"My Teacher, My Friend" by Head of the Upper School Michael Denning
Marlies Stueart is my teacher. I met Frau Stueart in the fall of 1981 when I entered her German I class as a new ninth grader. My memories of my first days with Frau Stueart are clearer than those of most other events of the past 35 years. As my school’s only German instructor, Frau Stueart had to endure my adolescent self five days a week from 1981 to 1985. Her burden was my good fortune.
My vivid recollections of my first year in Frau Stueart’s classroom are due, at least in part, to her imposing countenance. A refugee from a Europe that had been ravaged by World War II, Frau Stueart was serious about her purpose and our work, and she was very intimidating. We were there to learn, and in her classroom, there would be no nonsense. As I would come to appreciate much later, Frau Stueart was never bereft of a sense of humor, but my first impressions of her left me with a pit in my stomach. Certainly, I did not think we were friends.
At the outset of high school, I was immature and not a particularly inspired student; I was not nearly as motivated as most of the students whom I have had the privilege to teach at Nobles. I had always loved reading, and my childhood fascination with 20th-century history had led me to choose to study German instead of other languages. But discipline, determination and respect for the privileged education I was being offered were not yet there, and Frau Stueart seemed to make it her daily mission to point this out to me.
When Frau Stueart assigned homework, she expected it to not only be done, but also done to the best of my abilities (as determined by her, not by me). And when I offered what I considered to be a good effort, she would set a much higher bar and demand that I work harder and get over it. Her entreaties—that I “could do better;” that I was “capable of much more;” that I should take myself and my work “more seriously!”—went to war with my immaturity and insecurities. So in the beginning, she and I agreed to a culture of actions and consequences: when I performed short of her expectations, I would have to deal with not only a lower grade—which I could live with—but also extra time talking with her about my attitude and work—experiences that were excruciatingly uncomfortable. At the end of a couple of years, I had had enough, but, thankfully, Frau Stueart and my parents would have none of my sophistry. Whether I liked it or not, Frau Stueart and I were going to be a team for the duration of my high-school experience.
During my eleventh-grade year, American Field Service, an international-exchange program, came to my school to promote opportunities for students to spend a summer or year living, studying and/or working abroad. As class concluded one day, Frau Stueart pulled me aside to talk with me, suggesting during our conversation that I would be a good candidate for such a program and that she would be willing to recommend me. To be frank, what I first thought I had heard was Frau Stueart telling me, as she had many times before, that I should do this because it would be good for me. But on this day, that is not what she had offered. What she said was, “Michael, you would be ideal for this program, and I would be happy to recommend you.” Frau Stueart was recommending me? Armed with her encouraging words, I applied and, to my great surprise and delight, was admitted.
During the summer I spent speaking German and working on a farm in Austria, my shaky foundation in my new language solidified. More importantly, the world—and the possibilities it offered—expanded before my eyes as I engaged new cultures, peoples and challenges; I fell in love with learning, in general, and learning about other cultures, in particular, and my confidence as a student soared. And when I returned for my senior year of high school, I began to get to know the student Frau Stueart had always seen in me.
I ended up studying German, history, and political science at college—one at which Frau Stueart knew German professors and helped my parents and me find—and in grad school, spending two years during my undergraduate and graduate studies at German universities. I became passionate about teaching about Europe, international relations and the Holocaust, passions that have grown only stronger with the passage of time. But the love of history, language and culture that Frau Stueart instilled in me—and that we share—was not what compelled me to write to her this summer to ask if we could meet.
At the end of 2016 I turn 50, and, as many of you know, I have a 15-year-old son whom I am trying to support as he begins to make his own way in the world. Moreover, I embark this fall on my 25th year as a teacher, a career that has been more rewarding and gratifying than I can adequately express in these words. Milestones such as these should provoke some moments of reflection, so I should not be surprised, I suppose, by my recent thoughts and emotions. But my feelings of gratitude have been powerful, and at my reunion with Frau Stueart this summer, she granted me the privilege of expressing some of these to her.
With her words of praise and encouragement and her admonitions, invariably high expectations and unwavering commitment, Frau Stueart cared for me more than I could ever have understood at the time. And while difficult to meet—and the source of some frustrating moments—Frau Stueart’s standards of excellence gave meaning to the praise and encouragement she later offered. Indeed, in the absence of her standards, expectations and admonitions, her words of praise and encouragement would have held much less meaning. Frau Stueart believed in me at a time when, like most adolescents, I did not believe in myself, and, as I look back with some wisdom accrued in 35 years, I realize that her teaching—not her friendship— made all the difference. Marlies Stueart is my teacher and, as such, one of the best friends I have ever had.