In January of 1970, I began my career in education. Fresh out of college, optimistic and ready to change the world, my mid-year assignment found me taking over sixth-grade language arts classes from a popular teacher. I was greeted by students and parents with, “Miss Barnett was the best! No one can replace her,” and “That’s not the way Miss Barnett did it.”
My excitement turned to trepidation in those early weeks. I wondered, “Could I rise to the expectations of my pupils and their parents?” The same week I began teaching, Noreen, a seasoned teacher was also hired. When Noreen entered a room there was an electrical charge and energy that caused me to sit up straighter and listen more attentively. In those first weeks, noticing my apprehension she gently offered suggestions, made me laugh, and encouraged me to find my own style of teaching. The afternoon before Back to School Night, she invited me to dinner at her home to ease my anxiety. I greeted parents that evening, finding them to be more compassionate than I’d expected. One parent approached me as the classroom emptied and handed me a gift box. I unwrapped it exposing a bottle of 1,000 aspirin and a quart of Irish Whiskey. I sat wide-eyed and speechless as she said, “Thank God you’re here! I don’t know what everyone else is talking about!” Noreen and I laughed together when I related the story. She assured me that this was a good start.
As the next few years rolled by, she continued to encourage me to try new things, step out the box, and be adventurous. One afternoon as lunch began, she came to the door of my room and said, “Come with me, we’re going to the drama room.” We walked briskly (it was difficult to keep up with Noreen in every way). As we entered the room, students were clustered in small groups acting out scenes. Dixie, the drama teacher, spotted us and asked us to perform a skit as she pushed two folding chairs side-by-side. We sat, as if on a train, and bumped along like Mr. Toad’s wild ride. Noreen, a natural actress, started a conversation for the scene. Following her lead, I relaxed and enjoyed the playful interaction.
Noreen weaves her love of style and play together effortlessly. In those first years outside of the classroom, she shared her expertise as a seamstress and tutored me in fabric selection and design. I delighted in wearing a copper lamé halter pant suit that I’d made under her tutelage to the faculty Christmas party.
After the birth of my son, I was reassigned to a different school. If I questioned something I’d ask myself, “What would Noreen do?” Upon my retirement in 2010, I reflected on Noreen’s guidance in those early years. I think of her every October, her birthday month, and how she reveled in creating innovative Halloween costumes. Noreen texted me a photo of herself in 2018, channeling her inner Iris Apfel, author of Accidental Icon: Musings of a Geriatric Starlet. Noreen’s energy, imagination, and innovation shines just as brightly as Iris’s. Today, Noreen lives on the East Coast where she designs jackets, attends the opera, dines out, and enjoys time with friends and family. Her colorful threads of inspiration continue to enrich the tapestry of my life.