The summer I graduated 8th grade, my sister Peggy and I traveled to Washington, D.C. to visit relatives. It was the summer of ’73, the Watergate hearings were three months old and a fast-budding national television sensation, and when we weren’t taking in the historic sights and getting our family’s obsessive Kennedy fix on, we were stalking the halls and offices of Congress for glimpses of senators and Watergate Committee rock stars Daniel Inouye, Howard Baker, Ted Kennedy and Sam Irwin.
One afternoon as we sat in the Senate gallery, the same theater so mythically filled by the Boy Rangers in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and myriad real-life tourists and political junkies before and since, I took my eyes off the proceedings on the floor below and scanned the faces of the crowd above. There, sitting about a hundred feet away, amidst the history students and democracy nerds, another face was doing the same thing, and when our gazes met we both burst into incredulous pointing and pantomiming.
“What are you doing here?”
It was Marie Murphy, better known to thousands of her students as “Miss Murphy” (and, later, “Ms. Murphy”), who taught religion and social studies at Annunciation School for five decades and whose retirement will come June 7, the last day of school. Somewhere in my basement I’ve got the Watergate gangsters’ autographs and Senate hall passes, saved due in no small part to the passion for history and mystery Ms. Murphy instilled in me and so many others, and hell if there wasn’t something perfectly fateful about seeing and being seen by her in that historic room of thought, ideas and law.
Everyone you meet is your teacher, as the Buddhist saying goes, but some teachers stay with you longer than others.
“She was one of the first female lay teachers who took herself seriously and expected us to take ourselves seriously, as scholars,” Peggy emailed me earlier this week, as news of Ms. Murphy’s retirement made the rounds in and around and far beyond the neighborhoods we grew up in. “It made her hard on us, but I always felt her driving desire was excellence. Johnny Tremain and Miss Murphy are perpetually forged together in my mind.”
Ms. Murphy’s legacy will go down as creator and implementer of The Outline, a simple writing tool meant to organize and clarify the malleable middle schooler mind. Numerous lawyers, teachers, artists, doctors, musicians and writers have taken The Outline along with them on their professional journeys, along with memories of its maker, whose penchant and demand for discipline makes the stereotypical tough Catholic nun look like a pushover.
No one practiced tough love more fervently than Ms. Murphy, who was known for a quick detention trigger finger and for kicking disruptive kids out of class. It happened to me a couple times, and as I sat there in the hallway, doing my time and waiting to be saved by the bell, I wondered what I was missing, what rant Ms. Murphy was on about. She questioned everything, and she recognized when a student was being thoughtless, lazy. She pushed us. She challenged us. She expelled a kid once for randomly breaking an egg in a home economics class, and appreciated it when the rest of us stood up for what we believed in.
As Ms. Murphy’s teaching career winds down, mine is ramping up. I’ve been teaching Introduction To The Essay at the Loft Literary Center this wintery spring, and my respect for teachers of all stripes and subjects has been renewed yet again. The class assignment for this week is to “write about what you love,” and that’s what I’m doing at the moment about Ms. Murphy, whom I last saw in October at Annunciation’s Creative Artstravaganza.
I caught her as she was making her exit. I told her that she and The Outline had been the subject of a flurry of emails between my brothers and sisters earlier in the week. I told her we’d been talking about her, that her ears must’ve been burning, that we loved her, and, as The Belfast Cowboys and dance floor kicked into high gear, I asked her to dance. She almost took me up on it.
“You’re weird,” she said, finally, waving me off with a big Irish smile, then walked slowly down the stairs from the auditorium, through the foyer, and out the door.