The Long Run
Maybe Hazel Wilson wasn’t destined to become a teacher, but she felt the signs pointing her in that direction were pretty clear. She was named after a schoolteacher, and when she was a student in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, she had two inspiring teachers named Hazel. At age 16, Wilson left home to attend Winston-Salem Teachers College in North Carolina (now Winston-Salem State University). She was the youngest student in her class.
Agnes Zeiger taught for an impressive 42 years before she retired. That was in 1988. Since then, she’s been a mostly full-time substitute at public and parochial schools in Tiffin, Ohio: a “retirement career” that’s been longer than many teachers’ regular careers.
When Zeiger, 80, was a young woman, she was a religious sister—a nun who works in the community. She graduated from Mary Manse College in Toledo, Ohio, and taught 1st grade in Catholic schools. But her aging father needed her help, so Zeiger went home to Tiffin to care for him and teach. Around that time, her brother introduced her to one of his friends. “I thought I would just be a teacher,” she says. “But I met someone, and I got married.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president when 22-year-old Rose Gilbert first took her place at the front of a Los Angeles classroom. She left after just a year to work a lucrative job as a contract agent for MGM Studios. But Gilbert felt the pull of the classroom again in 1956, and she’s been teaching in the city full time ever since.
English has always been the 88-year-old’s subject. She mentions all in one breath her favorite books to teach: Camus’ The Stranger, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. “My kids read a lot—sometimes a book every week or two,” she says. It’s all part of her plan to instill a love of literature rivaling students’ passion for electronic gadgets, the ubiquity of which, she jokes, reminds her of Brave New World.
In the world in which Ellie Johnson grew up, most women chose among three careers: teaching, nursing, or store clerking. Her mother was a teacher, so Johnson decided to try it too. “I’m lucky teaching turned out to be so good for me,” she says.
Johnson started teaching history in Syracuse, New York, in 1954. After two years, she moved to the city’s newly built Jamesville-DeWitt High School. Fifty years later, the 74-year-old is still there, and still teaching history.
Roy Clare doesn’t like to talk about how old he is—or isn’t. “I never discuss age because it’s not important,” he says. “There are some people who have always been old.
Suffice it to say that Clare, 81, is not one of those people. Although he’s been teaching music for almost five decades in the Williamsville, New York, Central School District, his longevity isn’t often on his mind. At the moment, he’s more concerned with designing a music curriculum that will be meaningful to students of wildly varying abilities. One of his recent successes was a unit about rap, in which students created rhythmic patterns using the names of desserts.
As a girl, Carrie Hansen attended a K-8 school in Oldham, South Dakota, that had only 27 students. She grew up to be a teacher, principal, and advocate for small community schools. “For the students of today, bigger just isn’t better,” Hansen says.
She found herself in front of a high school classroom at age 19, armed with an emergency certification. It was the start of a career that would span 54 years.
Vol. 18, Issue 06, Pages 20-24, 26Published in Print: May 1, 2007, as The Long Run