immune to hard analysis, that it's regarded with suspicion as well as with admiration. Just how, after all, can one account for something as vague and yet deeply felt as personal magnetism?

While some teachers look longingly at a colleague around whom admiring students cluster, wondering why they can't have that kind of personal appeal, others are suspect of this kind of teacher-student bond. They see it as a case of dangerously shortening the necessary distance between teacher and student in a wrong-headed attempt to get personal or--in faculty-lounge vernacular--"buddy-buddy."

Yet Drouin does not get personal with students, at least not in any therapeutic sense. She does not, for example, share information about her personal life with students, and she does not expect students to share any with her. Occasionally, it's true, students will seek her out to talk about family troubles and the like, but Drouin will do no more than listen. She does not consider therapy a part of a teacher's vocation.

What, then, accounts for her following? Watching Drouin teach, it seems clear that her charisma is bound up with her ability to captivate an audience. "If you've ever seen Mary Lee sing with Pendragon, you know what a performer she is," says Dick Martin, a longtime friend and English department colleague. "She knows how to work a room, and she brings that stage presence into the classroom."

As Drouin teaches, she is constantly, as she puts it, "taking the temperature of the room and then making adjustments." For her, this entails making full use of a skilled actor's range. She often moves about the room as she teaches, pleading, cajoling, joking, remonstrating. She gives students quick little hugs, demonstrating that her comment about school being a "family experience" is an expression of her own practice.

Most of all, she exalts in her students' accomplishments. After a student reads a well-conceived essay, Drouin exclaims, "God, that's good!" When a student vividly describes his notion of hell--this part of the study of Milton's "Paradise Lost"--she winces and exclaims, "God, you make my flesh crawl." About Drouin's praise there is no behaviorist calculation; it seems to be an expression of an almost instinctive generosity. Perhaps this is why you feel in her classes what can only be called an air of innocence. Teenagers read their writings and sing without the least bit of inhibition, like small children coming home from school to relate the minutiae of their days.

Students, quite literally, do sing in her classes. One day, as a class of juniors was wending its way through Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott," Drouin suddenly had them stand to sing in three parts an English medieval love song: "Go to Jane Glover/And tell her I love her/And at the mid of the Moon I will come to her." Someone unaccustomed to such singing in an academic classroom might at first consider it merely an entertaining diversion. But it was, in fact, serious business, and she had students work through the song a number of times before she was satisfied. On the way out of the classroom, one boy said to another, "I'll never forget that song."

To suggest, then, that Drouin has the stage presence of an actress does not imply that her teaching style is a contrivance. Like a good actress who has the luxury of choosing her part, she does not so much "play at pretend" as enact a role that has meaning for both her and her students.

Of course, the belief that the effective teacher must be a performer and entertainer is an ancient one. Even Socrates, who condemned the sophists for their rhetorical trickery, had his own stage antics, as is apparent in Plato's dialogues. But most of the recent school-reform literature ignores, if not scorns, the notion of teacher as performer. Talk of charisma and stage presence puts the emphasis on the teacher's role, when what is needed, say the experts, is an assertion of the student's own powers. The most popular formulation of this idea is the teacher-as-coach, student-as-worker idea promoted by Brown University professor Theodore R. Sizer and his Coalition of Essential Schools. In the coalition's scheme of things, it is the students and not the teacher who must perform, the latter becoming a kind of behind-the-scenes director.

Perhaps because she is such a gifted performer, Drouin has problems with this aspect of the coalition's philosophy. "I don't buy into the implications of what they're saying--that you don't go into the classroom and transmit knowledge to students or set the parameters of just what is to be known," she says. "There seems to be an increasing emphasis on the student being the explorer. Now, I do believe in that, but if you're going to be exploring, it's really nice if somebody has a map."

Drouin does sometimes tell her students, "It's my classroom, and I rule," when they persist in challenging her about a grade or classroom policy. But anyone observing her teach will quickly see that her magnetism enables her to rule with gentle tact instead of with an iron fist.

Charisma, she admits, is a gift. Nevertheless, it is in itself insufficient. It needs to be paired with something else. She illustrates her point with a story.

In her first few years of teaching, Drouin says, she was tired and angry much of the time. She expended a lot of energy trying to get students to follow orders, but they resisted; as an authority figure, she was a failure. And then, she began in a conscious way to think about an uncle of hers, John Partington, a former FBI agent, who, she says, created the federal witness-protection program. He was a remarkably charismatic man--so charismatic that even the criminals he arrested were captivated by his charm.

"I started thinking about how when I was a little girl he was the one everyone in the family wanted to be around," Drouin recalls. "So I thought to myself, What was it that so drew people to his presence? And how could I use that to change my teaching? And I distinctly remembered that he was the one adult who wouldn't chase us from the room when we wanted to hear what the adults were saying. He was the one who sat on the step and listened to what we had to say. He made us feel important--that we really mattered."

What Drouin came to understand about her uncle is that his charisma was valuable only insofar as it was paired with a generosity of spirit. "After I had thought about my uncle, I decided that from the very first day I was back in school, I would smile at students and mean it and say, 'Hello, how are you?' I would make real eye contact, even with those students I didn't have. I would give more than I would demand. I would treat students as I would want my only daughter to be treated, and that is with kindness."

Drouin doesn't want to sound like a Pollyanna. She makes it clear that this new approach was not, as she puts it, "some huge, altruistic effort."

"It was a question, really, of how I could make this teaching life better for me as well as for them," she says. "Because it's not just for them; we're not teaching outside of ourselves. We're living a life, and it can be a damn long life. So I had to ask myself: Are you going to live it in a way that makes you exhausted and sad, or are you going to do what makes you happy during this life?"

When talking about teaching, Drouin likes to cite Ben Jonson's 17th-century poem, "To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare," which contains the famous line, "For a good poet's made as well as born."

"Every time I read that, I think that's true of teachers, too," Drouin says. "Nature isn't enough; you have to learn the art of teaching."

In the most obvious sense, learning the art of teaching demands that teachers acquire a substantial mastery of and love for their subject. But in a more subtle sense, Drouin believes that it requires teachers to develop a strong sense of themselves as a medium through which knowledge is transmitted. "Never are you just passing on information or knowledge in a vacuum," she says. "Everything you teach is coming through your eyes, your art. You are the vessel."

For Drouin, a strong connection exists between her teaching and her music. In both, she sees herself as an interlocutor--or vessel--who transmits vital but often endangered traditions to students and audience members. In her music, she passes on the songs of New England and Irish immigrants; in her teaching, she passes on the classics of English literature, particularly those of her favorite century: the 17th.

Of course, few high school students are likely to feel an immediate kinship for, say, John Milton or the metaphysical poets. Consequently, she often first strives to develop in students a personal connection to the work. Still, she also insists that students, as their study deepens, must approach a work in a more intellectual, systematic way. "I don't think a gut response is ever enough," Drouin explains. "I believe that the initial response, if it is emotional, must work its way upstairs."

Drouin introduced seniors in two honors English classes I attended to "Paradise Lost" by having them read and consider, a couple days before they would even begin the text, Satan's famous lines: "The mind is its own place, and itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."

Drouin asked all of us--I was most pointedly not exempted--to describe our own conceptions of hell, and we wrote furiously for 10 minutes. Students then read to the class their essays, which were somewhat surprising in that they contained none of the familiar infernal agonies. There was no talk of fiery pits but of becoming "a shadow in the dark" or of "being locked in a janitor's room."

For these students, hell was largely about psychological desolation, a mental state of anguish characterized by self-recrimination. "In hell," one boy reads, "I am tortured by having to see, as if at a movie showing around the clock, the consequences of all the hurtful things I've done, all the people I've wronged."

"Hell is seclusion," one girl adds. "In hell, I'm a fortress, cut off from other people." Yet another student reads, "In hell, you exist to please others; you're not permitted to do anything just to please yourself."

I was listening to the students when Drouin caught me off guard by asking me to read my own account of hell. I did so a bit grudgingly, for I had thought I was being rather sophomoric to write about hell as a state of complete nothingness. But my schoolboy trepidation vanished when she praised my effort, saying I had given the whole idea of hell a very modern twist. I beamed. Such is the effect Drouin has on people.

Earlier, Lisa Carpenter, Drouin's colleague, named the single lesson she's most happy to have learned from Mary Lee Drouin: "I learned how to manipulate students by glowing over their work, telling them how great this is, asking them how they'd ever manage to come up with this or that idea. I never feel dishonest when I give this kind of praise because you can always find something positive to convey."

Drouin does sometimes glow over her students' work, but that doesn't mean she offers only gushing praise. She likes to respond to student work with gentle provocation.

"Do I notice an emphasis on conformity?" Drouin asks after several students portray hell as a place of lock-step anonymity. "Oh, the could haves and should haves," she moans after someone renders hell a place of interminable regret. "Hell is a place of retribution where you never stop paying for mistakes." After everyone has finished reading, Drouin sums up with her usual sense of drama. "Do any of you notice what it feels like after reading these? Coldness, isolation, emotional emptiness, absence of light--don't you feel them in the classroom?"

They must have, for there was a lull in the class during which somber students just gazed back at their teacher. I had expected a few students, sophisticated seniors as they were, to snicker. But there was instead nothing but dead silence. Drouin, it seems, somehow has a way of getting away with what would seem mawkish coming from another teacher.

Drouin held the mood for a moment and then moved on, telling the students that everything was about to change: They were now going to write out their conceptions of heaven. Heaven was like hell for these students in that it was almost purely an emotional state, devoid of traditional religious denotations. "Do you notice," Drouin mentions at one point, "that no one's mentioned God in this entire discussion about heaven?"

Students seemed to think that heaven is something that could be enjoyed in itself, as if some sort of purely ecstatic state; it did not require any sort of striving toward goals. Drouin comments: "We're not meant to just go out and enjoy things for what they are, are we? Everything is supposed to have a purpose, even suffering. It's part of the Puritan ethic."

The plan is for students in the ensuing days to transform one another's versionsof heaven into hell and hell into heaven. This way, they'll approach Milton's idea: namely, that heaven and hell are not so much places as states of mind the individual--Satan in Milton's case--freely chooses for himself or herself.

Drouin has tremendous faith in students' ability to think and feel as the literary artists of centuries ago did. This is the crux of her method: to draw them into an author's universe so that the text, when they finally immerse themselves in it, will have some correspondence to their own sensibilities. "I could just start off saying, 'Milton meant this, or Milton meant that,"' Drouin says, "but it would go right over their heads. If they don't think what they're reading is reflected in their own lives, then it's as good as dead."

Drouin does have a lectern in her classroom, which is no mere prop. She lectures to the students and expects them to take notes. She wants them to know the historical climate from which a poem or play has emerged and the various interpretations critics have made of literary works. Her tests are full of literary terms she expects students to define. But for Drouin, ensuring that her students feel a connection to the ideas and emotions comes first; analysis is always something for later down the road.

During one lesson, a student stops right in the middle of the essay she's reading to the class. "I think I did it wrong," she mumbles, looking up at Drouin. "It's not wrong," Drouin tells her, "it's what you wrote." The girl reads on.

The incident is noteworthy only on account of its singularity. It was the only time I witnessed even a momentary lapse of confidence in Drouin's classes. Her students--the great majority anyhow--demonstrate a self-assurance that reflects that of their teacher. In her classes, students are not paralyzed by a fear of sounding stupid. And there is no sign of one-upmanship, which can turn classroom discussions into displays of verbal posturing. Drouin's classroom is a safe place for students perhaps because she follows her own cardinal rule of "be kind to them" (this, she says, is her first piece of advice to young teachers) and insists that students adhere to her policy of noncompetitiveness.

"At the beginning of every year," Drouin says, "I tell my honors classes, 'I love competition, I just love it,' and they look at me in sheer wonderment. But then I add, 'Never with each other. In here, the only person you're in competition with is yourself, and don't ever let me sense that you feel your own success depends on defeating someone else."'

Of course, giving such advice to naturally competitive students makes sense; giving the same advice to students who are by and large indifferent to school would be completely beside the point. Drouin has two such classes this year. They are called 12-T classes--the T standing for traditional--but in reality they are holding tanks for students of the lowest track.

In past decades, many of these students would have dropped out to work in the local mill economy. But this work has since migrated south and overseas, so now they stay in school. While these students generally treat Drouin with a great deal of respect, many are what you'd call "tough kids," their studded ears and the like giving them a somewhat wild and woolly look. In one class, I sat with three girls who spent the beginning of the lesson rehashing the excesses of their weekend in rather nitty-gritty detail, absolutely impervious to the presence of a visitor.

It is Drouin's gift--her charisma, if you will--to be able to develop a rapport with almost anyone, and so she has a good rapport with these kids, too. She could call a girl who wouldn't open her book "pumpkin head" and make it sound like a compliment. She parcels out small hugs, reiterates her promise to soon bring them doughnuts, and with a few words and a clasp of a shoulder gets sullen students to smile. In Drouin's presence, their toughness seems a bluff on which they are pleased to be called.

Yet for all the good will, the 12-T classes seem to demonstrate that there's only so much even a skilled teacher like Drouin can do--at least with disaffected seniors who have long ago grown contemptuous of school. One day, for example, Drouin asks them to create a bookmark that exemplifies a theme from Richard Connell's story "The Most Dangerous Game." The class had just finished reading the story out loud--the only way, Drouin says, they would ever get through it.

The students were to exemplify the theme by selecting a quotation from the story and then illustrating its significance. An immediate problem surfaced: Many of the students did not know what a quotation was, much less how to cite it from the text. Drouin explains: "Quotations are words actually on paper." Finally, they got started; I watched one boy draw a picture of a peace symbol about to be shattered by a bullet; the quotation from the story was, "Love is a gun."

"Somewhere along the way," Drouin says after the class, "these students came to feel bad about what they had trouble doing. Year after year, it was nothing but an awareness of failure. Consequently, a lot of them have given up. It's a battle just getting them to observe social niceties, much less teaching them communication skills. At least I can teach them a little bit about what I value--literature, good manners--and let them know that I value them. So every day, it's pretty much the same thing: Be kind to them, correct their inappropriate behavior and spelling, but always in a way that they don't see as a challenge. The worst thing I could do is scream at them; they're just waiting for that."

For a moment, the almost always upbeat Drouin sounds tired, discouraged, and even defeated. It clearly bothers her that she has a hard time getting through to these students. "I can't live their lives for them," she says. "That's why I'm unwilling to take the blame for the culture's ills--the culture of which they're a product."

Yet Drouin persists, even trying to teach her 12-T students the same metaphysical poetry she teaches her honors students. She has them, for instance, compare love and automobile mechanics as a way of getting them to see how John Donne used bizarre conceits.

She recalls how an administrator once told her that there was no reason to persist in trying to teach Shakespeare to students who lacked the skills and interest. "Why not give them something around which they could easily wrap their minds?" the person had asked. Drouin strongly disagrees. Her students need an alternative to "pulp-fiction culture." She has an obligation to try to make the likes of Shakespeare and Donne accessible to all students.

"I do believe that somehow these works can change their lives, if only in another generation," she says. "If [low-track] students are not presented with the good and beautiful as something valuable, then they will never find it valuable for their own children. And who is to say that some of these students who have such a struggle with the printed page won't have a particularly gifted child? Maybe one day, if they as parents have been presented with the beautiful, they'll encourage rather than scoff at their child who comes home from school talking excitedly about what she has learned.

"It's like this: The best and brightest students will have other opportunities to encounter this material. But for the other kids, this will be the only place. And these are the kids who most need to be touched by the stories of great heroes, the great consequences of tragedy. Who needs to be softened more? Those who are already soft or those who have hardened by the course of life?"

Drouin's talk about education as a process of softening might sound strange to those who think of the high school years as a time when adolescents need to be toughened up to face the challenges and inevitable disappointments of adult life. But for Drouin, school should never be a place of hard knocks. She sees it rather as the last place in which kindness and imagination can take root, so that when her students go out into the cruel world, they'll have more to offer than stoic resolve against life's hard blows.

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