Md.'s English Teacher of the Year never tires of talking about classics South Carroll's Parker wins over students with her dedication

November 12, 1995|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

If there were ever an award for loving "Huckleberry Finn" the most enduringly, Nancy Parker probably would win just for being able to read 90 term papers a year on the novel and still be passionate about it.

This year, Mrs. Parker won something more tangible, the Maryland English Teacher of the Year award from her peers across the state. It doesn't surprise anyone who knows this South Carroll High School teacher.

"She has given her total self to educating students in Carroll County for nearly three decades and has probably been one of our most unsung heroes," said Barry Gelsinger, supervisor of English for Carroll schools. "Nancy Parker is an exceptionally talented teacher. It is an honor and distinction she deserves."

"She does have a reputation," said Allison Anne Cain, a South Carroll senior. Before Allison first took a course with Mrs. Parker two years ago, she had heard about the teacher from her older sister and from friends.

"A lot of people told me she's very tough and strict," Allison said. "But she's also nice and friendly."

Allison has had Mrs. Parker for two classes and is her aide this year. She said she has observed that Mrs. Parker maintains control and attention in her class by using the material she teaches and letting students know how important it is.

"She wins them over, I guess, because of her dedication," Allison said. "She loves teaching. She's been teaching her whole life."

Mrs. Parker would rather not say how long she has been teaching, knowing her English students

would do the math to figure out her age. "Just say I've been teaching here for 29 years," she said.

Her students in expository writing are beginning to write their term papers, which are due at the end of the semester in January. The subject is "Huckleberry Finn," and they can come up with their own theme or choose from a long list she offers, including:

* Huck Finn: the original teen-age rebel.

* "Huck Finn": a chronicle of man's inhumanities to man.

* Twain's utilization of satire to criticize American customs and ideas prevalent in his era.

* Principal function of the river.

When the papers are turned in, she will hole up for at least two weekend marathon grading sessions in the South Carroll High library, checking footnotes for accuracy.

Everything about this teacher should warn a student not to try to fool her, but a few have been audacious enough to try.

"I had a kid one time who turned in his note cards," she remembered. "The top one was filled in, and he had that rubber-banded to a bunch of blank cards, thinking, 'Of course, she'll never check.' "

Of course, she did. And she lets out a big laugh.

"Of course" is a phrase she uses often. Her style is to presume students are serious about what they're doing, and they live up to it.

"She doesn't accept inferior work," said her principal, David Booz. "She'll make students redo something three or four times until they get it right."

When she speaks, all eyes and ears are on the stylish, willowy, authoritative woman who keeps a spare classroom decorated with a few Twain items and neat rows of books and dictionaries.

"The way she carries herself, and her voice, she's very strong," Allison said. "You can hear her down the hall. People are not going to be able to sleep in her class."

Her style is not simply the product of maturity. Mrs. Parker said she has always adopted a strong approach to teaching.

"Probably because the English teacher who influenced me was always this way," she said. Growing up in Minerva, Ohio, she learned from a woman named Cornelia Whitaker how to write a term paper and, ultimately, how to teach English by demanding the best from her students.

For her own students, Mrs. Parker is tough but passionate in her goals.

"I would hope they can carry with them some of Twain's values, some of his insight into human nature, his love of reading and writing," she said.

Her students have read "Huckleberry Finn" in the prerequisite class for expository writing, so this is their second time around with the novel. They can devote the time to research and writing, and meeting deadlines.

Mrs. Parker explained to her students this month that no paper will be accepted that is more than three days late and that she will mark off 20 points for each day.

"There shouldn't be a problem," she told them. "I'm going to stay after school with you many times during this process if you need extra help."

When the papers are turned in, she will settle in at a table at the school library and her husband -- Kenneth Parker is a physical education teacher at the school -- will bring her dinner so that she doesn't have to stop.

Students must confine themselves to sources that are in the school library so that she can check them easily, but she has assembled an impressive collection of nearly 100 critical works on Twain. She goes to literary conferences where the critics who wrote them speak, so many of the books are signed by the authors. She is usually the only high school teacher amid many college professors at the conferences.

"Anything to make the kids feel that this is real, the people are still alive who are writing this," Mrs. Parker said.

"Huckleberry Finn" is still alive for her, even though she reads it and "The Scarlet Letter" every year, she said with a sigh.

Asked what she reads for herself, in her spare time, she answered -- after a loud, long laugh -- "I'm reading a Danielle Steele novel" for the romance, the drama, because it's perfect for reading in the tub. "She's a terrible writer. She is so bad. Page after page it's the same thing."

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