While I was in high school, my school lost four teachers. It was a small school, and the whole community was rocked by the losses, one after the other. Around the time of one of those deaths, we were reading Death of a Salesman in my English class. After seeing the chalkboard full of messages from students and going to a memorial mass, I remember thinking to myself that teachers are the ones who get the kind of funeral Willy Loman was dreaming about, but didn’t get. The outpouring of love and gratitude at the death of a teacher, especially one who died too soon, in the middle of her or his teaching career, or not long after leaving the classroom, can be overwhelming.
Now the school where I teach has experienced this loss. Our founding principal, Elaine Fahrner, retired last year after being diagnosed with cancer. She passed away on November 11. The memorial service was just as she would have wanted it: a bunch of people getting together to share stories, much more laughter than tears. The auditorium was so full that people were sent to get more chairs from the classrooms several times. Lots of people say a they want a funeral to be a celebration of life rather than a lamentation of death, but this gathering was more true to that idea than any other I’ve ever attended. Here’s a video that was played at the memorial service, compiled by my coworker Buffy Holton.
Elaine Fahrner believed in the importance of celebration so much that she made it a part of our school’s DNA, writing it into the mission statement. Every time a student earns a half credit, they get a certificate and stamp their list of requirements that’s displayed in the hall. It’s a little thing, but it gives them a sense of progress and momentum. When a student finishes his last credit, everyone is called out into the hall to celebrate. We blow an air horn and the student walks through a crowd of cheering friends. We have two graduations a year, and by the end of the ceremonies, my face hurts from smiling and my palms sting from clapping.
Because of our school’s unique schedule and fast student turnover, very few of our current students ever met Ms. Fahrner, which feels strange and wrong. I do think her spirit is a deep part of the school though, and that the teachers and administrators who knew her do our best to keep it alive. Knowing her means that we’ll always have an inner voice that advocates for our students’ best interests. Now, anytime there’s a problem in the classroom, we can ask ourselves, “What would Elaine do?” and know immediately how to do right by our students.
Ms. Fahrner’s goal was always to get students their diplomas, but never at the sacrifice of academic standards. At our alternative high school, we’re always working to strike a delicate balance between bending the rules to accommodate individual students’ difficulties, and holding the line lest all standards collapse. Ms. Fahrner always knew when to be tough and when to give a student a break. She had a preternatural ability to call a kid on his bullshit, while still letting him know she cared about him, communicating this complex emotional idea with a twinkle in her eye that let him know she was on his team. (She also graciously gave other principals and district higher-ups the same treatment when she felt it was necessary.)
We take pictures of our students the day they enroll, and the day they finish their classes, and display both side by side on graduation day. Sometimes the contrast between the two pictures is striking. There was one particular before/after that astonished us all, a handsome boy named Dexter White whom I taught in my first year at this school. In the before shot, he’s looking down with shoulders hunched, like a puppy expecting to be hit. In the after shot he has a radiant smile, his posture puffed up with pride and confidence. Elaine put that before/after picture into a Powerpoint that she showed to people at the district and potential donors, saying that it summarized what we did. She always said our purpose was to improve people’s lives, to open up opportunities for them by helping them earn a diploma.
I’ll always remember one time when I had a conflict with a student over his grade. He threatened to go talk to Ms. Fahrner about it, and I shrugged and told him to go ahead. She chewed him out so hard that when he apologized to me he actually sounded sincere. It felt so wonderful and freeing as a teacher to have that much confidence in my administrator, to feel so assured that she had my back. It was a feeling that I never had in my first two years of teaching before coming to this school. I didn’t realize how tiring it is to feel anxious about your boss’s reactions to everyday problems until I didn’t have to feel that way anymore.
At the memorial, Kay Wright, a coworker of mine and longtime friend of Ms. Fahrner, talked about what that support looked like for her. Ms Fahrner let her teachers try new things, and was understanding if they didn’t always work out. She supported experimentation even at the cost of occasional failure. Thanks to her encouragement, I set up my classroom and grading system in an unorthodox way that fits our schedule and culture better than a more traditional arrangement. I couldn’t have succeeded without the permission to fail that she granted me so generously. 2011-2012 was my third year in the classroom, and I was in my third school. My first two years had been rough, and my confidence wasn’t super high. Ms. Fahrner had faith in me as a teacher, and that meant so much to me. She helped me to believe in myself and the impact I could have on my students, and her trust gave me the strength to persevere.
I’m not sure that I’d still be teaching if I’d never met Ms. Fahrner. Going back to school after having a baby isn’t easy, and I’m not sure it would have been worth the sacrifice if I had been in any other school. I’ll always be grateful to her for bringing me to a place where I can feel supported and where small classes make teaching manageable and rewarding. Around this time in 2011, during my first year at her school, I ended a quick email to Ms. Fahrner with a sincere line that I’ll always be glad I included: “Have a great Thanksgiving! This year I’m thankful for you!” I feel the same way this year. I’m so grateful for having known, worked with, and learned from Elaine Fahrner. Every time we blow the horn, it’s thanks to her.
What I’ve written here is just one person’s impression of Elaine Fahrner’s impact, how she changed my life personally. For a more thorough impression of what her loss means to the whole community, here are two more loving tributes that discuss her life more broadly.