On the evening of November 2nd, the DCD community said a sad goodbye to Mimi Harrington, a beloved teacher, colleague, mother, wife, and friend, who died suddenly and unexpectedly on October 29th. The Rand Gym swelled with love, warmth, and emotion from the nearly 600 people who gathered to remember Mimi that night. Though a deeply sad occasion had brought us all together, it turned into a wonderful opportunity for students, colleagues, family, and friends to take turns sharing stories about Mimi.
She was a true institution here at DCD — one of those teachers who deeply impacts a student’s life, whether it be learning how to break down a math problem, finding a love for books and reading, or just figuring out how to navigate the social ins and outs of 5th grade. And, as a member of the DCD staff for nearly 30 years, her connection with her colleagues went far beyond the business of teaching. Her sense of humor, friendship, and love of learning were deep and contagious. It is difficult to imagine our halls without her.
During the evening, as stories were shared by Mimi’s sons, extended family, students, fellow faculty members, and friends from near and far, it was clear that Mimi didn’t just causally touch all of our lives, her connection with us was a genuine and loving embrace!
The evening concluded with a spontaneous chorus of young people sharing one of Mimi’s favorite camp songs, Coconut, which took root over the years as a favorite here among her DCD students. After the formal service concluded, memories and story-telling continued as people gathered to enjoy two of Mimi’s favorite things: pizza, donated by the Dedham House of Pizza, where Mimi could be found every Friday night, and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies from DCD’s own kitchen.
Peter Gow, Mimi’s husband, who is also deeply rooted in the education of children, shared a very special piece of writing that he did for his most recent newsletter as Executive Director of the Independent Curriculum Group. It’s a very touching tribute to Mimi and her place in the Dedham Country Day community.
From the Executive Director
ON THE DEATH OF A TEACHER
For the last week my attention has been held by a sad and personal situation involving our worst nightmare: the death of a teacher, an active, working teacher. She said good-bye to her fifth-grade students in the carpool line on a Friday, hale and hearty, and by midnight on Saturday she was gone, suddenly and unexpectedly.
Grief specialists tell us to use the hard words in these situations and avoid euphemisms, especially when we are speaking with children. They can provide our institutions with scripts and protocols for managing the first flush of shock and sadness, and schools that have experienced the death of a current student or teacher learn how important it is to develop—just about instantly—strategies for helping members of the community cope with the initial emotional devastation, felt in a different way by each teacher, student, and staff member.
In this case the school handled the situation beautifully, with full and swift communication within the community and special outreach to the graduating classes, students and parents/guardians alike, of the teacher’s children, who had both attended the school. Those who needed to know and who would most have wanted to know were informed quickly and fully. As it turned out, the family had already reached out to the school about hosting a memorial event, and so critical connections had been initiated.
Of course, special attention was lavished on the teacher’s students and immediate colleagues, including her teaching partner of 15 years. There was time to process the initial shock—it’s the only word, and so it must be repeated—and to surface both anxieties and happy memories. For the whole day, which happened to be October 31, the schedule of events had been shifted to permit grieving, recollection, and the first steps toward memorial and celebration—and still allow students to embrace the fun of Halloween.
This past Wednesday evening there was a memorial event in the packed school gymnasium. The school community, along with other circles of which the teacher had been a part, came together for a moving and beautiful tribute featuring shared memories from family members, colleagues, and friends. Her children inspired the room, but most affecting were her students recalling their teacher’s passion for sharing her love of doing the work of the mind, especially reading; there was the “Harry Potter Challenge,” where the teacher would bake chocolate chip cookies for any student who completed the first book in the series. Said one little girl, “I’m dyslexic. I used to hate reading. Then my teacher got me to read Harry Potter, and now I love reading and I’ll always remember her.”
It was hard to suppress the thought that this lavish display of affection, admiration, and just plain love was coming just a bit too late, at least for the teacher. But this is the way of memorials; at best we can hope that the teacher died with an inkling of the place she occupied in people’s hearts and the influence she had on a generation and more of students, and those who knew her best believe that she did.
But even more apparent was what this event, sparked by what might qualify as a tragedy, meant for the school. It’s barely November, still relatively early in a new school year, and there’s a new head of school. In a way, the death of a teacher is a test of a school’s character: How well can the community can recover its emotional center and remind itself of its core values? On Wednesday night this school came together, rediscovered its heart, and affirmed its long-established capacity for unqualified love.
I happened to have been married to this teacher. I thought I’d seen just about everything in the school biz, but it turns out I hadn’t. The gift of seeing how much she mattered to so many other people can’t compensate for her loss, but it’s quite a wonderful thing. Feeling her school grieve with me, watching their own struggle toward healing, is helping me and our kids heal, too. We’re all of us school folk, and I guess we instinctively look to schools for what we need. This past week we have been finding it. A schoolteacher she was, and she teaches still.