Teacher reached out to struggling students

Retirement: In her 20 years at Western High, the school's math department head demanded a lot but offered extra help to those who needed it.

June 06, 1999|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Facing a segregated Baltimore County school system that taught blacks only up to the 11th grade, Dorothy Briscoe and her parents did the one thing they knew would secure her a high school diploma.

They told a fib.

She pretended to be a Baltimore resident and signed up for Frederick Douglass High School by using a relative's address.

"But don't tell anyone," she said last week, laughing about her 50-year-old indiscretion.

No one is likely to begrudge her the fib she told to get an education -- not now, as she retires as head of the mathematics department at Western High School, one of the city's elite.

An old-style teacher, described by students as strict and kind, "Miss Briscoe," 66, endeared herself to generations of students during her 45 years in city schools, particularly those who never loved math.

"I never would have gotten into Western High School without her. That is the living, breathing truth," said Laura D'Anna, once her algebra student and now principal of the city's Patterson High School.

D'Anna said she needed an 85 average to get into Western in the 1960s but was having difficulty with algebra. Briscoe got her through it.

Former students say they never went to Miss Briscoe's class without their homework done, and although she demanded a lot, students felt she respected and cared for them.

"Largely because of her teaching skills, she gave me the confidence to do well in math," said Gary Thrift, a former student who is an area executive officer in the school system.

"She had very high standards. She insisted I do well. She gave me the confidence to apply to go to Poly. I think that forever changed my life."

Giving extra help

The thin woman with big glasses and piercing eyes appears to float through her classroom, telling students their answers are wrong in a matter-of-fact manner that doesn't belittle them.

Her gift, several students and principals she has worked with said, is to reach students who are struggling. She coaches students who need extra help after school and during her lunch period, once teaching a mother and daughter together because she felt it would give the mother the background she needed to help her daughter at home.

"Your best gift in teaching is not [helping] the bright students. They can do it without you. It is when you can turn that light on in a student, then you know you have been successful," Briscoe said.

"She would do anything in her power to make sure a child would learn math," said Anne Carusi, a former Western principal. "She dared to hope that children would grow to love mathematics as she did."

Ninth-grader Dychon Whitaker said she went to coach classes to help her understand her algebra course better. "She explains things thoroughly until you understand them," she said.

Briscoe grew up in Cowdensville, a small, historically black community in Arbutus. Her parents had graduated from Douglass High School, Briscoe said, and were determined that their children would get diplomas.

Briscoe went to then-Morgan State College and later got a master's in education from Columbia University over four summers.

A tough beginning

She has never moved out of the house she grew up in. "If you weren't married, you didn't move," Briscoe said of the time when she came of age. So when she began her teaching career in a Delaware school, she commuted an hour by train from Baltimore, returning each day to her parents' house in Cowdensville.

She took the job in Delaware, she said, because the city didn't offer contracts to new teachers until just before the beginning of the school year, a practice that ended this year. By the time she got a school assignment in the city in September 1953, she had signed a year's contract in Delaware and was teaching.

The next September, she switched to an East Baltimore school to teach math. As the years passed, she moved through a number of schools -- Rock Glen Junior High, Clifton Middle, Douglass -- always teaching math.

Deciding to stay

She planned to quit a couple times in her career, she said, but was persuaded to stay by fellow teachers and students.

In the early 1970s, she moved to Clifton Middle School and found a larger challenge facing her than ever before. She had taught at schools with students who were generally well-motivated and came from households that valued education.

When she got to the new school, she was astonished at the chaos and discipline problems. She survived, she said, but planned to leave teaching at the end of two years. Her students were angry and upset that she might leave the school, she said, and told her that they didn't want to lose a good teacher. "That hurt me. I was torn. I said, `Should I do this or shouldn't I?' It was so chaotic, but they wanted to learn."

The teachers' strike of 1974 intervened. Briscoe went on to head the mathematics department at Douglass and then Western.

Briscoe came to Western in 1979, believing she would stay five years and then retire. She is leaving after 20 to be more available to her mother, now in her 90s and still living in her Cowdensville house.

Colleagues respect her

Two former Western principals, Sandra Wighton and Carusi, say she was a teacher and department head who was principled and made sure all the unglamorous parts of the job got done, such as ensuring that attendance was correctly reported.

"She looks you in the eye, she is very candid and straightforward in her opinions," Wighton said. "She is practical. She has a great sense of humor. She has a good sense of herself."

Self-effacing and nervous about too much attention, Briscoe said she wished to leave without fanfare. By last week, she hadn't told her students she was leaving, and she has yet to think too hard about how it will feel to walk out of her classroom for the last time.

Pub Date: 6/06/99

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