Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Memory of Karen Dressner

I am working on a tribute to Karen Dressner, the fabulous lower school science teacher that I so often site for my motivation, who died a year ago tomorrow. In the mean time, I thought I would share the eulogy I gave at her memorial service last year.

"Throughout high school I have often peeked into my lower school science classroom, and each time my love of learning has been reinvigorated. My teacher, Ms. Dressner, opened my eyes to the wonders of science by letting us freely explore her packed classroom. Ever since, problem solving, discovery, and hands on learning have been my passions." 

That was the opening paragraph of the first college essay I wrote. When asked to present myself on paper – to explain my academic motivations, and the root of my intellectual curiosity – Ms. Dressner, or “dressy” as she affectionately let us call her, was the first thing that came to my mind. After she heard about my essay she asked to read it. She then wrote in an email to me, “You will never know how much your essay means to me…” Her reaction truly showed her dedication to teaching. I am glad I was able to share with her a small piece of the incredible imprint she left on me, but it would have been impossible for her to have ever known how much of a mark she left on all of her students. Usually it takes a tragedy to realize how important someone has been in your life, but Ms. Dressner was so special that I routinely told and heard stories about how great a teacher and mentor she was. 

Ms. Dressner was so vivacious that it would only be right to tell some classic Dressy stories to celebrate her life. For example, my classmates and I will never forget the time that Lydie took off her shoes in the science lab. When Lydie wasn't looking, Ms. Dressner threw Lydie’s shoes in the garbage, then asked Lydie to put her shoes back on. When Lydie couldn't find them, Ms. Dressner was even more amused than the rest of us were – and, of course, Lydie never took off her shoes again in class. There was also the time a Kindergartener ran out of the classroom when she saw Ms. Bonaparte, the classroom skeleton. What was Ms. Dressner’s obvious solution? She dressed Ms. Bonaparte in a Nightingale tunic. 

There were also the everyday things she did that set her apart: how she used to pull out our loose baby teeth and give us the tooth to carry around in a treasure chest that hung on a string around our neck; how she would put up any nature related specimens we brought in on her wall, such as butterflies and leaves; how she would always invite tour guides and prospective parents in to meet her bird and see the glass vials of specimens she had on her counter; how we were all allowed to sit on the tabletops when we were 'examining' things and thought we were really rebellious since the rest of the Lower School was so structured; how nothing was gross or yucky, but instead it was 'ahhhhh, interesting’ (a phrase that was adopted into my family’s lexicon as well as many other families’). 

In fourth grade, I wrote, “My favorite subject is science because I have Dressy.” I think that sums up my experience with her. We loved science because we loved how she taught it, and once our attention was sparked by such an incredible teacher, many of us were set up to be captivated by science forever. One always got the sense that even while she let us play and explore in class every day, she was having even more fun than the rest of us – she really loved her job and she loved us, which was what made her so great at it. As we moved on to middle and upper school she became a steady source of vitality – a familiar smile at the end of the hallway that reminded us of carefree lower school days and put the stresses of older years into perspective. 

I think I can speak for anyone who has ever been taught by Ms. Dressner – she was an incredible teacher who imparted her passion and love of learning to all her students. She maintained a child-like enthusiasm for everything she did. And she had an elegance in the way she carried herself – she was an excellent role model for all the women in the building. 

On Friday, while reviewing plant anatomy in AP Biology, I found myself vividly remembering how Ms. Dressner taught us the same material almost 10 years ago. It takes a special type of teacher to get you to remember the definition of monocots and dicots for 10 years…. Thank you Ms. Dressner.

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