Passionate and compassionate

English teacher Mary Ellen Laden pauses in her Jefferson City High School classroom.

English teacher Mary Ellen Laden pauses in her Jefferson City High School classroom.

From the second grade onward, everyone told Mary Ellen Laden she should be a teacher.

It seemed like a natural choice. Almost everyone on her mother’s side of the family were educators. Her own teachers frequently asked her to pitch in when other kids didn’t grasp a concept. She even enjoyed helping others.

“I was rebelling against all that,” she said.

And so in the late 1970s she went to college to earn a bachelor of arts in writing, with a minor in journalism, from Southwest Missouri State University. Working as an editor at a big East Coast book publisher was her dream. Her first job was a $150-a-month gig at the Fulton Sun.

“I lived over a tavern in an alley,” she said.

With a $100 monthly student loan to pay off, the plan needed some adjustments.

So when her former high school superintendent lost three English teachers in a matter of months, he asked Laden if she would be willing to work as a long-term substitute.

“I finished the year for them and found I really loved teaching,” Laden said.

She returned to college and graduated with teaching certificates in English and journalism in 1981.

Her first official position was at Jefferson City High School. Those first two years were trial by fire.

“I had a group of failed seniors, 30 boys, who needed a few credits to graduate,” she said. “It was beautiful.”

That first year she didn’t have her own classroom and traveled from class to class. The second year she taught seniors in the morning and seventh-graders in the afternoon.

Back then teachers relied on purple mimeographs cranked out one at a time, and she still remembers when an older teacher noticed her scratched-out errors. “Oh, I see we don’t care about being neat,” the woman said archly.

In those early years, her students weren’t the only ones on the learning curve.

“One time I gave my sophomores a poetry test that would have knocked most graduate students to the floor,” she recalled. “They did surprisingly well.”

She learned giving students more time to finish a paper doesn’t lead to better papers, only more procrastination.

Since that point in time, Laden has built a granite reputation as a funny, dedicated professional who coaxes from students their very best writing and thinking.

After 32 years teaching American and British literature and creative writing at JCHS, Laden is setting down the chalk, so to speak. She retires Tuesday.

Goodbye to10- and 12-hour grading sessions every Sunday. Hello to having the energy to write her own murder mysteries.

“It has been very emotional. I feel like a senior,” she said. “Leaving is bitter, because I still love teaching. But it is sweet, because I think I’ll like retirement, too.”

While the tools teachers use have changed over time, students have remained much the same, she said.

“They have changed in the way they are always glued to technology, but the basic student hasn’t changed that much,” she said. “As long as they laugh at my jokes ...”

Laden has a dry wit and a mild sense of the ridiculous that charms people. A little standup, a little schtick, goes a long way with her students.

Her colleague, Jennifer Milne, said Laden’s funny side will be sorely missed.

“I just love her sense of humor ... she’s so subtle and she’s so well-read. You know, she’s our ‘grammar guru.’ She always found a way to make literature, writing and grammar relevant to the students, which can be really hard to do, and she has mentored the younger teachers. I don’t know what we’re going to do without her.”

Milne said both her daughters took Laden’s class.

“Both of my daughters say Ms. Laden was their favorite teacher and I think that speaks volumes,” Milne added. “She was compassionate and passionate at the same time. We are really going to miss her.”

Laden said she tried to model the behavior she wants to see in her students.

“I respect them (teens) as people and I think they realize that,” she said.

Sometimes people tell her they don’t understand how she can stand teenagers.

“People ask me, ‘What are you going to miss most?’ I tell them I’m going to miss my students. They keep you young! They keep you happy!” she said.

But she has noticed a growing generation gap. When she showed the movie, “The Great Gatsby,” a few teens didn’t recognize Robert Redford.

“Wow! Is he handsome!” a female student said. “Who is he? Is he new?”

“Yeah, he’s a newcomer,” she’d josh back. “He’s going to be in a boy band next.”

For many of her students, her classroom at the end of the day is a quiet retreat. At times students have sought her advice on how to confess to their parents an unplanned pregnancy or a massive speeding ticket. One of the tough aspects of the job is seeing kids she’s formed close relationships with leave the nest.

“That’s the hardest part. Did they learn anything? Are they okay?” she wonders.

As a creative writing teacher, Laden had an opportunity to connect with students’ thoughts and aspirations in a way other teachers didn’t. One of her greatest pride and joys as a teacher was overseeing the high school’s literary magazine, which was published between 1965 and 2008.

“That was my baby,” she said. “I had some dandy writers. People would be blown away by the creativity and the talent ... I really hate to think of all the talent that doesn’t have an outlet.”

For Laden, it was heartbreaking when the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education started to demand students take four credits of English to graduate. The change meant that elective courses, like creative writing, could not be offered. It was the death-knell for the school’s magazine, which published original student poetry and fiction.

“We were two All-Americans away from the Hall of Fame,” she lamented.

Although she has been offered leadership positions over the years, she has mainly eschewed them. “I didn’t want to leave the classroom for any reason. Sadly, that’s the only way to move up the ladder in education,” she said.

Retirement is going to bring more opportunities for Laden, who has an amazing collection of miniature doll houses, to spent time with her favorite hobby.

She also recently discovered she loves taking Caribbean cruises. And she’s looking for the peaceful days spent reading books.

But she’s relishing the thought of next winter’s first snowy day.

“That first snowy morning, when I can roll over and go back to sleep, it’s going to be perfect!” she said.

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