Back in the day: English teachers reflect back on their high school years


English teacher Melissa Carr attended high school in New Jersey. In school, she was studious and ran on the track team. Photo courtesy Carr.

This is the first of a series of articles being written about Whitman teachers’ high school experiences. Each story will highlight a different department and give students a look into what their teachers were like as teenagers.

It’s hard to imagine a time when English teacher Todd Michaels wasn’t plaguing students with seemingly impossible grammar quizzes, but Michaels was once a high schooler himself in Chappaqua, NY. His favorite subject was math, he played soccer and he worked at his synagogue in his free time.

English teacher Melissa Carr ran track in high school. Photo courtesy Carr.

Whitman’s English teachers had a variety of high school experiences; some had already found their love for the subject they would later teach, while others were more focused on their social lives or extracurriculars.

Michaels described himself as “incredibly average” in high school. He didn’t have a good experience as an underclassman, but he soon fell into the right group of friends—whom he is still close with now—and found his rhythm during his junior and senior years.

Michaels recommends that students make the most of their high school years.

“Try to think about how your older self will look back on [your high school experience],” Michaels said.

English teacher Melissa Carr was an avid track runner and high-achieving student while attending high school in New Jersey. Although she enjoyed her English classes, Carr didn’t know then that she wanted to eventually teach the subject. But after having a horrible math teacher, she developed a strong dislike for math that she has had ever since.

“She was really mean and didn’t care about any of her students,” Carr said. “It made me hate math forever.”

Growing up in the local area, English teacher Ryan Derenberger spent his high school years at Oakland Mills High School in Howard County and said he was extremely social. He was passionate about writing and editing from a young age but had limited academic extracurriculars available to him at school.

English teacher Ryan Derenberger went to high school in Howard County. He was interested in English early on and was extremely social. Photo courtesy Derenberger.

Derenberger advises current high school students to not overthink the small stuff and to help out one another.

“There’s so much focus spent on developing oneself in high school, and at the same time, we need to look out for each other, too,” he said.

English teacher Danielle Fus attended Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. Fus thrived in the diverse Blair community, and although she wouldn’t describe herself as being one of the “popular kids,” Fus had a wide variety of close friends from participating in plays and musicals, chamber chorus and academic classes.

Fus’ social inclinations landed her in hot water with her English teacher on the first day of her junior year when her teacher was less than pleased at Fus’ noisy reunion with a close friend whom she hadn’t seen all summer.

“I’ll never forget: we were so excited and catching up about summer, and our teacher looked at us and said, ‘are you two girls going to be a problem?” Fus said. “It was the first time I was ever scolded for being too chatty, especially in English class. The hilarious part is now I’m an English teacher, and my friend is a librarian, so we are the nerdiest English people ever, and yet we’re the ones who got in trouble on the first day.”

Not far from Blair, English teacher Omari James attended Sherwood High School. James didn’t push himself in his classes, but he gained perspective through participating in Study Circles, a program that held day-long meetings to discuss race.

“I went on a whim because my history teacher told me that it was something I might be interested in,” James said. “I ended up really enjoying it, and a huge part of my high school experience was becoming a facilitator and going to a lot of events for it.”

English teacher Omari James went to Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, MD. As a student, he was very involved in community outreach. Photo courtesy James.

Through Study Circles, James got involved with the county administration and even made a music video about Staph infections at his school nurse’s request.

“It was really popular and it traveled around the county a little,” James said, laughing. “We used that song Basketball by Lil Bow Wow as the backing track. It was a whole thing.”

James recommends that current high school students try to develop a strong work ethic and skills for effective studying but also maintain a healthy balance and take time to relax.

“When people ask you what you’re doing with your free time and why you can’t get another assignment done, we always want to default to giving an excuse and saying we have so much on our plates,” James said. “But sometimes if you just say that you just want to relax a little, that’s not so bad, and that’s not something to be ashamed about.”