TOWNSHEND—After 31 years of teaching math at Leland & Gray Union High School , mostly to seventh- and eighth-graders, Margaret Carusona, 51, retired this past June.
Although she enjoyed teaching algebra to seniors, her hands-down favorites were the eighth-graders.
“They’re not quite high-school students — none of that ‘don’t-tell-me-what-to-do.’ They have this ability to learn,” Carusona said. “You can see that and you can pull them through. It’s incredible — you can see it in their eyes. That’s what gets me every time.”
“Teaching,” she said, “is a calling.”
Carusona decided on retirement because her partner of 26 years, John Mason, a tax preparer, is now semi-retired. She wanted time to be with him.
A complex amalgam of Harrison, N.Y., the Bronx, a big family (she was the sixth of seven children and the first girl), Catholic schools, and public schools, Carusona knew early that she wanted to be a teacher.
“I loved working with kids,” she said, noting that she had been a counselor in public camps.
She had a very busy childhood with her six siblings and 21 other children who lived in three nearby houses.
“We played and we played, and we skated in the swamp, she said.”
After college at Ohio University and several jobs, she began coming to visit Windham County in 1978, after a couple of her brothers had moved to West Dummerston.
“I was a hippie,” she said. “Maple Valley [the ski area in West Dummerston on Route 30] was open. We danced, [and we] came to have fun,” she said.
And then she began in earnest to look for a teaching job in Vermont and secured a position in 1980 at Leland & Gray, where she was hired as a junior high math teacher.
“A team of five of us established a junior high math program,” she said. “I eventually taught mainly eighth grade, but as enrollment increased, I taught ninth-grade algebra.”
She remembers the student population from that time as even more homogeneous than it is now.
Families went back for generations, she recalls, and “sometimes when students graduated, they were the first kids in their families to graduate,” she said. “Now everybody graduates.”
When she started, “Most kids didn’t even have TVs,” she said. “ You couldn’t ask a student to watch a show, or the news, or PBS.”
Now, of course, everything has changed, she points out, but she more or less enjoys the absence of cell-phone service in and around Brookline, where she lives.
“I love the fact that I can tell people I live in a dead zone,” she said, but noted that youngsters work around the communications inpediment: “Kids can still text through wi-fi,” she said.
Carusona’s life as a teacher echoes her engaged life growing up, mixing a lot of extracurricular work with her teaching.
Among her equally time-consuming work, she says, were acting as an officer of the Windham Central branch of the National Education Association; serving as co-chair of the local standards licensing board; working as summer trainer for the state portfolio program (students are required to create subject portfolios); and organizing a slew of fundraising tasks related to college costs and a variety of junior high programs, such as encouraging eighth-graders to begin saving for college.
She also started a senior award for former Leland & Gray headmaster John Newton.
Also, somewhere along the line, she did graduate work at Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges, and at the University of Maryland. She was one of a group of teachers who wrote the first philosophy and mission statement related to the use of computer technology at LGUHS.
And then she went to China three times, altogether for nearly five months, each time to different places and under different auspices, including Asian Outreach at the University of Vermont and the School for International Training in Brattleboro.
“I lived with a family in Beijing and was able to observe city life there. I remember that we all shopped together. I’m a real shopper and I soon learned to say ‘cut the price’ in Chinese,” she recalled.
She also lived for a time with a farm family and another time was an exchange teacher.
The Columbine High School massacre in Colorado happened when she was in China in 1999. When she returned there in 2000, “People were really curious about that and they wanted to know if all the schools were violent. I told them, ‘Of course not.’”
Carusona said the testing systems were pretty rigid in China. “They test kids from sixth grade on, and they then they’re told where they can continue. It’s very homogenized.”
But she also taught in the highly organized Chinese community college system, subsidiaries of the university systems. “That was a blast because it was interacting with the normal working person: car salesman, bankers,” she said.
Back home, she and her partner share a modular home they built on Ellen Ware Road in Brookline, and a seasonal home in Fishers Landing in upstate New York, on the main channel of the St. Lawrence River. They are among about a dozen relatives on the river.
“I love to swim, and grew up going to Jones Beach and Montauk [Long Island sites],” she said. “I just love the water, love to kayak and canoe. We would camp in Maine and in New York, all the lakes — we tented.”
Much of the summer is spent at Fishers Landing. “I get to actually read,” Carusona said. At the moment, she says, she is in the middle of the 25 Ross Thomas mysteries.
Carusona said she always felt supported at Leland & Gray, but concedes that administration shifts can cause unwanted interruptions.
“Change is hard for anyone,” she said. “And it’s ironic, now they’re returning to an eight-period day with 42-minute classes, which was the schedule when I started in 1980.”
“Recently, we were doing a seven-period day with 53-minute classes,” she continued “What goes around comes around in education; it has to do with numbers. What they want to do now is to align the junior high schedules with the high school.”
She remembers questions that were put to her during her job interview.
What would students call her?
What would she do if a student swore at her or was otherwise rude?
“I’d expect them to be out of my class for a few days and then a letter of apology.”
What would she be willing to coach?”
“I told them build me a swimming pool, and I would coach a winning team.”