Mrs. Dunlap - Lands End

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Mrs. Dunlap

Teaching the difference between a GPA and an education

Six years ago, in early September, our teenager brought home a reading list like something out of graduate school. 

“Omigod, my English teacher is a-maaazing,” she declared. There was a pause while I checked my hearing. Understand that our daughter was not, shall we say, president of the peppy overachiever club of Laguna Beach High School. There was a lot of dressing in black, a lot of hanging out at the beach, a lot of incense.  

“Details!” I cried. I had a knack for inciting epic annoyance. 

“Um, yeah. Maybe later.” She fled to her room.

When I met the teacher, the mystery deepened. Mrs. Dunlap was great, but she also was supposedly the nemesis of every college-bound sophomore and seniorand a far cry from our child’s usual idea of a star. She was precise and soft-spoken; she moved like a dancer. Her suit was immaculate, a perfect silk scarf at its collar. It was back-to-school night. A quote from Pascal decked the wall. Notes on Homer covered her whiteboard. She brandished Strunk and White, Dickens, and Dostoevsky. “This is a challenging class,” she told us. Translation: Don’t even think about grade inflation. 

The parents exchanged worried glances. Then as now, scores and rankings were serious issues. Then as now, unprecedented numbers of children were competing for college. Our teenager had done well before, but lately she was scarcely crossing her t’s, let alone wading for fun through grammar manifestos and doorstop-sized novels. When we got home, I barged into her room and demanded that she let me proofread her first English paper. Epically annoyed, she kicked me out.

What goes on between kid and teacher, I wondered as the school days went by. Night after night, our daughter toiled over her English, her head bowed, her little nose ring glinting. Hours of reading. Imagery, symbolism,  grammar. Drafts and drafts of papers and papers. Never had I seen a beach kid work so hard to please an authority figure. Mrs. Dunlap had said “challenging” and she had meant it. No shortcuts. No extra credit. There was no way my child would survive this class and get into college.

I chatted up the teacher, scheduled meetings. She greeted me with that helpful smile and impeccable wardrobe. Then she continued to nail our daughter for every needless word and unsupported conclusion. Nothing I did could interfere with what was going on in that classroom. The semesters ground by, mid-terms, finals. When the year-end grades came in, our eyes flew straight to English: The A did not materialize.  

Our daughter did not come away empty-handed, however. Two years later, she and her classmates graduated with extraordinary writing skills. They understood literature with a depth that will serve them for a lifetime, and Mrs. Dunlap wrote most of them college letters of recommendation. Some went into philosophy, medicine, international relations. Our daughter became an English major. Her training has earned her summer jobs at magazines and publishing houses. Unlike her mother, she is precise and soft-spoken. When she assesses something, she doesn’t exaggerate or understate it. She doesn’t trust shortcuts and extra credit. You should hear her on Dickens and Dostoevsky. Her work clothes are immaculate. 

What alchemy transpired between that elegant teacher and that room full of beach kids? It still seems a miracle and a mystery. And maybe a moral, as this school year begins without the now-retired mentor who so inspired our daughter: There is school, with its scores and rankings and ever more serious issues—and then there’s an education. Parents sometimes forget the difference. But Mrs. Dunlap will know what I mean.  

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.

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  1. Lynne Burns posted on 09/10/2012 09:43 AM
    Mrs. Dunlap personally and professionally exemplifies the ultimate in the teaching profession. She doesn't cheat the children by inflating their grade. Instead success is achieved through diligence, study, practice and performance. How is a teacher able to reach such wonderful standards? Through her own constant effort and time preparing lessons and grading during many evening and weekend hours to make certain each student receives from her the best she can provide. Then graciously, firmly and kindly holding the students accountable.

    Amazing when grade inflation is so prevalent. How wonderful to know Mrs. Dunlap gave a lifelong lesson to her students regarding excellence and success through effort and hard work.
  2. LBHS Student posted on 09/13/2012 03:35 PM
    Mrs. Dunlap will always be the best teacher I ever had. At moments, it was a struggle. However, the countless essays have not only made me a better writer, but also taught me lessons about human nature. Heading to college, I know have a knowledge of writing and a knowledge of mankind that will guide me through my life.
    1. LBHS Student posted on 09/13/2012 07:55 PM
      @LBHS Student Oops! Sorry for the typo! I mean now, not know :)
  3. Jamie Hancock posted on 09/20/2012 12:46 PM
    It's been 6 years since I left Mrs. Dunlap's classroom. I'm now just a semester away from completing my master's degree. I have studied on both coasts of the US, in the best public university in the country, and abroad. To this day, I still count Mrs. Dunlap as the most influential teacher I have ever had. She taught me more about critical reading and writing than my college writing professors, skills that are invaluable in any field.

    This is a great piece about an amazing woman. Thank you Mrs. Dunlap!
  4. Ryan Moore posted on 03/15/2013 10:27 AM
    Mrs. Dunlap and Mrs. Feller made me the writer I am today. I didn't even receive high marks in their classes, and this may have ultimately hurt my chances at a couple of universities. However when I entered my freshman year of college, I was leaps and bounds ahead of other freshman at a top 50 university.

    Thank you Mrs. Dunlap and Mrs. Feller. I am forever grateful for your high standards for excellence.

    Also, I typed this quickly during my lunch hour. So if you're reading this Mrs. Dunlap, I apologize for any grammatical errors!
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