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From Chaucer and MacBeth, to multicultural cuisine

Carlton Smith leaves LGUHS after 24 years in English Department

TOWNSHEND—Leland & Gray Union High School English teacher Carlton Smith vividly recalls one Halloween night when she heard a kind of chanting at her house.

And that’s just what it was.

Students from Smith’s 10th-grade class, who had been learning to recite the first 18 lines of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, banded together and chanted the lines outside her house in the middle of Townshend.

So, along with the trick-or-treat queries, Smith was also hearing, “Wan that Aprille with his shoures soote...” a first line familiar to generations of high-school English students who study Chaucer’s late-14th century collection of stories.

“Afterwards, I remember lots of candy and applause,” Smith recalled.

That story is characteristic of what Smith has experienced during her 24 years as an English teacher at LGUHS, as well as during her life.

She is a high-energy, articulate woman, who, among other professions besides teaching, does acting (she carries herself like an actress), storytelling, choreographing, is the keeper of a spacious house on spacious grounds, a camp director, a cook and party giver, and a producer of an international cookbook, created by her students as a class project.

After teaching drama for two years at the Putney School from 1982 to 1984 and for one year at Bellows Falls Union High School, Smith settled in at Leland & Gray, where she has taught, she said, all English classes and every level except 11th grade.

Hardly the retiring type, Smith, 65, nevertheless called it quits after 24 years of teaching at Leland & Gray. She decided that this was the time to do so, even though she had more years in her contract.

A multicultural feast

Her extracurricular projects have been prodigious. For example, the cookbook, A Festival of Flavors from Mexico to Malaysia, grew out of a project she started 25 years ago as a part of the school’s Diversity Festival.

The interdisciplinary seventh-grade project was called ‘Winter Holidays Around the World,’” she explained. “The students chose the country they wanted.”

Smith wrote the foreword in which she explains the significant role all things food has in the life of all cultures.

“With this in mind,” she writes, “the Seventh Grade Team challenged students to take a new path toward exploring the diversity of our world’s people, their countries and cultures.”

Fifty-six countries are represented from six regions of the world. Each region gets an introduction, written by students.

Recipes range from well-known examples, such as Swedish meatballs, to somewhat familiar food such as cold sesame noodles with snow peas, an Asian dish, to more obscure offerings, like sambusak, an Iraqi pastry filled with meat and/or cheese.

Smith brings the same energy it took to produce the cookbook to most of what she does, putting interesting spins on well-known subjects, such as creating a sympathetic Lady Macbeth who, she believes, is badly misunderstood.

“Lady Macbeth,” she explains, “has no outlet for her own [misfortunes], so she signs on to her husband’s actions. She [becomes] an accomplice.”

Similarly, for a 10th-grade project using multimedia, she had some of her students produce a black-and-white film of Macbeth.

“Three guys played all the parts,” Smith said.

A music and art gene?

Smith was born in Texas, where her father was in the Air Force. He was killed in a B-29 bomber crash at the airbase in San Antonio, three months before Smith was born.

“The plane crashed in a field,” she said. “He was involved in the Manhattan Project [the atomic bomb unit]. No one really knew what happened.”

Her mother, an art major in college who became involved with fashion, married again when Smith was six. He was a painter.

Smith, the oldest of five children, three brothers and a sister, thinks her family has the music and art gene.

“My sister is musical, a brother is an actor, and another brother was a founding member of Pilobolus [a dance troupe],” Smith explained.

Carlton went to a Catholic high school and then to Western College for Women, now part of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She also gained credentials in acting and directing from Emerson College in Boston.

“I got caught up in the happy hippies when I lived in Boston, and I did modeling at trade shows and other odd jobs,’ she said.

She’s been active in theater in Brattleboro at several schools and companies, directing The Fantasticks and other musicals.

She said the most influential part of her life has been the Wyonegonic Camps, in Denmark, Maine, which celebrated its 100th anniversary five years ago.

“It’s the oldest girls’ camp in America,” Smith said. “I was sent there when I was 11, and have gone up through the ranks until I became a teacher. I learned how to do everything there — tennis, riding, pottery, music, canoeing, drama.”

Every summer, she still goes to the camp, where she supervises staff and serves as the program director of the family camp.

Smith has been married twice, but has been single since 1989. She has two daughters: Erin Roberts, 33, who works as an actress in New York, and Aislann, 25, a devoted rugby player who is spending this summer hiking.

Here are a few of Smith’s new goals: starting a vintage clothing business, guiding wilderness whitewater trips, creating the four children’s books she has in her head, maybe teaching theater, finishing a movie that’s close to happening.

And, of course her annual glog fest, a semi-Scandinavian party for about 75 at her house around Christmas, for which she used to do all the cooking, but now sends recipes with the invitations.

To listen to Smith describing her many projects and involvements at LGUHS, one wonders when she had time for anything else – but she did, considering her high-energy performances and multitudinous interests.

And retirement will likely be anything but.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #115 (Wednesday, August 24, 2011).

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