Lessons of Goal II in the Classroom
Jessica Rice, Upper School English

Goal II of our Sacred Heart Goals and Criteria reminds us that we “educate to a deep respect for intellectual values.” Criterion 1 details, “Sacred Heart educators and students engage in challenging experiences that inspire intellectual curiosity, a global mindset and a life-long love of learning.” When I think of Goal II, I think of my own dear high school English teacher. Although I did not attend a Sacred Heart school, nor did she have any connection to the Sacred Heart network of schools, this teacher exemplified and inspired intellectual curiosity and a life-long love of learning more than anybody else in my life. This woman, whom students affectionately called “Babs” as a shorthand of her surname, modeled the deep respect for intellectual values that I seek to embody every day as an educator.

When I was a sophomore in high school, Babs was in her first year of teaching English at the high school level, although she had previously taught German literature to undergraduates. I was terribly intimidated by her. Over the course of the year, however, I began to appreciate her no-nonsense approach to managing the classroom. I took such pride in writing something that earned her rare praise. Most importantly, I grew to admire her commitment to intellectual excellence. Her knowledge of the world, of literature, of philosophy, and of language was aspirational.

In her class, we read the Elizabeth Bishop poem “One Art,” which is now one of my favorite poems. In it, the speaker initially claims that it is easy to lose things in our lives—objects, memories, people. “It’s no disaster,” the speaker says with casual indifference. The final lines, however, contain a shift: “It’s evident/the art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” 

When we read this poem in high school, I casually dismissed the parenthetical (“Write it!”) as unimportant. “Since it’s in parentheses,” I guessed confidently, “she probably just wanted to add something a little different. I don’t think she meant anything by it.” (How I know now how painful that must have been for her to hear! English teachers infamously insist that the author always means something by it.)

“That last line is where all the meaning is,” Babs told me. “You can’t ignore the parts you don’t understand. In fact, you should be looking most at the parts you don’t understand.”

When I looked again, I began to understand that the speaker was, in fact, distraught at the loss of a person who was important to her, and that forcing herself to write about it was an expression of her grief. What a powerful lesson Babs taught me about true intellectual curiosity: look most at what I don’t understand.

When I was in college, Babs was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent treatment and was in remission for several years. She continued working and ultimately taught for 14 years at my high school. In 2016, however, her cancer returned, and she died a year later. I saw that her husband had posted to inform her Facebook friends that she had passed. I watched as comments poured in from her students, all of whom remarked on the way that she challenged them to be clearer writers, more observant writers, and deeper thinkers. I couldn’t bring myself to post a comment. I wasn’t ready to “(Write it!)” yet, but I think I am now.

I have been teaching now for nearly as long as Babs did. As I read with my students, I think of my 10th grade self in Babs’ class, of the joy of inquiry and curiosity and discovery that she instilled in me. I urge them to look most at the parts that confuse them, to seek out the complexity and ambiguity of the text rather than avoid it, just as Babs urged me. With her as my model, I strive to embody and instill this deep respect for intellectual values in the students of Forest Ridge.