The North Star Monthly
Karlene Exley - Danville's grand lady of education
*** Just knowing she was there meant all was right with the world.
I remember the class, 30 or so of us, circling the room with our backs against the walls and arms stretched out in front.
Miss Exley took a small ball of string from her desk drawer, carried it gently and mysteriously to the inside of the formation and slowly made her way around the circle, unrolling and placing the string in the eager fingers of each student. "This is how big around a redwood tree is," she exclaimed after completing the circuit.
Miss Exley beamed as she told of the trip to California she had made with her mother and father when she was young. While her dad held one end of a string, Miss Exley made her way all the way around a giant redwood tree and eventually joined up with her father still holding the start of the string. She snipped it then, tied a small knot to keep it from unraveling and rolled up the measuring string to keep forever as a demonstration for those who had never seen a redwood.
There we stood, spellbound, the grades 5 and 6 students of Miss Exley's class at Danville School in 1954. No maple tree any of us had ever seen could compare with that monster from California. Our whole classroom could fit inside the trunk of that redwood. We reckoned if the tree were cut off, the trunk would make a dance floor nearly as big as the upstairs of the Danville town hall.
Miss Exley didn't teach children. She stirred students to create masterpieces as surely as a fine chef mixing ingredients for a world class omelet. Her classes were works of art.
When Miss Exley drove her 1949 Plymouth onto the school playground and into her parking spot each morning the day seemed suddenly brighter and warmer. Like her car, Miss Exley was big, bold, clean, polished, dignified and reliable, and just knowing she was there meant all was right with the world.
We learned lots of hard facts - multiplication tables, state capitols, dates, measurements, spelling and history - but I have come to realize that the values in Miss Exley's room have been the most memorable and most meaningful in my life. She worked wonders helping us comprehend the importance of integrity, hard work, kindness, sharing and setting goals.
Many of those values took years to develop, like a growing redwood tree constantly reaching skyward, but the seeds were well planted and nurtured. To this day, a half century after being in Miss Exley's class, I still, from time to time, reflect on lessons learned from her.
Miss Exley had a standing offer of 50 cents for anyone who did not miss a day of school for the entire year. Although not every kid was motivated to achieve perfect attendance, a handful of us took the challenge seriously. I think the first real moral dilemma of my life arose at the opening of deer hunting season, which happened to fall on a school day in 1955. A couple of days ahead of time my dad asked if I'd like to skip school on the opening day and go hunting with him.
The decision whether to go hunting or go to school caused a monumental wrestling match in my mind. It was a tough day or two for a 12-year-old kid, but ultimately the responsibility of attending school won out. The deer hunt was just as sweet - maybe more so - on the weekend.
One day I was caught in class shooting wadded up paper projectiles with a rubber band. An immediate sentence of after-school detention was imposed. Although I would really have preferred being outside with my buddies, the detention started off like a dream when Miss Exley gave me a stack of scrap paper and my rubber band and told me to go ahead and start shooting all the paper wads I could make up. The idea was to see how many I could shoot. She told me to scatter them all over the room.
The fun, however, didn't last long. I began to realize that shooting the paper wasn't what mattered. It was the audience and the thrill of the forbidden. Now that nobody was there to see me show off and the teacher was busy at her desk marking papers I really wanted to be done and out the door. Even the rubber band became a chore to shoot, so I quit using it and just aimlessly tossed a few pieces of paper around.
"Richard, I don't hear your shooter," said Miss Exley, without even looking up.
"I got tired of using the rubber band, so I'm just throwing them," I answered a bit forlornly.
"Oh, no, no, Richard. Use your shooter like you did in class this afternoon. Be sure to shoot them all over the room."
As I twanged up my attack of the paper wads, wishing more than ever that I could be free to go outside, Mr. Duclos the caretaker peeked into the room. He had a slight smile as he watched, and I knew I had a kindred soul on my side. Miss Exley was at her desk, head down, marking papers, seemingly oblivious to all that was happening.
And then out of nowhere came the magic words, "Okay, Richard, you can stop now." I was ready to race outside and join my friends. "Now, I want you to pick up all the paper wads and put them in the wastebasket," she said, pointing to the can beside her desk.
In a rush I started scooping the debris to get the job over with as quickly as possible, only to hear the voice with more instructions. "Oh, no, Richard, not by the handful. Just one at a time. Pick one up and take it to the wastebasket. Then go pick up another one and put it in the wastebasket."
I spent a long, long time picking up all the mess I had created. Mr. Duclos looked in once in awhile, always with a smile. After an almost unbearable amount of time I finally announced I had finished. Every last scrap was in the wastebasket. Now, I could hardly wait to join my friends outside.
"Good job, Richard. That looks fine. Now, we have one more matter to take care of. You know Mr. Duclos has a lot of work to do here every day. He was not able to do his work in this room this afternoon because you were here shooting your paper wads. Do you think it's fair to expect him to stay late to finish his work?"
Yes, I did get to go outside to join my friends eventually, but not until I had gone to get the green sawdust that janitors sprinkle on the floor before sweeping, and borrow a broom from Mr. Duclos, so I could clean the room.
Miss Exley taught me more in that session about integrity and responsibility than any dozen other teachers could have done. And she was so kind, so gentle, so gracious when all was said and done that I left school that afternoon feeling like a man who had performed a good deed. Even Miss Exley's punishments were uplifting.
Every kid in the classroom was a winner. The weekly spelling tests were a showcase. Before morning recess each Friday we each received a half sheet of paper on which we wrote our names in the top right hand corner and put the numbers one to 20 down the left hand edge.
Each word was recited, alternating between the Grade 5 and the Grade 6 spelling list, papers were exchanged and marked, and then passed to the front of the row, where Miss Exley collected them as if she were receiving a handful of precious gems.
Once recess was finished, the entire class was treated to the show of the week. In single file, we walked slowly past the table at the front of the room. Arranged there were all the test papers, with a winning batch of perfect spellings highlighted in one row, the finest penmanship shown off in another grouping, the most improved penmanship displayed proudly in another spot and honorable mentions for one achievement or another laid out separate from the others.
We reveled in those moments, seeing our names and our achievements shining alongside our friends'. It was probably the next best thing to having our names on a marquee downtown. Miss Exley knew how to turn simple things into monumental events.
Probably her kindness is what I remember most about my favorite teacher. When we were finishing Grade 4, most of us looked forward to the coming school year with concern. The Grade 5 teacher was reputed to shout, pull hair, slam books on the desk and generally terrorize her students. And I guess she did all of those things on occasion, but Miss Exley chose her moments and used those techniques so sparingly that they stood out like fireworks on the 4th of July.
More representative of Miss Exley's caring is illustrated by her treatment of one of the boys in class. Barney came from a poor home. His clothes were tattered and patched and often ill-fitting. He was unkempt and had a strong body odor most of the time. One day I overheard a small piece of conversation as Miss Exley was talking privately with Barney. She was asking about his mother, soap in the home and washing facilities.
Later that day, for no apparent reason, Miss Exley spoke to the class about how lucky some of us were to have mothers who were so smart and who cared so much for their families that they used everything until it was totally worn out. One sign of a wonderful family was one in which the mother patched old clothes so they could be re-worn. By the time Miss Exley was done extolling the fine points of patched, but clean, clothes I almost wished I had patches on my jeans. I think Barney was glowing with pride.
To my great sorrow my family moved away from Danville in 1956 when I was 12, and over the years I lost track of Miss Exley and most of my friends in Vermont. Although I vowed to move back when I grew up, I've had to settle for a couple of short visits in the mid 1960s and a few days in 2003.
Once in 1967 I ran into Miss Exley at the Danville General Store, and we exchanged pleasantries for a couple of minutes. Other than that I carried her memory and her teachings with me from Virginia to Alaska, from New Mexico to Nova Scotia, and a dozen places in between.
Of all the teachers I've had in my life Miss Exley stands out by a mile. She has to rank among the grandest of the grand ladies of education in North America, and I consider myself a lucky man to have had her influence.
In 1998, when the Internet was new to me I looked up Miss Exley just for interest, and to my huge excitement I found a phone listing for an Exley in West Barnet. I dialed the long distance number, and she answered. What a thrill! More than 40 years after I had been a student in her class she remembered. "You used to live in the old Steele house," she said.
We talked, and we talked. Then we talked some more. The only time I've ever heard Miss Exley lose her composure was when I told her I had become a school teacher myself. "A what?" her voice cracked and croaked like a rusty gate hinge. She recovered quickly, apologizing for the dry throat, but I knew she was dumbfounded by the image of the mischievous kid with a rubber band growing up to be a teacher, too.
After a marvelous, long visit we had to say goodbye, but we agreed to keep in touch and talk often. "Call me Karlene," she said.
I sent a couple of letters after that, and mailed some small gifts, but I didn't hear back from Miss Exley. A few years later I learned that she had died not long after we talked. Although sad, I am thankful that we touched base when we did, that I could tell her how much I appreciated her and we were able to add a chapter to a wonderful story.
I marvel that one person could have such powerful positive influence, and I imagine it radiating even now through the children she taught and their children and grandchildren.
I have been touched by a great teacher and remember Miss Exley fondly and with deep respect. I could never call her Karlene.
Dick MacKenzie writes from Sioux Lookout in the Canadian Province of Ontario.