Poly teacher gets ready to end her 22-year tour

November 29, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

THUS IT WAS on a rainy, foggy, slippery morning after Thanksgiving that Saraunda Loughlin found herself sitting at a table inside the lobby of Polytechnic Institute.

In our more jesting moods, City College graduates would call the school "Polywreckit Institution for the Cognitively Challenged and Criminally Insane." But when we return to reality, we know students at our esteemed rival known as Poly have the highest SAT scores in the city, higher even than the state average. Loughlin, an English teacher at Poly, said that some 77 percent of students who take the advanced placement American government test score above the national average, as do 80 percent who take the advanced placement English exam.

These are some of the same Poly students who, since the day after Thanksgiving in 1998, have made the 4-mile trek up and down - much of it up - Cold Spring Lane from the school to Morgan State University in a walk-a-thon that has raised thousands of dollars for the United Negro College Fund. Walkers raised a little over $3,000 the first year. Last year, the walk-a-thon raised $10,000.

Loughlin organized the event again this year. After having come up with the idea in 1998, she has worked with officials to gain their approval, has made arrangements with the Department of Public Works for the permit, and has contacted the police to advise them that marchers would be walking along Cold Spring Lane. Loughlin was also the one who made sure Poly was emptied and the doors locked after the walkers left, who then drove along the route to make sure stragglers were OK. Afterwards, Loughlin was the one who counted the money.

Yesterday was her last as the walk-a-thon organizer. Next year, Loughlin's duties will be strictly as a walker. Come June 17, Loughlin will teach her last English class at Poly when she retires after 30 years of service (assuming the school year isn't extended because of snow days).

"I may be the only schoolteacher in Baltimore who's hoping there aren't any snow days," she said.

It's not that Loughlin is happy to leave Poly, mind you. She'll miss the school, and she'll miss teaching. And she wasn't hesitant about telling what she'll miss most of all.

"My students," Loughlin said. "I've had so many good students over the years. I love teaching the ninth-graders. I love watching them grow."

Loughlin has been watching Poly's ninth-graders grow since 1982, the year she arrived at the school. Loughlin began her teaching career at Northwestern High School in 1967, four years after she graduated from Western High School - when it was located at Howard and Centre streets downtown - and only a few months after graduating from Pennsylvania's Juniata College, which Loughlin said is located "over the mountain from Penn State."

After three years teaching at Northwestern - where she was faculty adviser to the school newspaper staff - Loughlin taught two years at Patterson before taking maternity leave for seven years. Then it was back to Patterson for three years before she started her 22-year tour at Poly. Along the way, she's made some "excellent friends" among the faculty - folks Loughlin will also miss not only for their camaraderie, but for their dedication.

"It's not just the students who are rigorous at Poly," Loughlin said. The entire faculty puts in overtime. Loughlin and her fellow English teachers put in minimum 60-hour weeks. When term paper time rolls around, those hours increase. Some teachers, Loughlin said, use sick days to get caught up in recording grades. (Heaven forfend they should really get sick.) Has Loughlin or any other teacher ever divided the annual salary by the number of hours worked in a year to determine if the final figure is above or below minimum wage?

"We don't do that," Loughlin said. "It'd be too depressing."

What has not been depressing is Loughlin's work, her class discussions with students on literary works such as A Raisin in the Sun, Of Mice and Men, The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet and The Miracle Worker. But medieval and Renaissance drama provide Loughlin with her greatest reading pleasure, as well as one novel from a later period.

"I'm probably the only person left who likes Silas Marner," Loughlin said. "I'm an old woman who likes old things."

Loughlin is old enough to remember when students were quite different from today's current crop, even the ones at Poly, who were outstanding in 1967 and are today. But Loughlin remembers those Northwestern sophomores who were below reading level and were given West Side Story - instead of Romeo and Juliet - as assigned reading.

"They got offended," Loughlin said. "They wanted to know why they weren't being given Romeo and Juliet. Eventually, they got to read Romeo and Juliet." Some of those same students - and many others - walked to Northwestern from as far as lower Park Heights Avenue to get to school during a transit strike in the late 1960s.

Students today don't read nearly enough for Loughlin's taste, but there's one thing she'll always love about Poly.

"It's a place," Loughlin said, "where the adults are still in charge."

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