by Carole Losee © 2005-2020


by Erika Rosenfeld © 2001

Delivered by Erika Rosenfeld on June 1, 2001

at The Dalton School in New York City

On the occasion of the 35th Reunion of her Class of 1966

Some are born teachers; some achieve teaching; and some have teaching thrust upon them.  Then there’s Carole Losee, who seems to have had a foot in each camp.

I was surprised to learn that Carole never intended to be a teacher; she says it never even crossed her mind.  Her plan was to enter government service.  Not just any service, either: she had set her sights on the CIA.  In other words, she wanted to become a spy.  To those of us who know her, this seems highly improbable.  Happily for her students – and, almost certainly, for the fate of the nation – two events derailed her plans.

One day in college – this would be Vassar, by the way – she signed a petition, thinking it had to do with extending the curfew on Friday nights.  Unfortunately, the petition was in support of the Stockholm Peace Plan, a dangerously radical-commie-pinko scheme (this was, after all, the early ‘50s).  When she tried to have her name removed, it turned out the petition was already on its way to the Soviet Union, and her name, most likely, already on Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s enemies list.

Nonetheless, she spent the summer after graduation, awaiting the call to arms.  Instead, she had a call from her thesis advisor, who said, “Carole, I have made an appointment for you in New York City.  You are to meet with someone named Charlotte Durham.  She is the head of something called The Dalton School.”  “But I’m going to Washington to be a spy,” Carole said.  “Never mind, dear,” said her advisor, “it’s a good experience.”  So off she went to the city and had a nice chat with Mrs. Durham – neglecting to ask whether there was, in fact, a job.  Several days later, a telegram arrived offering her a position, which she accepted – neglecting to ask what, if anything, it paid.

In the space of just a few months, the woman who taught us to pay attention, do our research, and ask good questions had signed a document without reading it; taken a job she had never considered, at a school she’d never heard of; for a salary she never inquired about.

The rest, fittingly enough for a teacher of social studies, is history.

Having had teaching thrust upon her, Carole now set out to achieve it.  This being The Dalton School, that was in itself a learning experience.  At the first faculty meeting, everyone sat in a circle, of course, and began speaking in tongues.  Here’s Carole’s own account: “I finally got that ‘the contour of the day’ was the schedule, and I shouldn’t worry about it because Mr. Hanlon was taking care of it.  ‘Houses’ were homerooms and I would have one.  There were things called ‘progress reports’ – not, as you would expect, reports written by teachers on their students’ progress, but something kept by each student – only in middle school they were called ‘unit cards.’  But we shouldn’t worry about these either.  Each day would start with a ‘lab,’ but unless you were a science teacher, this had nothing to do with science and everything to do with ‘assignments.’  I knew what they were since I’d already written and rewritten my first ones six or seven times over, because everyone on the faculty reviewed them, made comments, and had a different opinion.  ‘Conferences’ were classes, and somewhere down the road there would be ‘reports,’ which were not written by students but by the teachers.”

Undaunted, Carole soldiered on.  And the learning experiences continued.

One fine spring day in her first year, Carole’s ninth-graders got completely out of hand.  Finally, in desperation, she threw about three-quarters of them out of class.  The problem was that she hadn’t yet learned that if you’re going to throw students out, you’d better send them somewhere other than the hall.  You’ll remember that the classroom doors were made up of about 15 panes of glass.  Well, that was just about the right number – one for each of the grinning, triumphant faces staring in gleefully at the dutiful remaining few.

The more Carole achieved, the clearer it became that she had, in fact, been born to teach.  And she taught everything in the social studies curriculum, from the Code of Hamurabi to World War II, from the Bible to the Magna Carta to the Federalist Papers.  She addressed her students as “people,” which, I think, had the effect of giving us some dignity even when we were being scolded, as in “People, don’t bask in your own ignorance!”

She learned, as great teachers do, to think on her feet.  What else are you going to do when you’re in the midst of a lecture on the Protestant Reformation and a group of visiting nuns suddenly appears in your classroom?  Or you’re explaining how Berlin came to be divided, when a bunch of solemn Russians is ushered in to see Dalton education at work?

Carole went to great lengths to make social studies memorable: there were time-lines that wrapped around the entire room, skits of various sorts, and vivid demonstrations.  Anyone who was ever in her ninth grade class developed a life-long skepticism about eye-witness accounts.  Every year, she arranged for a few seniors to crash the class and create mayhem, during which another student entered the room, walked up to the desk, and made off with a book.  She then instructed the class to write down everything that had just happened.  As far as I know, no student ever thought to mention the thief.

She had us draw enormous maps and stand on them, in an effort to grasp not only geography but its role in history.  Certainly it put things in perspective, so that, yes, I do now understand that the correct answer to the question, “Which way does the Nile flow?” is not “up.”

Some lessons followed the law of unintended consequences.  The chairs given to teachers were notoriously uncomfortable, so Carole liberated one of those wooden armchairs from the library, which was run by the formidable Mrs. Alexander.  One day in class, the discussion came around to jet propulsion, a concept Carole was astonished to realize the students didn’t altogether grasp.  She was by this time sitting in the middle of the room, the floor of which was freshly waxed.  “You don’t know how jet propulsion works?  O.K., imagine my feet are the engine.”  And with that, Carole pushed off.  She and the chair went flying backward across the room and crashed into the blackboard, whereupon the chair disintegrated, with Carole in the midst of the wreckage.

The problem was, what to do with the evidence?  The students decided the best plan would be just to put it outside the room (this was one of the rooms off the stair landing), where the maintenance people would surely take it away.  As fate would have it, Mrs. Alexander got there first.  When she asked one of the students exactly what, pray tell, had happened, the answer was, “Oh that was just Miss Losee being a jet engine.”

She was also a splendid swamp rat – I’ll explain that in a minute.  Carole’s house meetings were... let’s just say unpredictable.  They could be quite serious, when, for instance, it was time to present those progress charts for review – not a happy occasion for those of us who firmly believed in never doing today what you can put off until tomorrow; or when, with some frequency, an item in the morning newspaper provoked her wrath (“People, have you read what General Westmoreland said yesterday?”).

And then there was the swamp, an act of collective sonic insanity.  Each student chose a sound – my personal favorite was swamp gas rising – but Carole invoked teacher’s privilege and always got to be the swamp rat.  All I can tell you is that the sound was equally chilling and hilarious, and I doubt that anyone who heard it has ever entirely recovered.

It’s curious, the things we remember about our teachers and the subjects they taught.  Someone once said that education is what you remember when you’ve forgotten what you learned.  I confess that my grasp of world history is shaky.  I remember making time-lines, but the only date that sticks in my mind is 1066.  I remember that Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, but not exactly why that set off World War I.  We’ve all probably forgotten a great deal of what we learned, but not those things about which Carole educated us: civility, respect, moral outrage sometimes, the value of laughter always.

In her time at Dalton, Carole also served as Head of the Social Studies Department and Director of the High School.  But as she herself said, “the only thing I ever did that was important is that I was a teacher.”